Mongolia, mid-July heralds the festival of Naadam. Businesses close and people gather in stadiums throughout the country to celebrate the three manly sports: wrestling, archery, and horse racing. A few days ahead of time, I noticed that people were already in the frame of mind for celebrating. Our language teachers used the time off training to teach us how to make traditional Mongolian food. It was great fun!
The day before, my host mom and dad took me into the town as soon as I came home from training, and bought me a traditional vest to wear at the festivities.
That evening, relatives began arriving, so there was a festive air in the house.
I’m usually not a fan of large crowd events, so I was a bit apprehensive as the day approached. When the first day of Naadam arrived, I went with my family to the stadium in our aimag (province).
The festivities began, and it was a show like I’d never seen before. There were dancers, dressed in traditional clothing, horsehead fiddle players, singers, a throat singer, speakers, and announcers. After the performance, which was at least an hour long, a parade circled the stadium, and this parade included the members of the army, a band, people in officer-type clothing, including both women and men, and a large number of people in traditional clothing who had performed. The colors were beautiful!
We left soon after the opening ceremony, wandering through the field of gers that were set up for food vending: hooshoor, grilled meat on sticks, and other meat items.
I thought we were going home for lunch, to return for more festivities. However, we never returned for the rest of the three days. Each morning I waited, expecting at any moment to be told to dress up and pile into the car. But on the second day, they roasted the goat we butchered a couple of weeks ago. They used hot rocks and pressure, the result being tender, delicious meat. There were the requisite shots of vodka to accompany the meat and pickles.
Then we all went to “the countryside” to sand dunes and a swimming hole, where everyone enjoyed themselves with great gusto.
On the third day, I woke up to find a sheep in our haasha, and knew the family would spend the morning butchering. I went to town with my friends.
I don’t know why my family didn’t attend Naadam except for the opening ceremonies. As one who usually avoids crowds-in-stadium kinds of events, I was relieved. However, I feel I must supplement my report on Naadam, so I leave you with an entertaining excerpt from Jill Lawless’ account of her first Naadam experience:
The air in the wrestling stadium was moist and ripe, as fetid as a small-town hockey arena; the stands were packed with musky, unwashed, midwinter bodies. In the centre of the round building lurched several pairs of large, sweaty men clad in embroidered silk bikini briefs, tiny, open-fronted, cutoff jackets, and stout leather boots with upturned toes. A rivulet of water trickled down through a crack in the newly built roof.
One pair of wrestlers staggered to the edge of the circle, just a metre from where we were sitting, followed by a hovering, hawk-eyed referee. With a sudden jerk, the bigger man sent his opponent sprawling to the carpet. A fine mist of sweat lashed off his body and rained down on the first few rows of the audience.
“That,” said Dave, “is disgusting.”
The winning wrestler turned away from his felled opponent with a look of cool indifference, retrieved his tall, spiky-topped velvet hat from a second who stood at ringside, set it neatly on his head, spread his arms, stood on one leg, and executed a slow-motion bird dance; as the loser ducked under his arm, the winner turned to acknowledge the applause of the crowd. An official offered him a bowl of hard biscuits and curds; he scooped up a handful and flung it into the stands. I flinched. A small, chubby fist snatched a biscuit from the air in front of my face. Its owner’s plump cheeks flushed with pleasure and triumph.
“That’s fucking disgusting as well,” hissed Dave.
Ritual served, the tournament resumed. The losers retired, and the winners paired off, so the field was whittled down, until only two wrestlers remained in the ring. And then only one was standing, a glistening behemoth basking in the ado- ration of his fans.
Mongolians love to watch wrestling, and they love to wrestle. Their national sport mixes long history, rich traditions, and admirably simple rules. Mongolian wrestling works like this (stop me if I get too technical): two opponents meet, grab, and grapple until one forces the other to touch the ground with a knee or an elbow; there are no weight categories, age restrictions, or time limits. Bouts may last seconds or hours. Wrestlers may rely on speed and agility or on strength — the best rely on both. Almost the only absolute is that the competitors must be male: the open-fronted jackets were devised, according to legend, after a woman entered, and won, a tournament. Male pride could not have that happen again.
Mongols have wrestled for thousands of years. Wrestling is the first among equals of the “three manly sports” — the others are horse racing and archery — whose origins are tied up with warfare. Wrestling tournaments have their own distinctive rituals, such as the eagle dance performed by the victors and the foodstuffs bestowed on the winner and showered by him upon the crowd.
Sweaty men in slippery, intimate combat was not my idea of fun, but I was determined to come to grips with the three manly sports. The time to do it, I thought, was Naadam, Mongolia’s three-day summer holiday. The festival, which centres on national competitions in the three sports, is ancient. Under communism, it had been given a socialist gloss with the addition of military parades and anticapitalist slogans. The tank columns had now been done away with, to my regret, but an atmosphere of pomp and sombre celebration remained: there were presidential speeches and military bands and a solemn procession bearing the Great White Emblem of the Mongolian nation — a tall staff crowned with a ring of nine white horses’ tails — from Government House to the national stadium.
Eggi, a friendly pop music-obsessed chatterbox who worked as a receptionist for the United Nations, had volunteered to guide Dave and me through the intricacies of the Mongolian national holiday.
In return, he had some intricacies of his own he wanted us to explain. “Can you explain to me these lyrics from Breakfast in America?” he asked as we walked across the park toward the rickety open-air stadium.
