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.
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.”
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.
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.
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,” says Dulamsuren. “The camel has 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.
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.