Never accept a physical challenge from one of Mongolia’s strongest men. Khulan’s biceps are as wide as my thighs. He is standing outside his circular, canvas-topped ger flexing his muscles. Behind him the grassy steppe unfurls, framed in the distance by gentle rolling hills. It is late afternoon, the day’s wrestling training is over, and Khulan fancies some fun.
‘You do what I do,’ he says, plucking a dumbbell off the ground as if they were made of foam instead of back-breaking weights. One in each hand, Khulan strides across the sandy scrub in front of the tents where he and the other wrestlers sleep. ‘Now your turn,’ Khulan smiles as he drops the bars at my feet, a couple of beads of moisture on his brow the sole concession to his effort.
I had arrived at the wrestling training camp a few days earlier, with a single rule: never say ‘no’. Gingerly I pick up the weights. My thin arms feel as if they are being yanked from their sockets. Slowly, I began to shuffle along in Khulan’s footsteps. Sweat stings my eyes. A canter that took him seconds, takes me almost ten minutes. But I manage it, almost collapsing with the dumbbells in front of him. ‘Well done,’ Khulan smiles again, and wraps an arm around my aching shoulders. ‘You are becoming a wrestler.’
Wrestling has been a part of Mongolian life for centuries. Cave paintings depict two men grappling with one another in front of a crowd. The Secret History of the Mongols, the 13th century chronicle of Genghis Khan, praises the virtues of the sport. Nowadays, mineral-rich Mongolia is one of the world’s fasting growing economies, but wrestling remains a national obsession. In a nation of barely three million people, some 30,000 of them are active wrestlers.
Each July, in villages, towns, and cities across this vast central Asian state, wrestlers compete in the Naadam or ‘games’. Although the sport is largely amateur, many wrestlers spend weeks before the Naadam sequestered away in training camps, honing their skills and their bodies.
I travelled to Mongolia to learn how to wrestle, and to learn about the wrestlers themselves. Despite being told by a wrestling expert on my second day in Mongolia that I was ‘not fat enough’ to fight, Khulan and his fellow wrestlers from the central province of Bayankhongor agreed to let me spend time at their camp, one hour’s drive from the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
I arrive on a sunny Sunday morning. Dozens of wrestlers in brightly coloured, open-shirted tunics and tight-fitting briefs are sparring on the steppe. Each victor spreads his arms in the devekh, the ‘eagle dance’ that symbolises power, bravery, grace and invincibility. Men in hats and colourful deel, traditional knee-length tunic sashes, watch solemnly, their arms folded behind their backs.
In a nearby pagoda, a young man in dark sunglasses and flowing burgundy-coloured robes sits before bowls filled with hard biscuits and candy. The Buddhist lama has come to bless the wrestlers. Afterwards I am invited with him into a nearby ger for lunch. A plastic paddling pool filled with fatty lumps of lamb is passed around the crowded tent. The head of the camp gives a short address, he gestures towards the lama and then towards me. I can’t understand what the senior wrestler says but I smile and say ‘thank you’ in Mongolian. I can stay for one week.
Our camp is in a former communist-era holiday centre. I share a room with a couple of younger wrestlers. The garish floral wallpaper has faded and the natty brown carpet does not quite cover all the floorboards. There is a hole in the window the size and shape of a 50 pence piece. On my first evening I go for a shower, naked, with some of the wrestlers. ‘You’ll be wrestling with me tomorrow’, says one in broken English. He towers over me. I manage a fearful grin.
Next morning, the birds are singing at 6.30am as I walk out onto the steppe. A stubby, bald-headed wrestler takes it upon himself to teach me an early lesson, flipping me over and over onto my back. Mongolian wrestling is a combination of strength and agility – I feel like I’m severely lacking in both.
During the afternoon session the head of the camp approaches. He is a ‘Falcon of the Nation’, a rank signifying a quarter-finalist at the national Naadam in Ulaanbaatar. We are both 33, but could hardly be more different: The Falcon is a strong, silent John Wayne type, all muscles and cauliflower ears. I am scrawny and skittish. ‘You have promise,’ he says, much to my surprise. ‘But you need to eat.’
So, I have little choice but to eat. Wrestlers’ diets are the stuff of Mongolian legend. A typical breakfast comprises three slices of bread, a bowl of lamb stew and a gigantic plate of Russian salad. Lunch is similar, while dinner is supplemented by dozens of fried lamb meat dumplings, all washed down with gallons of salty ‘milk tea’. Canteen seating is strictly by order of rank, with the Falcon at the head of the table.
While the lower orders share dorms, senior wrestlers sleep five to a ger. On my second evening I am invited into one of the TARDIS-like tents. Inside is surprisingly commodious. Wrestling costumes and even toothbrushes and toothpaste are held safe in the spokes of the roof, while tables filled with food, books and mobile phones dominate the floor. The air is filled with a sweet smell that turns out to be burning dried horse dung. A bottle of vodka is passed in one direction, a metal bowl filled with airag, a sharp-tasting fermented horse milk, goes in the other. One wrestler shows me photos of his wife and children.
‘How does your wife feel about you leaving for more than a month to wrestle?’ I ask.
