|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
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 ..."
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
|Me Eat Meat!
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!!!!”