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They are called the “Three Games of Men” during which the dudes, and in this progressive age even a few ladies, can compete in the three sports of courage, wisdom and strength. Namely, those are horse racing, archery and wrestling. The Mongol Naadam takes place all over Mongolia on varying dates, but the main event is held in the capital Ulaanbaatar from July 11th to 13th with a whole lot of pomp and traditional costumes.
Surviving Naadam in Mongolia is simple: drink lots of fluids (preferably airag), watch out for horses and it’s probably a good idea to dig out that old gym membership card you got for christmas and never used and get in shape first. For what you ask? Dodging arrows, throwing punches for bus seats and all those impromptu wrestling matches.
Eyes up here!
The first thing you need to know is that it’s probably a good idea to not walk around with your eyes glued to ground in front of you. Yes, the grass might be lush and pretty and you might be daydreaming about the sexy wrestler from earlier that day whisking you away on his stallion – but you’ll probably get run over by a horse or hit by an arrow in the process.
The horse traffic, just like a Mongolian horse race, can be a bit crazy and if I know one thing about Mongolian traffic laws of any kind, it is that there aren’t very many of them. Lots of people arrive on their horses and subsequently spend the day ripping around on them. It looks like a lot of fun, sometimes I wished I had one too, but you have to be ready to jump out of the way.
Fights to near death: now at every bus station near you!
Apart from riding their horses, Mongolians like doing several other things: eating lots of Khuushuur, wearing pointy hats, downing ungodly amounts of fermented mares milk and pretending to be human bulldozers.
If you are lucky, you will only get shoved out of the way. Maybe you will feel an elbow bury itself in your stomach and sometimes, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a full on brawl. And that strict meat-dairy-and-fat-only diet of theirs doesn’t exactly tilt the odds in your favour either.
I had already experienced the tendency towards this kind of bold cheek at the Mongolian-Chinese border. A cantankerous lady three times my size who looked like she eats dainty little things like me for breakfast sauntered past a line of fifty patiently waiting foreigners and nudged her whole bulk right in between me and the yellow line, giving me that “whatcha gonna do about it?” look. Not ready to be victimized like that, I shoved her right back out of line, which ended in an elbowing-shouting-janking match right under the very disapproving eyes of several Chinese border officials.
My cat, who’s after all fairly often involved in such territorial disputes, would have been so proud.
Mind you, I might have looked a bit ruffled after, but I won. And the best part is that I didn’t even get arrested.
I soon learned though, that the border incident wasn’t an isolated case. The attitude throughout the country seems to be one along the lines of “screw you, you and especially you, I can do whatever I want.”
Stand in line? What line?
Generally, this mindset isn’t much of a problem, with Mongolia being so sparsely populated and there usually being a few miles of safe-zone separating one ger from the next. On the average day in the middle of nowhere Mongolia, there simply aren’t any lines.
During the Naadam holiday and especially in the capital though, a whole lot of people not used to lines congregate in one spot and things can get a bit messy.
Heck, who am I kidding, I’m probably lucky I still have all my limbs. During those couple days of Naadam in Ulaanbaatar, each time I had to get onto a bus, train or into a stadium, I was involved in some kind of brawl that in any other country would have sent the cops with tear gas in. As if being stuffed into a bus with – and I swear I’m not exaggerating – five bazillion Naadam attendees wasn’t bad enough, the elbows in my ribs didn’t really add to the experience. If a crowd of Mongolians is waiting for a vehicle, you can be sure as hell that as soon as the doors open, ALL OF THEM are going to try and shove their way throught the door at the same time. Of course it doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
Just saying, be prepared to fight back and throw yourself into the chaos or get left behind.
Weird outfits and shapely Mongolian butts
Did you know that some of the most famous Sumo wrestlers are actually Mongolians? After seeing them at Naadam, I wasn’t surprised any more.
Genghis Khan already decided a couple hundred years ago that wrestling was the perfect sport to keep his army happy, in shape and battle-ready. Being a good wrestler could even decide if you got promoted in the army or whether you were destined to be used as arrow fodder on the front lines. And bökh, as wrestling is called, has remained to this day the most popular Mongolian sport. During Naadam, it’s the mens golden opportunity to jiggle all their menflesh in the direction of stone-faced ladies and, without age, weight or time limits, compete to become the “Undefeatable Giant of Nation”.
Sounds awesome, right?
I have to be honest, I don’t know much about Mongolian wrestling rules. I only understood that the goal is to get the opponent’s knee, elbow or upper body to touch the ground. The best thing about bökh though, is watching the scantily clad wrestlers prance around in their tight outfits. I might be emasculating them a bit, but apart from some sweaty grabbing and rolling on the ground, wrestling also involves copious amounts of butt shaking, stretching, bending over and dancing in weird circles. In short, a lot of pointing behinds in all possible geographic directions to dazzle the masses.
Well, prepare your virgin eyes.
Drink up that airag!
Fermented mares milk and Mongolia belong together like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. There is definitely some bizarre food in Mongolia, but you simply cannot escape that sour smelling, slightly clumpy deliciousness that is airag. Well, maybe it isn’t exactly as addicting as crack, but you should absolutely give it a chance, especially at Naadam.
The first sip of airag I ever had left me gagging. You have to believe me when I say this, but usually I’m really not a fussy eater. I’ll stuff pretty much anything laid before me into my face. But the sour, fizzy, slightly alcoholic drink that also had this distinct overlaying taste of cheese wasn’t something I immediately enjoyed. However, the expectant stares of several hosts left me drinking bowl after bowl trying not to show any hint of discomfort on my face. Hospitality mandates that every visitor is offered a bowl of milk as well as some cheese and crackers. And you wouldn’t want to mess with a wrinkly Mongolian grandma by not drinking up your milk – they look fierce!
And you know what, soon I was used to it and actually craved more.
Also, your lactose intolerance isn’t an excuse. The fermenting destroys the lactose, converts it into lactic acid, ethanol and carbon dioxide and leaves the end result perfectly save to drink for everyone. It’s actually pretty darn genius.
Since the Mongolians are literally addicted to it, during Naadam, whole barrels of fermented mares milk are brought out and handed out liberally to anyone coming by. At one Naadam celebration I attended in the countryside, a big bucket was placed on the wrestling field and it was made sure that by the end, every spectator had had a bowl of airag. It simply goes very well with Khuushuur, the popular Mongolian meat pastry and a typical Naadam festival food.