"Eye Pleasing Giant"

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Thursday, July 12, 2012

Near the top of her list of favourite things to watch, DH includes flowing chocolate fountains, puppies playing, and Speedo-wearing beefcakes wrestling with one another. So to bring some special joy to her life we had made some advanced bookings to attend the Naadaam Festival in Mongolia which is centred around that countries national sport of wrestling. Apparently Naadaam means Three Manly Games or "the three games of men" (not wanting to be a wet blanket, I was hesitant to point out that there was actually four games by our count). These games are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, archery, and anklebone shooting (I didn't know what that one was either), and are held throughout the country during the midsummer holidays. Naadam is believed to have existed for centuries in one fashion or another but now formally commemorates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country.

Cities and towns across Mongolia, as well as those with significant Mongolian populations in China, have their own, small scale Naadam celebrations, but the Big Daddy of Naadaam is the one in Ulaan Bataar which takes place during the National Holiday. This one began begins with an elaborate Opening Ceremony in a dangerously crowded stadium featuring dancers, athletes, horse riders, and musicians. Once you got over the idea that the exit doors were padlocked (presumably to keep others out while the police watched the ceremony) and any small fracas could become serious very quickly, we really enjoyed the party. All of the provinces were represented and the costumes, dancing, music, and formalities were impressive beyond our expectations (believe it or not, the finalists of Mongolia's Got Talent also made an appearance). A fabulous show but DH kept yelling at the wrestlers gathered on the periphery to "get busy boys".

The start of the wrestling was a little underwhelming with a bunch of Mongolian behemoths picking up a bunch of little guys and flinging them to the ground with little to no effort expended (there are no weight divisions, so the biggest wrestlers are usually the best).- it turns out that the wrestlers with the greatest fame cherry-pick the guys they want to grapple with so at the start of the single-elimination tournament the little guys are used for warm-up cannon fodder (apparently most of these tiny types are from the local military and are trying to prove their manhood although I'm not sure how being grabbed by the scrotum and pile-driven into the turf proves any sort of machismo). Mongolian traditional wrestling is an untimed competition in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet. DH liked the idea that wrestlers wear two-piece costumes consisting of a tight shoulder vest (zodog) and unflattering shorts (shuudag) designed by Speedo (I'm just guessing). I liked the whole ceremony around the start and finish of a match.

Before each elimination bout, wrestlers limber up and honour the judges and their individual attendants with a short  ‘eagle dance’ (the wrestler stretches out his arms like an eagle’s wings in a representation of a Garuda, King of Birds, and 'flies' around his attendant). The attendants are called zasuuls or "encouragers"- besides ensuring fair play for his wrestler and holding his hat, it is the job of the attendant to proclaim his skills and issue challenges on his behalf). After the bout, the loser must take off his jacket and walk under the right arm of the winner, who then makes a lap of honour around the central pedestal and does some more eagle dancing- while he's doing that the zasuul sings a song of praise for the winner and, in the later rounds even drops to the ground in the wake of each wrestler as they take steps toward each other.

Mongolian wrestling also has no time limit and some matches in the later rounds made baseball seem exciting by comparison– the bout will continue, with way too many unexplained breaks, until the first wrestler falls, and anything but the soles of his feet and open palms touch the ground. The locals are bug-eyed passionate about their wrestling so we watched some of the final match in the stadium until it became very obvious that this was not a safety-first endeavor and with DH in charge of travel security, she hustled us out and we watched the rest of the match on a TV screen located next to the stadium. The eventual winner was given the most prestigious and lengthy title of the ‘Eye-Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty and Invincible Giant’.
 
And my favourite Mongolian wrestling story- apparently the vest originated after one Amazonian-sized female wrestler floored all the male wrestlers. It was only discovered that she was a woman when she ripped open her vest after thrashing all of the men revealing her female pride. The open-front vest was then introduced to ensure that women would no longer take part in bouts (unknowingly at least). Given the concept of topless female wrestlers, I'm starting to understand the passion DH has for this sport.

Women do participate in the archery (and horse-racing) and like horse racing, the sport of archery originates from the era of almost constant warfare in Mongolia, starting from around the 11th century. Traditionally dressed male archers stand 75m (women usually 60m) from the target. The target was a line of round leather grey, and red rings on the ground which which was strange given the bulls-eye targets we're familiar with. Stranger yet are judges who have to be the last dudes and dudettes picked for the archery team- they were obliged to line up right beside the targets and how they avoided a pincushion look was beyond me, but they would almost guide the arrows in and sing a chant which was apparently a blessing of some sort both before and after the shot- they would also raise their hands to indicate the quality of the shot. It didn't dawn on us until later that while we were watching the arrow-catchers, we were standing right along side the shooting range blindly assuming that Mongolian archers never missed by much

Given the length of the races, to see the horses we had to catch a ride that took us some distance from the city. Short of the cowboys of the wild west, there's probably no population on earth that has a greater association with their horses (picture Genghis Khan and his gang riding breakneck across the Gobi Desert). Unlike western horse racing, which consists of relatively short sprints,  Mongolian horse racing, as featured in Naadam, is a cross-country event, with races 15–30 km long. The length of each race is determined by age class. The race we attended was for three-year-olds and was about 15 kms long. Jockeys – boys and girls aged between 5 and 13 years old – prepare for months for these races, particularly at Naadam but the main purpose of the races is to test the skill of the horses (they are actually trained to finish the race even if the bareback rider falls off- we saw a couple of these riderless finishes).

The winner is declared 'tummy ekh', or ‘leader of ten thousand’. The five winning horses are apparently admired and talked about in reverence by the crowd (we saw some bizarrely dangerous activity with spectators running after the winning horses in order to wipe some horse sweat onto their hands- jockeys ended up whipping many of these overly-enthusiastic fans). As a nice touch there was also a special song sung to the horse which comes last wishing him luck to be next year's winner.

Perhaps the strangest of the games we saw at the festival was the anklebone shooting. Participants use shagai, sheep/goat/horse/camel anklebones, that serve as game pieces and tokens of both divination and friendship. These guys had their own venue adjacent to the festival grounds and, as DH was quick to point out, Women are far too sensible to participate in this 'sport' which seemed to be a Mongolian version of 'bottlecaps' (does anyone play bottlecaps anymore??). As far as I could tell, the point of the game was to flick one piece of bone at another and the winner would be the guy who is able to run the table- you have to hit the bone piece with a bone piece of the same type (sheep-sheep, goat-goat, horse-horse, camel-camel), so perhaps the most impressive aspect of this game was that Mongolians are able to tell a sheep bone from a goat bone without any difficulty. It wasn't enough to hold DH's interest and she just wanted to back and hang out with the wrestlers.

The closing ceremonies weren't the spectacle that the opener was but I would highly recommend timing a visit to Mongolia to coincide with this amazing festival that is still very much owned by the locals and not the tourists. Big wow!!
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Elaine & Doug on

Wonderful commentary in both your Ulan Bator blogs and great pics of the Mongols traditional dress.

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