Two weeks ago I got a text message from the Peace Corps volunteer behind this blog about an upcoming camel fest in Gov-Altai and did I want to go? I’d like to say he had me at camels, but really he had me at “doing something that’s not in Khovd” with the sweet sweet bonus of “an excess of shaggy mammals with socially acceptable floppy bits.”
But first I had to find a way to get to Gov-Altai–an 8-12 hour bus ride away which, by Mongolian standards, is basically like going around the corner for some eggs. So I wrangled one of my coworkers into helping me buy a bus ticket, because while my Mongolian is good enough to provide stand-up comedy to the vegetable-selling grandmas in the marketplace, it is not good enough to do adult things like buy bus tickets to Camel Fest. Except when we went to buy a ticket, the place was, of course closed–not that this was a problem because when you’re Mongolian, you can just stick your head in all the closed doors until you find someone and force them to deal with you.
In our case, the dude we found and forced to deal with us was a total dick about the fact that I was foreign/travelling by myself and told me I shouldn’t go to Gov-Altai at all because it would be dark upon arrival. When I showed him the phone numbers of everyone I know in Altai who doesn’t sleep with a nightlight, he told me that November is a bad time because it’s cold and I should go next month instead (in December, you know, when it’s warm). Finally he was basically like “Okay fine, show up tomorrow and talk to the driver going to UB, maybe he can take you.” Spoiler alert, he could.
Nine hours after the bus left, I was in Altai and successfully locating the Peace Corps via the strategic use of
nightlights flashlights. Hooray!
CAMEL FEST TIME. But wait, there’s more! Before there was Camel Fest Sunday, there was Running Around Altai Saturday.
Followed by Second Thanksgiving Saturday night, in which we ate a lot of food that had no business being that delicious and traded ridiculous Mongolia stories, of which there are many.
And then, after all this awesomeness, THEN it was Camel Fest time. At 6.30 am Sunday morning, we packed ourselves into a van and drove three hours across the Gobi until we (more or less) reached the village that was hosting Camel Fest.
We arrived just in time to watch the camel parade cross the river, and then we followed the procession up to the stadium and CAMELS.
The festival’s official name is the “Thousand Camel Festival.” There were not actually a thousand camels, which would have been awesome but probably overwhelming. However, the three hundred camels that did make an appearance were approximately 300 more camels than I hang out with on a daily basis, so it’s not like I was asking for my money back. Well, that and also Camel Fest was free.
So what do you do at Camel Fest?
1) Sit on camels.
2) Take pictures of camels.
3) Watch camel costume contests.
4) Befriend the participants in said camel costume contest.
5) Get dressed up by said participants in their fancy costume and handed a camel.
6) Ride some more camels.
7) And get interviewed for Mongolian television, because that happened.
The verdict: Camel Fest is amazing. It is so amazing that I would go so far as to say it is better than Eagle Fest–which is also amazing, but is really touristy and feels like a staged production. Camel Fest felt like a Mongol party that we happened to stumble upon (which is more or less what happened), and since there were no tourists, we were treated like objects of curiosity rather than mobile ATMs, which was nice.