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Mongolia Journal: I See Your Sheep, And Raise You A Camel

A Game Of Anklebones
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RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar and multimedia producer Margot Buff have been exploring Mongolia for a week. -- Eds.

Much traditional Mongolian entertainment appears to be valued in terms of how well it gets you through a long winter night out on the steppe. There are the legendary urtyn duu, the long songs where a single syllable can be drawn out and played with over an entire lungful of air. There is aarul, the bars of dried curd, which I can personally attest keep your teeth occupied for hours. More recently, there is TV.

And then there are the countless games played with shagai, the humble cuboid bone taken from the ankle of a sheep. Each side of the bone comes with its own topography and label -- camel, horse, goat, and sheep. For the uninitiated, remembering the difference can be a diversion in itself.

The four faces of shagai (clockwise from top left): sheep, goat, camel, and horse.

You can toss four shagai like dice to tell your fortune (the best possible combination being durvun berkh, or one of each).

You can shoot at them with arrows. You can play a game called Birthing Camels. Or you can engage in a Mongolian take on marbles, called shagai nyaslakh, like the women in the video above. To play shagai nyaslakh, you flick your anklebone at like-sided pieces in an attempt to claim the biggest haul and become master of all you survey.

-- Daisy Sindelar & Margot Buff

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