Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ancient saddles preserved at horse museum

A police officer in Inner Mongolia may come across as a no-nonsense man - but get him talking about his favorite topic and you will soon learn he simply loves horsing around. Alexis Hooi reports.

Ma Dongsheng is a man of few words. As a ranking police officer at the Duolun county people's court, the first impression he gives can be grim and serious.

But mention horses, or anything equestrian, and the 50-year-old's dour demeanor is shattered by a big grin and his eyes light up with glee.

"I started riding horses as a child and never looked back. No one in the family likes them like I do," he says.

Ma is a Hui Muslim and his family has been in Duolun in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region for four generations. He is perfectly at home in an area steeped in the culture of the Mongolians, who ruled the biggest land empire "on the back of a horse".

Xanadu, the ruins of the summer capital of Kublai Khan, the founder of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is an hour's drive away.

Ma owns a 33-hectare stable on the grasslands outside Duolun and rears more than 30 horses.

But it is his private museum of antique and ethnic saddlery that takes pride of place. Touted as the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, his collection boasts more than 3,000 pieces of equestrian equipment from dynasties such as the Jin (1115-1234).

The exhibits include more than a hundred saddles - ranging from traditional Mongolian seats ornamented in gilt gold, velvet and cloisonne fit for the Khan's immediate family, to Japanese military getups with gun holsters from the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).

Like a delighted boy introducing some of his most beloved toys, Ma points to stirrups from the Liao (916-1125) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, such as a swivelling Khitan piece of bronze-bamboo link design and a Manchu one with dragon-loop motif. All are immaculately preserved and presented behind glass showcases.

"I inherited and collected these through the decades. Some of them are priceless," Ma says.

His treasure trove is housed in a Qing Dynasty compound, guarded by Tibetan mastiffs.

Visitors are welcome and true to his local nickname as the baatar (Mongolian for hero) of the grasslands, Ma is generous enough to allow his collection to be viewed free of charge.

National equestrian associations and media have covered the official opening of his museum but Ma says his hometown's equestrian attractions still need all the support they can get.

"This area has historically been the meeting point between the Han and Mongolian peoples. A lot of it is rich in equestrian tradition, practice and customs that should be preserved before they disappear," he says.

"Take the master craftsman of the Mongolian saddles here. He's already in his 70s. And he has no apprentice, no successor."

Ma's wife and adult son help him maintain the museum and take care of the stable and horses. To spread word of the area's attractions further, Ma organizes international endurance riding competitions on top of regular tours for urbanites.

These include "history rides" to scenic sites, such as those near the Battle of Ulan Butung more than 50 kilometers to the northeast, where the Kangxi emperor's Qing cavalry clashed with Ga'erdan's Dzungar forces in the late 17th century. On these trips, Ma's firm grasp of Chinese history also delights visitors who take short trips to the open grasslands to escape the pressure of the city.

And no one is more familiar with the therapeutic fix of the great outdoors than Ma.

Once he saddles up his favorite Mongolian mount, Ma is off and away.

On any given weekend, even when alone, he rides past wind-swept sand knolls, rolling prairies and crystal-clear lakes. He greets herdsmen and shepherds tending their cattle, horses and sheep. He stops by the farms and huts of friends, chatting with them over bowls of local salty milk tea mixed with chunks of fresh cheese curd.

"Some people buy expensive items, luxury goods just to show off and keep up with others. They get caught up in modern life and its material trappings," Ma says.

"My passion is horses, horse riding and the grasslands here. It's a beautiful place and it's where I belong."

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