Where Camels Become Beauty Queens: Inside Mongolia's Biggest Camel Festival

May 11, 2019
Originally published on May 13, 2019 10:30 am

Humps and hair. That's the scene in Bulgan Soum, a tiny Mongolian town in the middle of the Gobi Desert about 160 miles north of the Chinese border.

Bactrian camels arrive in all directions on foot, bearing bundled-up riders wedged between their two humps. It's early March. While the sky is cloudless, the wind can pick up quickly. Officially called the Thousand Camel Festival, the crowd that arrives for the kickoff appears to consist of 100 camels.

The two-day festival begins with a camel beauty pageant.

"Mostly young people participate in the Beautiful Couple Contest. But we wanted to represent the older generation of herders," says lifelong herder Enkhbaatar Dashnyam. At 59, he and his wife, Dulamsuren Yunden, 47, have been herding all their lives. They rely on their animals as a form of transportation and sell products from their wool and milk.

The judges are looking for earmarks of tradition; contestants who wear herding decorations and utensils will have a better chance of winning. Both members of this husband and wife duo wear leather boots with upturned tips and fur hats. Enkhbaatar's belt is slung with an ornate knife and a silver bowl.

Gobi herders Enkhbaatar Dashnyam (left), 59, and Dulamsuren Yunden, 47, dress for the festival's Beautiful Couple Contest. The pair don turquoise jackets, orange deels — traditional Mongolian overcoats — and utensils and decorations passed down through the generations, including a silver bowl for drinking milk tea, and jewelry.
Claire Harbage / NPR

When visiting a herder, it's customary to be offered milk tea. "Since old times," he says holding a silver bowl, "Mongolians would carry their own cup."

Enkhbaatar and Dulamsuren will showcase two of their most gentle camels, Mashan Huren and Hos Yagaan. Translated, that means "floppy brown one" and "double pink." Their Chewbacca-colored hair, which hangs like a beard, is brushed. Their humps are draped in gold fringe. A harness is kept in place with a nose peg.

Bactrian camels were domesticated thousands of years ago to carry goods and people across Asia. Adapted for desert conditions, the camels can perform Olympic-like feats: carry over 400 pounds on long journeys, withstand 100-degree Fahrenheit summers and -20-degree winters and, when nourished, go without eating and drinking for weeks. Their humps act as fat reserves for energy.

The camels kneel down so Enkhbaatar and Dulamsuren can climb atop. They enter the festival grounds, a dusty square cleared of camels with spectators now packing the perimeter. Music swells over the loudspeaker. After a burst of applause, the pageant begins.

When it's their turn, the couple ride proudly across the square. The beards of their camels billow. Everyone is taking their picture, which matters more to the couple than winning. Enkhbaatar wants future generations — his grandchildren included — to have photographic proof of their lifestyle.

"Since no one lives forever, I wanted to leave our pictures behind for future generations and my descendants," he says, "so they can feel proud. That's what we were thinking when we decided to participate in this contest."

Enkhbaatar waits his turn to promenade in the camel beauty pageant. Lots of pictures are taken, which will allow future generations to have photographic proof of the herders' lifestyle.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The judges don't announce the winners until the following day. But there's plenty to do at the Thousand Camel Festival until then. Herders sell fermented camel milk, alongside camel toys stitched from felt. Sporting events — like the camel polo tournament and camel race — continue into the afternoon. In 2016, the festival broke a mark recognized by the Guinness World Records for largest camel race. Over 1,100 camels crossed the finish line.

Byambasaikhan Sanjid, 45, is a local camel trainer. A camel stands tethered at the edge of the festival grounds, his ankles wrapped for polo.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Why this regional craze for the two-humped creature? The origin story is intertwined with Mongolia's transition to democracy.

Under socialism, herding was centrally planned. Herders sold their animal products to the state. With the onset of capitalism in 1990, herders faced new pressures within the free-market economy. For some, their camels were worth more dead than alive.

"Camel herders couldn't get a good amount of money selling products from camel milk and wool," says 35-year-old festival organizer Ariunsanaa Narantuya.

Camel milk and wool wouldn't sell, but camel meat would. Some herders began slaughtering their camels. The festival was created a few years later, in 1997, by the newly formed Camel Protection Association — a local nongovernmental organization — to reverse that trend and protect the desert creature.

Bulgan Soum is now distinguished by its love and stewardship of Bactrian camels.

The camel population in the country dropped in the mid-1990s when herders began slaughtering Bactrian camels and selling their meat to keep up with the free-market economy. The Camel Protection Association was founded to create markets for camel milk and wool and to advocate for protection of the species.
Claire Harbage / NPR

After the pageant, Dulamsuren tells NPR that she and her husband have 200 camels in their herd. The birthing season is coming. While most newborn camels make it, some don't or are stillborn. When that happens, she says, the mother camel will mourn.

"The mother camel literally weeps with tears in their eyes," Dulamsuren says. "The camel has a big body, but they have a very soft heart."

