Finding Nemo

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Three Manly Sports

Large men in tights
The Rush of Combat

Coming soon to a nightclub near you
I stared up nervously at the huge tree trunks stomping by.  The bottom of each pair of trees was adorned with garishly painted leather boots, the toes curling up like a gnome.  Where the trunks merged a bright blue, red, or sometimes pink Mongolian speedo was camped out, smuggling berries.  Above: thick muscles, no neck, and the fat mean-looking head of a fighter.

These were the Mongol wrestlers of Nadaam.  And one of these oxen would be my opponent.  In Mongolian wrestling, there are no weight classes and some of these guys were pushing 250 pounds.  I slapped my forehead.

The parade of beef in speedos wearing spiky hats was only part of the opening ceremony for Nadaam, the biggest festival in Mongolia.  I had ridden 5 days on horseback to reach the town of Renchilkhumbe in time for this event.  I could have watched the massive one in UB held in a huge stadium, but the thought of being bussed in, frisked by security, and standing nose to elbow in a mob hundreds of feet from the action didn’t sound like fun.

Parade of treasured white horses
Instead, I was in this remote town, part of a small colorful crowd of locals doing their own version of Nadaam.  When the wrestlers stomped by within a foot of my camera, I knew I had made the right decision.  A parade of treasured white horses circled the little infield, the lead rider holding up my new favorite banner, the unique flag of Mongolia.

And then, the “music” started.  Mongolians, like the Chinese, love the sound of a woman screeching like a starved feral cat.  This of course is put to Soviet-style military anthems, which seem to be recorded on 8-tracks from 1964.  The static-filled screeching was abruptly halted in mid-song for a dance number.  Little kids rushed out in an odd-lots assortment of white shirts and red shorts.  Then, incredibly, Wonder Girls came on, with their one-hit wonder "Nobody".  The youngest kids in front tried their best to imitate a 2nd-grade play where everyone just bumbles around on stage randomly.  It was cute and hilarious, especially with the Wonder Girls singing about how there was Nobody but You.

Nobody but you

After some more “singing” from a lady dressed all in fancy white, who was apparently representing the reindeer people, the flag was hoisted.  Comically, it only made it halfway up the pole.  Apparently the rope didn’t reach the top, but no one seemed to mind.  The flag at half-mast was a perfect symbol for the chaotic and colorful feel of this small-town party.

"Put your left foot in and you shake it all around ..."
The first event was Round 1 of the wrestling so I had no time to contemplate my stupidity.  The event begins with the biggest oxen heading out into the ring.  There is an awesome amount of ritual leading up to the actual match, which is almost anticlimactic in comparison.  First, the men run out to the referees / coaches / guardians.  These refs are dressed in long ceremonial deels of either red or blue.  The combatants walk back and forth three times, holding onto the ref, and then they bow down as the ref removes their spikey hat.  Next, the men all run up to an ovoo-thing covered in flags.  This is where the good part begins.  The men slap their thighs, then their ass, and their thighs once again to show how macho they are.  But immediately after, they run around like chickens flapping their arms!  It is supposed to be the graceful Eagle dance, but when you see a 240 pound man in pink underwear running around flapping his arms Eagle isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

Lastly, they return to the ref.  And then they just start wrestling.  There isn’t any signal or anything, they just grab each other and go.  It’s all very informal.

The big dogs, as the finalists from the previous year, get a first-round “bye” in the form of a kid.  These kids try their best, but the kahunas kind of just pick them up and drop them down.  In Mongolian wrestling, as soon as someone touches a knee, butt, or back, the match is over.

This ceremonial first round went on for a bit, and I was looking forward to actually wrestling a kid to warm-up.  At least I wouldn’t break my neck right away.  Soon enough Guy, the Israeli who had entered with me, was called up on the loudspeaker.  His opponent lined up across the way.  But it wasn’t any kid.  It was full-grown Mongolian, complete with tough weather-beaten face and bright red underwear.  I saw Guy’s expression change just a bit.  When his turn came he ran out and did his ass-slaps and hilariously attempted an eagle dance.  The crowd laughed appreciatively.  Then he lined up to his guy and was promptly tossed to the ground.  He came up limping and smiling, got his ceremonial ass-slap from the winner, and wandered back over.

“Didn’t last too long,” he said sheepishly.

“Well your ass-slaps and eagle dance were spot on.  Must’ve been the lack of bright underwear that jinxed it,” I replied.

“Couldn’t have been the wrestling…?”

“No way, dude.  That’s much less important than a good ass-slap during your pre-game!”

Awaiting my fate
I waited, and waited.  Then my name came up.  A cute guide who spoke a little English had adopted me at this point and ushered me over to the “Red” side.  I looked across at my blue opponent, he was a wiry tough-looking guy in pink underwear, but wasn’t too big.  I decided I could take him; after all, I had done a bit of wrestling growing up.  But before I could run out to do my ass-slaps and eagle dance, another huge wrestler pushed in ahead of me.  I was confused.  Was it really my turn?  When the other wrestlers ran out, I ran out.  They did the ass slaps and eagle dance, I stood there looking stupid.  Then the pink underwear guy came over and assumed a wrestling stance in front of me.  This was my opponent.

I was crushed.  I had missed the whole pre-game ritual.  I hadn’t slapped my ass or eagled danced or anything!!  Stupid fat wrestler who cut in front and threw me off!  It was a bad omen.

