Walking toward the entrance of Nadaam stadium, the central stadium in Ulaanbaatar, I was unsure of what to expect. Stepping through, a sunlit, grassy field opened before my eyes. Milling about on the green grass were Buryat wrestlers dressed in “gutal”, Buryat/Mongol style calf high boots with turned up toes so as not to scuff the ground, hats, and not much else! Amongst them sauntered wrestling referees in burgundy, sky blue or gray raiment, and conical red fringed, blue hats. At the west end, archers dressed in every color under the sun, though predominantly blue, a favorite of the Buryats, launched volley after volley of practice arrows. The view before my eyes reminded me of the famous picture called “A Day in the Life of Mongolia”. Flags fluttered in the breeze under Mongolia’s famous blue skies. Buryats from Russia, China, and Mongolia cheered wildly for their favorite wrestlers, chatted each other up, and watched as Fffffffft! Fffffffft! Ffffffft! arrows whizzed from the line of archers to targets. In a color buzz, I went camera happy, snapping everyone I saw in this nomadic kaleidoscope.
I don’t speak Buryat! Yet. A working command of the language would have been handy, as it seems the schedule traveled by word of mouth only. Typical to native Buryats, (and native peoples in general), it was problematic for me as a foreign visitor, leaving me stranded and ticketless outside of several events amongst the Mongolian pickpockets systematically working the crowd. Sometimes I found Russian speaking Buryats, when I didn’t I had to investigate, and work out from advertisement banners hanging on theaters, stadiums and the Wrestlers palace the date and time that some event was in a particular venue. I missed a lot.
Upon opening one of the double doors to the central Drama Theater, a no holds barred scrum ensued. A couple hundred nomadic Buryats from north Mongolia charged the door like a crash of rhinos, pushing, shoving, squeezing through said door three at a time. Picture Alex, sandwiched in this writhing mass, with old ladies leveraging their weight on his frame in a mad bid for good seats. (Later, I discreetly picked up my left arm on the way out.) Having survived entry, I found a suitable perch, and watched the drama competition unfold. Buryats acted out comedies and dramas, centered around nomadic daily chores, giving daughters away in marriage, intrigue with neighbors, shepherding herds, and yes, drinking. The juxtaposition of technology and nomads led to a bizarre evening of laughter at Buryat comedy, interspersed with loud one sided cell phone dialogues of spectators chattering with relatives still on the steppe!
Soaking up the rays of a four o’clock August sun, Buryats gathered under the watchful eye of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, who sits enthroned overlooking Sukhbaatar Square keeping track of his children. Families strolled in their finery or gathered in crowds to empty their pockets for ice-cream vendors. Ice-cream must be like the nectar of gods for nomads, who have no place to keep it. This is the memory that will keep in my mind of Altargana, colorfully garbed Buryat families promenading, each one licking ice-cream on a stick.
Altargana means “Golden Rod” in Buryat. The festival was named in esteem of the hardy qualities of this flower, similar to the stalwart qualities of the Buryat people. Golden Rod’s extensive root system allows it to flourish on rocky mountain ridges, arid steppe lands, and sandy dunes, just as Buryats have done for centuries. In two years Buryats will again gather in the city of Chita (Siberia), like so many flowers in a mountain meadow, and we hope to be there, shining like stars in the universe, as we hold out the word of life.