Sunday, 27 July 2008

Wrestling with Mongolians


We arose on day 2 in Mongolia after a cold night spent in the ger, it seems that our lodgings were located in the middle of some sonic battleground for the city's dogs. We were nonetheless absolutely ready for our wrestling session when we awoke at 7:30 to our, traditional Mongolian, breakfast of bread, jam, tea and eggs.

On our walk to the sports palace we saw the usual sights, open manholes, the burnt out communist party building and a man passed out in the middle of the road, face down in 32 degrees of heat.

When we entered the sports palace we saw the same security guard who had been there the night before, a young guy in his early twenties who was not expecting to see us again. When we asked where the wrestling was he just laughed and went to grab some of his colleagues, then something fairly unusual happened. One by one all of the people who he had now amassed at the front desk engaged in a ridiculous policy of trying to look busy. This involved them playing ringtones on their phones, reading books or pretending to write on pieces of paper, it was becoming ever more apparent that they did not want us to wrestle there at all. After watching this act of buffoonery for a full five minutes we decided to leave in order to hire a Mongolian speaking guide who would hopefully be able to help us to find out what the hell had happened and assist us in our quest to wrestle some Mongolians.

We made our way to a cafe called 'Chez Bernard' (home of the most overpriced food and drinks in all of Mongolia) as we had heard that this was the place to go if you wanted to hire a guide. We spoke to the manager, a woman in her early thirties with immaculate hair and nails wearing a designer dress and sporting some extravagant mobile phone that was doubtless capable of performing any number of alarming and esoteric acts. She said that if we wanted a guide it would be $20 for the day and that she'd be there with us in half an hour and so we came to meet Achdintoya (Acha for short), the girl who we were hoping would make our wrestling dreams come true.

Acha suggested that our best bet would be to head out of the city and find some nomads to wrestle as they were usually very keen to test themselves against "outsiders" and would spend most of their free time wrestling anyway.

We stopped by the Wrestling Palace hoping to get ourselves a wrestling costume from the shop we'd seen in there the day before. For those of you unfamiliar with Mongolian wrestling costumes here is a picture:

Legend has it that full shirts were worn in competition until one year a woman became the Mongolian wrestling champion. Presumably people found out she was a woman after she got super pumped from winning and ripped her shirt off in front of everybody. Thereafter all wrestling contests were held with open fronted shirts so that no women could enter and humiliate the Mongolian men.

It turns out that the Wrestling Palace only had costumes in two sizes, children and extra massive, so Acha suggested that we stop by The Black Market to see what the costumes there were like. Before heading off we quickly spoke to the receptionist with the cauliflower ears to see if he knew of any good places to wrestle in the countryside. He told us that not only did he know where some wrestlers were but that he'd drive us out there himself and introduce us to them. Things were starting to look very promising indeed.

Within 15 minutes we were at The Black Market with The Receptionist waiting outside in his car. The Black Market is a place that every guide book recommends against visiting, not only are there a large number of pickpockets and thieves as well as merchants all too eager to rip off gullible tourists but there have been incidents were tourists have been stoned by the locals for taking pictures of the stalls. Acha seemed mildly amused when we brought this to her attention and assured us that she'd get us the best possible price as she is a Mongolian. Sure enough 20 minutes later, after making our way through the cramped and dusty, narrow market we were the proud owners of our very own Mongolian wrestling costumes.

We set off to the mountains with a bag filled with traditional gifts as suggested by Acha; biscuits, cigarettes and Riesen chocolate chews. It turns out that the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are filled with gigantic mansions that wouldn't look out of place in LA, the difference between UB and LA being the price, a 10 bedroom house in UB costs around 200,000 pounds. Nonetheless it was surprising to see quite how affluent the people of Mongolia have become considering the country's recent tumultuous history. It was also interesting to see how, sure enough, every house we saw had a ger set up in the garden no matter how lavish the main living quarters may be.

After driving for an hour or so on ever degrading roads we finally pulled up at the wrestlers' training camp. The wrestlers had set up shop in the Mongolian equivalent of Butlins, terraced rooms and decrepit looking playgrounds being the order of the day in Mongolia as in Britain. When we arrived it looked as though a lot of the wrestlers were sleeping, we offered some cigarettes to the ones who were wandering around the camp and waited for Acha to explain what we were doing there.