“Why is wrestling so popular?” I asked him, trying to divert the conversation away from Supertramp.
He thought for a moment. “Mongolians are very independent. In wrestling, bokh, everyone is equal — fat, thin, short, tall. There are no divisions. You must rely only on your own wits. And the bigger man does not always win. Mongols value strength but also speed and intelligence.”
“That’s not true!” interjected Dave. “I’ve watched. The big guy always wins.”
“You are bigger than me,” Eggi pointed out. “And I’m not a very good wrestler. But I could beat you.”
“Hey!” said Dave.
Eggi stopped and handed me his baseball cap. He assumed the stance: hands raised, knees bent, torso inclined slightly forward. Warily, Dave bent to meet him and lunged. A moment later, he was on the ground.
“You see?” said Eggi, replacing his cap and giving his arms a perfunctory flap. “And I’m a bad wrestler. But don’t feel too bad. It’s in our blood.”
We got to our seats just as the match was starting. Pairs of wrestlers were scattered across the grass, each with its own referee in crisp del. The stadium held 15,000 people, and it was full.
“At least we’re away from the spray this time,” Dave muttered.
An ululating melody on a horse-head fiddle came through the tinny speakers, giving the event the appearance of a particularly clumsy square dance.
“The Naadam tournament features the 512 best wrestlers from across the country,” explained Eggi. “There are nine rounds in all, with the losers from each round eliminated until only one champion remains. He becomes very famous and is given the title of Lion. There are other titles as well. A wrestler who wins five rounds in a row is called a Falcon; one who wins seven rounds is an Elephant. A two-time Naadam champion is called Giant, and a four-time champion — that’s rare — is Invincible.
“You see that wrestler, the big one? That’s Bat-Erdene, the greatest living wrestler. He has won 10 Naadams; his title is” — Eggi searched his brain for a moment — “Renowned Across Mongolia, Greatest of the Great, Invincible Titan.”
“I’ve seen him before!” said Dave. “He goes to my gym. He wears a police uniform.”
“That’s his day job,” said Eggi.
In the ring, the field of 512 was being winnowed. Some bouts were over in seconds; others dragged on for many minutes, the straining, immobile pairs breaking apart occasionally on the command of the referee, only to clasp again.
“A few years ago,” said Eggi, “when Bat-Erdene won, of course, the final went on for six hours. Most people went home before the end.”
I was beginning to feel that way myself. This tournament would last all day and all the next day as well. “Shall we go check out one of the other manly sports?” I suggested. “Maybe the archery?”
Eggi sucked in a quick rush of air and took a quick, furtive look around. “Archery is quite boring,” he confessed in a whisper. “Let’s go see the horse races.”
We elbowed our way out of the stadium and down to the main road, where we managed to flag down a van to take us to the racing site. The horse races were held on a stretch of riverside plain west of town, near the airport. The race ground had the air of a carnival: a dusty, temporary city made of jeeps and bright blue tents pitched by competitors and spectators who’d travelled in from the countryside. And hundreds of horses, most ridden by children in colourful paper crowns and bright jerseys with numbers on the front.
“Are they going to a party?” I asked.
“They’re the jockeys,” said Eggi. “Mongolian race jockeys are always children, anywhere from four to 16 years old.”
“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?” I asked, alarmed.
“Oh, no. Mongolian countryside children learn to ride before they can walk. And, anyway, many of them have their feet tied to the stirrups so they don’t fall off.”
“Where’s the racetrack?” asked Dave.
Eggi made a sweeping motion with one hand. “The racers start from here — that big blue tent is the grandstand, where the judges sit in the shade — and ride across the steppe. The courses are anywhere from 15 to 35 kilometres long, depending on the ages of the horses. There are separate races for horses of different ages, but there are still as many as 600 horses in each race.”
“Holy shit,” said Dave.
Suddenly there was a collective shout, a mass rustle of movement. The crowd surged toward the finish line, those on foot squeezing between the sleek flanks of the horses.
The front-runners appeared over the horizon, galloping hard, the tiny jockeys flailing one flank, then the other, with a short leather whip on a wooden handle. The first few horses charged into the funnel of spectators, shot past me so close I could feel their sweat — this seemed to be something of a theme in Mongolian sports — and crossed the finish line. They were followed close behind by the surging mass of the competitors, a rumbling cavalry that sent spectators skittering out of the way. Then a few stragglers, the tearful jockeys flailing at their truculent mounts.
We squeezed ourselves out of the seething mass of horse and human flesh and stood back to take in the scene. The little jockeys, no matter where they’d placed, were now the centre of their proud families’ attention. They stood beside their horses, recounting the race. The winner and five runners- up, sitting straight and sombre with pride, remained mounted and executed a victory lap. They paused in front of the grand- stand and were presented with a bowl by one of the judges.
“Airag,” said Eggi. Each child drank deeply, then sprinkled some airag on the rumps of their horses as a herald sang the praises of each steed. Then, stiff and silent with the solemnity of the occasion, they received their medals.
“That’s a nice ceremony,” said Dave. “Wait,” said Eggi. “There’s one more prize.” One more horse walked slowly up to the grandstand. Its rider’s cheeks were red and streaked with tears. The crowd called out good-naturedly, and the herald recited a solemn, stentorian piece.
“That’s the horse that came in last,” said Eggi. “They are wishing him success in the future.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s lovely.”
“I’m thirsty,” said Eggi. “Let’s go have a beer.”