Dulamsuren has a song for moments like these, one herders have used for generations to soothe camels over heartbreak. The full practice of "camel coaxing," to unite mothers with calves, was captured in the 2003 German film, The Story of the Weeping Camel.

This bond — between herder and camel — is hard to put into words. But you know it when you see it, and the judges definitely noticed. The next day, Dulamsuren and her husband were declared the winners of the 2019 Camel Beauty Pageant.

A Bactrian camel grazes alongside the road in Mongolia's Omnogovi province, where Bulgan Soum is located.
Claire Harbage / NPR


Ganbat Namjilsangarav contributed reporting to this story.

Emily Kwong (@emilykwong1234) is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The two-humped Bactrian camel was domesticated thousands of years ago to carry goods and people across Asia. NPR's Above the Fray fellow Emily Kwong sent us this audio postcard from a festival in Mongolia that celebrates this gentle giant.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Humps and hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL GRUNTING)

KWONG: That's the scene in Bulgan Soum, a tiny Mongolian town in the middle of the Gobi Desert - about 160 miles north of the Chinese border. Herders have come from all over the region for the two-day festival, which begins with a camel beauty pageant.

ENKHBAATAR DASHNYAM: (Through interpreter) Mostly young people participate in the Beautiful Couple Contest. But we wanted to represent the older generation of herders.

KWONG: That's contestant Enkhbaatar Dashnyam. The 59-year-old has been a herder all his life. He's brought two of his best Bactrian camels with him - Mashan Huren and Hos Yagaan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL GRUNTING)

KWONG: Their Chewbacca-colored hair, which hangs like a beard, is brushed. Their humps are draped in gold fringe. The camels kneel down...

DULAMSUREN YUNDEN: (Foreign language spoken).

DASHNYAM: (Foreign language spoken).

KWONG: ...So Enkhbaatar and his wife, 47-year-old Dulamsuren Yunden, can climb atop.

(CHEERING)

KWONG: Pretty soon, it's pageant time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: The couple rides proudly across the festival grounds.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

KWONG: And they look spectacular. Dulamsuren has a fur hat on her head. Enkhbaatar's belt is slung with a silver bowl, a snuff bottle, a knife with a holster for chopsticks - all the trappings of a traditional herder. Everyone is taking their picture, which matters more to the couple than winning. Enkhbaatar wants future generations - his grandchildren included - to have photographic proof of their lifestyle.

DASHNYAM: (Through interpreter) Since no one lives forever, I wanted to leave our pictures behind for my descendants. That's what we were thinking when we decided to participate in this contest.

KWONG: The judges won't announce the winners until tomorrow. But there's plenty to do at the thousand-camel festival until then. You can take in a match of camel polo, buy fermented camel milk. In 2016, the festival assembled over 1,100 camels and broke a Guinness World Record for largest camel race.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING NOISE)

KWONG: So why this regional craze for the two-humped creature? Festival organiser Ariunsanaa Narantuya and I meet after dark at the local community center. Men have gathered to play ankle bone shooting - knocking over sheep bones with tablets. The 35-year-old's face is covered with sweat. It's been a long day. His friend, 38-year-old Bolortuya Sainkhuu, interprets.

ARIUNSANAA NARANTUYA: (Foreign language spoken).

BOLORTUYA SAINKHUU: He's saying the first reason is number of the camels were decreasing.

KWONG: Together, they explained that under socialism, herders primarily sold their animal products to the state. With the democratization of Mongolia in 1990, herders lost that customer and had to embrace the free market economy.

NARANTUYA: (Through interpreter) Camel men couldn't get a good amount of money from selling the milk products and camel wool.

KWONG: Camel milk and wool wouldn't sell. But camel meat would. So some herders began slaughtering their camels. The festival was created a few years later, in 1997, by the local Camel Protection Association to reverse that trend and protect the desert creature.

(SOUNDBITE OF FESTIVAL AMBIENCE)

KWONG: And now Bulgan Soum is distinguished by its love and stewardship of Bactrian camels. After the pageant, Dulamsuren, the competitor with the fur hat, tells me that she and her husband have 200 camels in their herd. The birthing season is coming. While most baby camels make it, some don't or are stillborn. When that happens, she says, the mother camel will mourn.

YUNDEN: (Through interpreter) The mother camel literally weeps with tears in their eyes. The camel has a big body. But they have very soft heart.

KWONG: Dulamsuren has a song for moments like these, one herders have used for generations to soothe camels over heartbreak.

YUNDEN: (Singing in foreign language).

KWONG: This bond between herder and camel is hard to put into words. But you know it when you see it. And the judges definitely noticed. The next day, Dulamsuren and her husband were declared the winners of the 2019 Camel Beauty Pageant. For NPR News, I'm Emily Kwong.

SIMON: What a wonderful story. Emily Kwong is NPR's Above the Fray fellow, which supports foreign reporting in under-covered parts of the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.