Pink underwear beware
But I was ready to go.  I charged and put him in a head-lock right off the bat.  He fell backwards and almost stumbled, then as he pushed back I knew what to do.  I ducked his left arm and chucked it over me, then reached for his heel for a trip.  He started falling and was toast, we both knew it.  But as I was tossing him to the ground, the refs came over and stopped the match.  They announced him as the winner.  That was when I noticed my knee was touching.  And that was that.

Walk of shame
When I got off, the guide came over and confided, “He was really scared of you.  You did good!  The crowd was impressed.”  Judging from the reaction Guy and I got, the crowd probably would have loved watching a foreigner spice things up a bit.  After all, there was no way I could beat out any of the big guys and we wouldn’t have ruined the party.

But at least I had wrestled in an official Nadaam match, and had even held my own a bit.  I suppose not everyone can claim that.

Survivor: Horse Episode

The ball of dust at the end of the horizon imperceptibly grew closer.  I squinted, and thought maybe I could make out a few horses.  But they were only trees.  After a few minutes, more and more people started joining me at the finish.  Then the trickle became a flood, motorbikes and people on horseback all began cruising over to watch the horse race finale.  I had a great spot right at the line, and my mob-training in China was paying off: I held firm as kids, women and drunken men tried to squeeze in around and under me.

Coming home

The ball of dust grew closer and closer.  Finally, individual riders could be seen galloping along the plain.  There was a pack of 3 riders out front; one of them would be the winner.  They whipped their horses mercilessly, but the horses were well past the point of any jockey whip making a difference.  They were running on sheer fear and adrenalin, and only the strongest would win.

These horses had started an hour ago, and had been galloping non-stop for 15 kilometers!  Mongolian horse-racing was absolutely nothing like horse-racing in the west.  Out here, it was survival of the fittest.  And I use the word ‘survival’ quite seriously.  Some horses come in without a rider.  Some cross the finish line and collapse and die immediately.  As the horses grew closer, one notices a few surprising details.  The horses look quite young.  In this particular race, the horses were 1-year olds, just mature enough to have been broken in for riding.  And atop them, bouncing along without any saddle, are 12-year old boys.  If a jockey falls and breaks an arm or a neck (which apparently happens every year), it’s a little kid.

Marathon winners
As the horses approached, the crowd started cheering louder and louder.  Finally, one of the 3 leaders pulled ahead at the last minute and crossed the finish line.  The crowd yelled and whistled and "choo choo'ed".  The little horses were drenched in sweat, eyes wild, the kid riders’ faces sunburned and covered in dust.  Instantly, men near the finish line caught up to the race-horses and ran alongside them to calm them down.  The race-horses at this point are so frantic that I guess it takes quite a long time to get them to walk normally.

Race-horsing takes only a close 2nd to the wrestling in terms of prestige at Nadaam.  If a horse finishes without a jockey it can still win.  At the awards ceremony, the medals don’t go around the poor jockey, they go around the horse!

Khoshers and Kholkog

Whole Hog
At a ball-park in the USA, one knows exactly what to do when hunger strikes.  One walks down to the concession stand and orders $8 nachos with yellow glue (cheese) and a $5 hot-dog.  At Nadaam, it actually isn’t all that different.  One just walks into a ger and orders khoshers.  Khoshers are pretty much like tacos without any cheese or vegetables or hot sauce.  You know, stuff that isn’t one of the 3 Mongolian food groups.  Basically the women of the ger take some dough, add in some yak (beef if you are lucky), then fold it over on itself and drop it in boiling oil.  Three of these will fill you up, and will set you back 1 or 2 dollars at most.  I found myself drowning them in ketchup in order to get a few drops of Vitamin C, but the locals frown on that “vegetable-stuff.”

Me Eat Meat!
Kholkhog, on the other hand, is one of the greatest things on earth.  My Israeli friend Guy and I ordered a sheep kholkhog and were told it would take 6 hours.  We said no problem.  6 hours later, we came back and were told it would take 2 more hours.  Since it was Mongolia, this meant they were on-time so we were pleased to hear it.  3 hours later we returned and were told it was just about ready, we should stick around.
Kholkhog is pronounced just like “whole-hog.”  And that is pretty much what it is.  Basically, they take a sheep carcass, and replace the stomach and intestines with hot volcanic stones and chuck in into a cauldron for most of the day.  The heat from the stones cooks the meat and the cauldron keeps in all the juices.  At a fancy restaurant they might add exotica like onions and peppers, but at [Loogie]-thoomp it was pretty much just meat and rocks and sheep-juice.

Finally it was ready and they hauled out the pot onto our picnic table.  There were certainly no forks or napkins or anything un-macho like that.  Instead, they passed out some huge knives and told us to dig in.  Guy and I looked at each other and laughed.  We each picked up a huge chunk of sheep, me a leg and haunch and Guy a rib-cage.  Between my teeth, hands, and the knife, I managed to pull off huge chunks of meat from the bones.  Despite the occasional teeth-snapping bits of rock, it tasted awesome.

With meat juice spilling all over my beard and face and knife-sword spearing a thigh, I announced, “Nemo like meat!  Nemo eat.  Bwah hahaha!!!!”
Sunset riders

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