‘She doesn’t mind. She is proud.’
Although their native province, Bayankhongor, is more than a thousand miles away, most of the wrestlers live in Ulaanbaatar. Among them is Khatnaa, a broad-shouldered 21-year-old who sits beside me at the bottom of the dinner table. He has a wife and young child in the capital, where he works as a physical education teacher. But he wants to leave the classroom behind, to set out in the import-export business. ‘There is more money in that,’ he says.
Wrestling is, in some ways, more than a sport in Mongolia. Increasingly, success is a gateway into politics and business. Many famous wrestlers have held high office since the democratic revolution replaced the world’s second oldest Communist regime in 1990. Many more have become phenomenally rich.
Khatnaa’s dream is to win a competition in one of Mongolia’s 331 sum or counties. The previous year he lost in the penultimate round. ‘Now I want to win,’ he tells me one evening. A few days later he announces over his third bowl of lamb stew that he is leaving the camp, to go back to wrestle in his home village, Shinjinst. Would I like to go with him? I look at my bruised arms and legs. After several days of training, I am no closer to becoming a wrestler. ‘Yes, please.’
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
The drive to Shinjinst in Khatnaa’s four-wheel drive takes just under 24 hours. The first half of the journey – by day – is along rutted roads to Bayankhongor. The provincial capital is an unremarkable administrative centre. A socialist realist bust of a war hero dominates the main square. From there it is a night ride across the Gobi Desert. I fall asleep and am jolted awake by a heavy thud. It’s 3.30am. The puncture will take a couple of hours to repair.
We finally arrive not long after sunrise. Shinjinst is a spartan affair, a few wooden houses amid a sea of tents. A horse drinks from a spluttering water fountain. Herdsmen are rounding up their livestock The temperature is already well over 20ºC. We rest in the town hall, which also doubles as the village’s only hotel. In the next room a side of lamb is hanging, ready for the Naadam feast.
By 4pm a large crowd has gathered around the makeshift arena in the centre of town. Khatnaa’s opening bout has come. His body is bronzed and toned after weeks of training. His first opponent looks less seasoned. He is tall and thin and wears jeans instead of the customary figure-hugging shuudag shorts. From the opening exchange it is clear who has the edge in strength and guile. Khatnaa grabs his opponent by the shoulders and pulls him to the floor. The men and women in long deels clap politely.
The pace slackens. Khatnaa has been grappling with his next opponent for ten minutes, feeling his way around for an opening. Their bodies twist one way, then another. ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ shouts an aged man in a cowboy hat and purple deel from the sidelines. Almost instantaneously Khatnaa hits the deck.
Khatnaa’s games are over. He walks back to the car, a look of real surprise on his face. He swears loudly in English. The following day I hitch a ride back to Bayankhongor with a newly married couple. They are moving to Ulaanbaatar for work. ‘It is too hard to live in Shinjinst,’ the husband says. ‘Everyone is leaving.’ His wife nods in agreement.
In July 1922, Mongolia’s communist hero Damdin Sükhbaatar ordered a Naadam to mark the first anniversary of the Soviet-backed revolution. Every year since then, the Naadam has been held from 11 to 13 July with thousands of fans packing out the national stadium to watch the most popular event, the wrestling.
Mongolia has changed dramatically since the communist experiment ended. Many former nomads have sold their livestock and swapped the steppe for the city. Ulaanbaatar has tripled in size. Louis Vuitton and Swarovski shops cater for a burgeoning upper class made rich by the commodity boom.
The Naadam is different, too. Now billboards advertise global brands, while winners can expect to make thousands in promotional fees alone. There is a more overtly nationalist tone to the opening ceremony, as monks and athletes, marching bands and dancers in traditional garb, parade through the grounds. But once the zasuuls – the pointy hatted referees-cum-trainers – walk out onto the stadium turf, contemporary political differences disappear as the age-old wrestling contest begins. In the opening hours the field is crowded, with 512 wrestlers competing simultaneously. I spot the Falcon in a far corner, arms wrapped around a larger opponent. They sway this way and that for almost a quarter of an hour before the Falcon wraps his right leg around his opponent’s left shin and pins him to the floor. I leap from my seat, to quizzical looks from my neighbours in the plastic seats beside me.
As the sun sets on the first day, the Falcon is still in the competition. But the following afternoon he is gone, dispatched by a nimble, younger wrestler. The stands fill up as the wrestlers are whittled down. At just after 8pm there is a tremendous roar as the final bout ends with one man standing. He is now the ‘Undefeatable Giant of Nation’.
As I file out of the stadium, past the vats of frying dumplings and the hawkers offering everything from sunglasses to the chance to hold an eagle, I bump into some of the Bayankhongor wrestlers from the camp. They are all smiling and shake my hand vigorously. But there is no sign of the Falcon. He’s already gone.
As we exchange farewells, I recall the last words the Falcon spoke to me when I left the camp. ‘We will meet again. But next time I want you to be out here,’ he said, gesturing to his barrel-chest, as if hewn from solid oak. I promised him I would. I’ll really need to hit the gym before I come back to Mongolia.
This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.