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Horsemen follow in steppes of Genghis Khan

By Yuan Hui in Bayannur, Inner Mongolia, and Du Juan in Beijing | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-07 09:24
Bayangol (right) and one of his students ride on the grassland near his home in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. QI HONGYAN/FOR CHINA DAILY

Breeders and racers are keeping alive the culture and history of the golden line of equines used by the conquering Mongol

Editor's note: As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Oct 1, China Daily is featuring a series of stories on the role regions have played in the country's development and where they are today.

Moments before the flag waved to start the race, the atmosphere was tense. Dozens of horses and their riders milled around anxiously, jockeying for position at the starting line.

Riders in traditional Mongolian dress sized up their opponents as their mounts kicked up dust. You could hear the heavy breathing of the horses as they stepped nervously in high spirits. They wanted to run, as their nomadic ancestors had since before Genghis Khan, the great Mongol ruler. The riders maintained tight control of the reins to keep the animals behind the line.

Some of the horses shimmered like gold as they maneuvered, reflecting the color of the vast plains of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region at sunset. They are the breed said to have been used by the ancient warlord himself. The very air seemed supercharged as the big moment approached. Then, at last, the flag fluttered and the horses surged ahead, as if released by a steel spring. Riders leaned forward to stay in their saddles.

For Urjin, a 36-year-old herdsman, the moment was electric. "I could feel the power of my horse in every movement," he said. "And I was as excited as he was."

The horse race, held on July 14 in a grazing district of Bayannur, a prefecture-level city in the region's southwest, attracted more than 100 riders and 600 spectators. Riders ranged in age from 12 to 60. The crowd stood for a better view as the horses took off. Some shouted encouraging words.

Urjin had a good start on his golden mount, finding himself in fifth or sixth place as the pack of horses thundered away in a cloud of dust. He concentrated intently as other riders tried to overtake him. His own horse began closing the distance to the leaders as he rounded the flag marking the far end of the course 1,000 meters from the start. To complete the race, riders would make four 2,000-meter circuits - each one the same length as the Kentucky Derby in the United States.

The grueling 8,000 meters was a testament to the endurance and strength of the Mongolian horses and the riders who have mastered them for 20 centuries.

By the end of the second circuit, Urjin had begun to catch up to the leaders. For others, the blistering pace was too much. A few horses dropped out and some riders dismounted. Urjin stormed ahead, continuing to gain ground through the third and fourth circuits, and finishing the race in second place.

His friend and riding coach, Bayangol - who had given him the golden horse as a gift - came out to greet him with smiles and cheers as Urjin brought the animal to a canter to calm and cool it.

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