This story featured in the first edition of “Meridian: A Literary Atlas of DKU,” an anthology of creative writing by DKU students, released May 2021. Find out more at the Language and Culture Center.
By Dulguun Nyamgerel
“Four horses!” shouted my brother in excitement. Now his horse was far ahead of mine.
“Why is he always so lucky?” I frustratedly asked my mom. Although my father was losing the race, he looked calm as usual, smiling with his gentle eyes.
We were playing horse racing, a Mongolian traditional game using shagai, the ankle bones of sheep and goats. To play this game we place the shagai in a row making a line, which would be our road. Then each of us chooses one anklebone to represent our racing horse and puts them at the start of the line. The bright pink one has always been mine. I called it my “Morihon.” We toss up four anklebones like coins and identify them as camel, horse, sheep or goat, based on which side lands on the ground. So, my pink Morihon would move forward according to the number of horses I land. My brother had just landed four horses and was winning the game.
I made my Morihon by myself when I was around seven years old. Every time my family bought a lamb, two anklebones were left. My brother and I used to clean them by boiling them and then collecting them in simple cotton bags. When our shagai numbered more than a hundred, we decided to paint them. A variety of gouache paints were scattered all over the floor, and there we were in the middle of them, painting like artists. At that time, I fell in love at first sight with my Morihon. It was slightly smaller than the rest, with a good shape and sharp angles.
“If it were a human, it would have been a super beautiful model,” I decided. “Mori” means horse in my language. By adding “hon” at the end I made it sound like I was calling it my friend. I colored it in my favorite pink, named it “Morihon,” and cherished it.
Illustration by Jia Long ’23
Mongolians encourage children to play shagai games, because they improve concentration and creativity. For example, when you are playing Shagai Flicking, you cannot touch other anklebones at all, except the one you are flicking. It is harder than you imagine! You have to think about which one to flick and from which direction, so that you would have some good moves after this. It is similar to chess. Also, you have to be focused enough to grab certain types of landed shagai before others. Children like to paint these anklebones different colors to make the game more interesting.
Shagai is one of our most precious traditions, and everyone likes to play with them. Especially during national holidays, when all my relatives gather in one home and make wonderful memories playing shagai games.
My parents were very busy running a new business in our city, Ulaanbaatar; thus, they were rarely at home. However, there was a magical thing called shagai that had the power to bring my family together. My parents believed in the benefits of shagai; thus, we usually played it when they got some free time. When my parents called us to play with shagai, we used to be overjoyed and would run to the living room with our big bags full of anklebones. We moved the table from the middle of the room, sat around on a rug and played Open Catch, Flicking and Full Toss for hours. My brother was the most enthusiastic shagai player. When he won, he used to run around the room, jump on the sofas and scream “Yessss!” However, if he lost the game, he got bored quickly and stopped paying attention. I was more patient than him. Even when I did not win a lot, and the game became uninteresting to me, I never bored of observing how my father became talkative and laughed loudly, and how my mother, who is usually strict, was pouting like a baby after losing a game. I wanted those moments to last forever.
As we’ve grown up, shagai has been replaced by Xbox and iPads. Although they do not smell of unpleasant gouache, they can never unite us the way shagai did. Now we play with shagai only a few times a year. Those bags of anklebones my brother and I collected when we were little are now on our balcony waiting for when they will be needed. I kept my Morihon, which holds my childhood memories, on my bookshelf for a long time, but during the last Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year holiday, I forgot it at my cousin’s home. When I went to her house to take my Morihon back, I couldn’t find it, because there were too many identical pink shagai in the bag.
Dulguun Nyamgerel is a member of Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate Class of 2023. She is from Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.