Mongolia’s Winter Festivals
March is normally the month of two infamous and popular festivals. Due to severe winter weather conditions, either one or other or both, can be cancelled at short notice, however, if you are lucky enough to attend them, they will be like nothing else.
An important part of the Mongolian calendar to local people, these festivals are a wonderful opportunity for visitors to see in action, how the natural world – the landscape and the wildlife – lies at the centre of Mongolian culture and traditions. We are always excited to take our guests along to enjoy the fun.
The Ice Festival
Every year, on the southern edge of the Siberian forest, the Blue Pearl of Mongolia, Lake Khovsgol, completely freezes over. The ice forms to a depth of five feet creating an extraordinary winter playground. The nomadic reindeer herders, Tsaatan, from the north, join local residents to celebrate the winter, with traditional games and races over two days. In temperatures of down to -35°C, contestants compete in sports such as ice-skating, ice-wrestling, tug-o’-war, dog-sledding and horse sleigh racing.
We were delighted when Joan Baxter, who travelled for the first time with PJ in 2009, wrote to share her experiences with us:
“It was the ice itself that fascinated me. Though clear, it had deep white cracks through it in six and eight sided facets, like large gems. I was surprised how much could be done on it, how much weight and how much heat it could take. So many vehicles, races of all kinds, yaks pulling huge blocks of ice for building, as if the ice had no power to melt at any time! A bonfire on the ice was another surprise. Burn through and melt the ice? Not a bit. After many hours of burning, it left only a little water, nothing more. The ice was as thick, strong and indestructible as any good building material. We froze our lips on glasses made from ice at the ice bar, and inside the ice house, we lounged on ice furniture amid ice sculptures. Then, the fun of sliding down from the ice tower, on our fronts, on our backs, feet first or head first. The power of the ice and the natural patterns it made in the course of its formation, really fascinated me. The extreme cold that can burn while the ice itself is impervious to burning heat, keeping its form beneath the temperature of fire – it was a wonder to me!”
Joan also enjoyed watching the games and remarked about the Mongolian wrestlers:
“They were made of sturdy stuff with obviously wondrous circulation! For as they wrestled on the ice one might pull the shirt off his opponent, who continued to battle on in direct contact with the ice, and did not appear in the least bit cold!”
The Camel Festival
Gloriously, this event is officially billed as the “Thousand Camel Festival” and it certainly lives up to its name! The Bactrian, known as the “ship of the Gobi”, is the undoubted star of the show here in the heart of the desert. The camel herders, with their woolly-coated, double-humped steeds, gather to compete in races and polo competitions. Visitors are encouraged to join the colourful opening parade – yup, on a camel – and it is a unique opportunity to interact with the herders and see their nomadic way of life, up close and personal.
Kath, from the UK office, was lucky enough to attend the Thousand Camel Festival in 2008. Here’s what she had to say about this flamboyant celebration:
“Winter in the Gobi brings snow to the desert and the camels all have their fluffy winter coats on. I remember that the latrines were frozen! Everyone was on camels – everyone, from the elderly to the tiniest tots, and many of the spectators too. There were loads of colourful flags and so much noise, people shouting and camels braying. We followed the races, driving along behind in our vehicles to see the action as it happened, people were standing on their camels at the finish line to see into the distance.
There were competitions with teams – who could load and unload a ger from a camel in the fastest time – and we watched a young camel being broken in. There was a bookie taking bets, but it was easy to tell which camel would win his race as they all still wore their awards from previous years. I just bet on the camel with the most medals! There was also a competition for the best-looking male and female camel. Two white camels won – they are quite rare and prized by the Mongolians. It was -10°C, but having just come from the Ice Festival, it felt positively balmy. I had my first gallop on a camel… they have a strange wobbly gait and I did feel a little seasick. One of our guests, Diana, was asked to open proceedings by cutting the ribbon; what an honour! It was an amazing experience…”