- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — With a thunder of hooves, the armored warriors evoked the glories of the once-great Mongol empire as they galloped across the steppe outside Ulan Bator.

But on Wednesday, the skillful riders of Mongolia’s nomadic population were putting their mounts to an unlikely use: yak polo.

The sport is growing in popularity, according to the newly founded Mongolian Association of Sarlagan (Yak) Polo. Originally designed to entertain tourists, much like the elephant and camel versions do, the sport is booming, with four games a week being played this summer.

“Mongolians are interested because it’s a new thing,” said Tsedendamba Monhzul, whose family set up the first yak polo team last year. “Now we are doing show games in Ulan Bator.”

Since the collapse of their economy with the withdrawal of Soviet aid 15 years ago, Mongolians quickly have realized the necessity of adapting to survive. Nomads, in particular, who make up almost half the population, had their livelihoods subsidized under the old system.

Many have been encouraged to reinvent themselves for the adventure and “ecotourist” market, selling horse-riding tours with accommodations in traditional gers, or felt tents.

Miss Monhzul’s family tried this but decided to go further, partly to find a reason to preserve the animal that is losing out to competition from the more useful horses and goats.

“In Mongolia, the number of yaks is becoming fewer every year,” she said. “So, we are trying to find a way of protecting this animal.”

Miss Monhzul said that although yaks have a reputation for being difficult, they can be trained to cope with a range of playing surfaces.

In December, when temperatures plunge to minus 22 degrees, they play on the iced-over rivers.

“They fold their feet under them in a strange way to keep stable on the ice,” she said. “They are mountain animals, so they are used to it.”

Miss Monhzul said her nomadic upbringing helps in training and maintaining the yak.

“One day it’s OK, the next day it is angry. But it seems to like it when there are many fans out there screaming,” she said.

A crowd of 20 Mongolians gathered to watch a training session Wednesday. The big crowds — and money — come from tour companies, such as a group of 80 Germans who had tickets for a game this week.

The world should not be surprised that the sport has found an audience in Mongolia. It is not clear where polo originated, with Persia and China both having a claim, but historians agree that the Mongol empire spread it across Asia. The British discovered the sport in India.

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