On a bright Sunday afternoon in early March, the Tamir River in the steppes of Mongola becomes a bowling alley. Two dozen Mongolian herdsmen have gathered to play musun shagai, known as “ice shooting.” Right now, the ice on the river is perfect. Clear and smooth. The players are cheerful and focused.
Their goal? To send a small copper puck called a zakh down a 93-yard stretch of ice and knock over several cow ankle bones, painted red, none bigger than a golf ball, at the other end. Extra points for hitting the biggest target, made of cow skin.
Together, the targets form a line of tiny red dots that are difficult to see, let alone hit. When that happens, players know because the spectators raise a boisterous cheer.
“You have to spin it,” says Gurvantamir Jamts, 47, a newcomer to the game. He is the mayor of Tsetserleg, the capital of Arkhangai province, where musun shagai was invented.
He cradles a copper puck between his thumb, index and middle fingers. He shakes it. Metal balls rattle inside. Thrown properly, the puck glides forward with the sound of an ice-skating blade on a freshly resurfaced rink.
“The main technique,” Gurvantamir says, “is how you hold it.”
And how you release it. The players assume a static lunge, digging their back feet into a tiny divet in the ice. They release their zakhs with a throw, and a hopeful look. All squint down the river to see if a red target was hit.
Musun shagai is a homegrown game, created in the 19th century as a way to pass the time. This is the final game of the season before the river melts, the last opportunity to wile away the winter hours before the mayhem of spring, when the goats, sheep, horses and cows give birth.
Only men play ice shooting competitively, though the event brings whole families together. Children scuttle around the ice in their boots, bundled up for the 20-degree weather. One group of teenagers cobbles together their own game, using a flat rock to topple over food packages, practicing their technique.
This competition, originally scheduled for mid-March, was bumped up by two weeks. “The river was already melting,” Gurvantamir said.
The frozen surfaces that makes this game possible are harder to come by in a warming world. According to data from Mongolia’s Institute for Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment, the country’s annual mean temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit) since data collection began in 1940. (The global temperature increase since 1880 has been 0.8 degrees Celsius or 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
When the musun shagai competition ends, bowls of vodka are passed around. The local government even brought medals for the winners. They were made of clear plastic. Mayor Gurvantamir held them up, demonstrating how the sunlight glinted through — just like ice.
Emily Kwong (@emilykwong1234) spent nine weeks reporting in Mongolia as 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.