Horsemen on the grasslands of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region
By now you’re probably starting to get to know a little bit about the wall – how it was constructed, where it was constructed, what material it was made from and some unique things about the places it passes through. But do you know why the wall was built? Was it designed to keep someone out or to keep someone in?
The traditional story is that the Great Wall was built to protect peace-loving Chinese farmers from war-crazed Mongols like Genghis Khan and his plundering hordes. The truth is a tad more complicated. In the first place, the Chinese were building changcheng, or long walls, for military purposes long before Genghis got his first pony. More generally, the Chinese built long walls for offensive purposes as well as defensive, and they often provoked Mongolian raids by refusing to engage in peaceful trade or interfering in internal Mongolian politics.
Still, academics generally agree that the wall was designed to separate the agricultural Han Chinese south of the wall from the nomadic Mongols to the north. And the stereotype of the bloodthirsty Mongols is alive and well.
Don’t be fooled by their smiles, this is actually a Mongolian version of the haka
We wanted to see for ourselves just who these “fierce” Mongolians were, these men of astounding horsemanship who had the Chinese trembling in their boots. So we took a few days off the wall and hopped on up to Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where we got a car ride to the grasslands and entry to the annual Mongolian festival, Naadam.
Buddhist monks bless the start of the festival
In the past, Naadam was an economic and social gathering, a time for Mongolian tribes to get together, trade goods, show off some of their best horses, and who knows, maybe plot their next raid against the Chinese. Eventually competitions in the warrior sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling became central to the festivities.
Today, Naadam is more of an all-around cultural festival, with music, eating and fashion as well as the traditional sporting contests. In the country of Mongolia, Naadam is celebrated at the same time every year; in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, Naadam takes place when the grasses of the high plateau turn green.
The women of the steppes were known for their beauty
If you’re nearby when the authorities decide the grass is green enough, one or two days at Naadam are worth the effort to take it all in. Even if you’re just there for the opening ceremony, you can still see a lot – exotic dancers, beautiful singers, really strong men and some pretty cool horsemanship.
The two-stringed morin khuur’s neck is in the shape of a horse’s head
During the couple of days we spent in the grasslands we stayed in the traditional Mongolian dwelling, a yurt. This is a round, tent-like structure of wooden beams and felt that the nomads would carry with them and erect where they settled. Nowadays, the fancier yurts built for tourists are fixed structures that include glass windows, sliding doors and TVs (but still no corners).
The five-star yurts at Naadam (much nicer than the one we stayed in)
But ours still got internet coverage
And finally, what do Mongolian men need to keep up their wrestling strength? Food, and lots of it. Below is something that got wheeled past us in the corridors of the dining hall.
Vegetarian warning: graphic content