HOHHOT-It was beyond Ulijidelger's imagination that he would become an internet sensation overnight. It happened because of the way he took his son to school on the first day of the new semester-by riding a horse.
Wearing traditional Mongolian hats and robes of shiny red and Tiffany blue, both father and son rode white horses to school through high-rises in the city of Ordos in northern China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
A short video clip of the father and son pair taken by a passerby soon became one of the most searched hashtags on weibo micro blogs, with more than 10 million views.
"Although we've been settled in the city for years, I don't want my son to forget our tradition of horse riding," Ulijidelger said.
Riding a horse on the first day of school has become fashionable. As an indispensable part of nomadic culture in North China, the centuries-old Mongolian horse culture is coming back to the grasslands in new forms.
Horses gradually began to decrease in importance in the late 1990s as Mongolian urban settlers abandoned their traditional nomadic lifestyle in the grasslands.
Chulu, 43, who grew up in the Taipusi Banner of Xilingol league, an imperial racecourse in ancient times, bid farewell to his horseback life in 1992 when his father insisted on selling the family's last five horses. The mounts were replaced with a motorcycle.
The once indispensable Mongolian horses urgently needed conservation as their population dropped from 2.39 million in 1975 to less than 700,000 in 2007. Some herdsmen even sent their saddles to museums.
For China's nomads, moving away from horses is a result of changing pastoral animal husbandry, with a more mechanized, industrialized and market oriented development, said Manglai, vice-president of Inner Mongolia Agricultural University.
"Horses have lost their value as herdsmen rarely make money from stock raising," he added.
Yet, thriving tourism has spurred the horse industry and made the herdsmen's wallets bulge.
Nasunbator, a herdsman from the Abaga Banner of Xilingol league, could collect 100 kilograms of fresh mare's milk every day during the peak season and sell it to a local plant to make fermented milk.
"Herdsmen didn't milk mares in the past because no one would buy it. But now, you can make money by either raising horses, selling them, milking or herding," he said. His 200 black horses attract the camera flashes of many tourists, and even professional photographers.
Horse training and racing are once again becoming popular sports for Mongolians, with more than 600 Nadam Fair-like derbies held across the region every year.
Sangduuren makes a good living by raising cattle with his father in the Zhalute banner of Tongliao city. He plasters his room with his horse-racing certificates.
The 37-year-old herdsman races as much as he can, and won a gold medal early this year in Qinghai province, thousands of kilometers to the west.
Over the years, Ferghanas, Arabian and Warmblood horses have been introduced to Inner Mongolia.
"Those Warmbloods that were brought in will improve the breeds of Mongolian horses," Sangduuren said.
In the regional capital Hohhot, the venue of the Qiangu Masong, or the eternal ode of horses, is packed for every show. A grand live performance featuring horse culture using glasses-free 3D and other technologies is held at the venue.
It has been performed more than 300 times since 2014 and has been seen by some 300,000 spectators from more than 20 countries and regions. Life on horseback today has changed significantly compared with the past, with the ethnic Mongolian people sitting tall in the saddle.
"Reclaiming the horseback lifestyle reflects China's path of development by protecting national traditions and the spiritual homeland," said Gai Zhiyi, a professor at the university.
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