From Mongolia

After speaking to a couple of the younger looking wrestlers Acha informed us that we would not be able to wrestle with them because they were preparing for Naadam and as such it was considered unlucky for them to wrestle with "women or children". Quite which of these two categories the wrestlers considered us to fit into was unclear but one thing was certain, they were not going to wrestle us without the permission of their coach and he believed strongly in adhering to superstition.

Not wanting to waste a trip and still deeply committed to wrestling some Mongolians, we decided to do what any men of action would do; go to the most geographically proximate guys we could find and challenge them to a wrestling match. Just outside the grounds of Mongol Butlins we saw some men milking horses and sent Acha over to see if we could look inside their ger and wrestle with them. As soon as we stepped into the ger we were each handed a bowl of 'airag' a drink made by fermenting mares' milk in plastic barrels. The liquid had the consistency of regular milk but had visible strands of transparent liquid in amongst the white, presumably from where the milk had curdled. The airag smelled like rubbing alcohol and tasted like fizzy, sour yoghurt. A fairly sizeable departure from my usual pre-workout protein shake.

We sat and chatted for a while with the family who owned the ger and found out some fairly interesting facts:

-Although the family all had mobile phones and jobs in the city they would spend every summer living in the ger, up in the mountains

-The family had a whole herd of horses that would be sent to professional 'babysitters' during the winter and then handed back to them every summer

-Children wrestle pretty much from the second they're born, recreationally and in school

-When asked what they knew of England the family instantly mentioned Man U and Princess Di

-One of the men was convinced that in England there are restaurants that don't allow Asians to enter

After our verbal, cultural interchange ended we made our way outside for the physical one. It turns out that The Receptionist had sent word out that some Westerners wanted to prove their might against locals and had gone around picking people up in his car while we were in the ger talking. George and I gave a brief BJJ demo to the Mongolians, something which they found tremendously amusing. Not surprising really, considering that we had effectively just been rolling around in horse shit for their entertainment. Acha insisted however that because the horse shit was dry it was considered to be clean, very re-assuring.

From Mongolia

After a brief explanation of the rules - via the medium of charades - the first bout was underway. George faced off against a young Mongolian who looked to weigh about the same as us, they pummeled for underhooks for a while and the Mongolian attempted a body-lock takedown George quickly countered and took him down by hooking his leg.

What happened next was like something out of a film. The Receptionist, a man who hadn't spoken to us all day, a man who spent most of his time on his haunches smoking next to the car, calmly stood up and ripped his shirt off. He revealed a leathery muscular body, the type you only ever see on old men who have spent a lifetime on physical labour, all traps and biceps no fat on him at all. He looked George in the eye and said something in Mongolian, we didn't have to speak the language to realise that he wanted to fight for the honour of all Mongolian men after seeing George win. So that is exactly what he did.

After a heated series of attempts to secure underhooks from both parties, The Receptionist pulled at George's sleeve, as George pulled back The Receptionist dove beneath him shot his free arm between Georges legs and lifted him clean into the air, dropping him on his back an instant later. He then challenged me and did the exact same thing. Receptionist 2 Us 0.

Wanting to reclaim some honour for the Westerners I fought a smaller Mongolian who, despite his size, was pretty damn strong. He shot for a single leg on me and I managed to secure double overs on him. I then realised that I was in a perfect position to go for a full overhead suplex. So that is exactly what I did.

My attempt was received by cheering and clapping from the Mongolians even though I actually lost, due to the fact that my shoulder touched the ground before my opponent came crashing down next to me. Flamboyance 1 Actual ability to win 0.

Magnus was introduced to a particularly unpleasant strand of Mongolian medicine after cutting his knee open in one of his bouts, bleeding continuously and profusely like some ailing haemophiliac. Acha took a piece of cotton wool, set fire to it and then jabbed the flaming, bubbling mess straight into his wound in an attempt to curtail the flow of blood.

After taking on a few more bouts we said our goodbyes to everybody and headed back to the city for, yet another, buffet. BD's Mongolian buffet is apparently a chain restaurant from The States, the only chain restaurant in Mongolia in fact (there was a notable lack of McDonalds and Starbucks in UB places whose presence is felt on the street of almost every other city in the World). What the buffet lacked in authenticity however it more than made up for with heaping fistfuls of awesome. There was a salad buffet which, this being Mongolia, contained an enormous amount of cold meats as well as a vat of the tastiest lamb ribs I have ever come into contact with. The buffet proper involved a series of steel containers filled with every raw meat imaginable (including lamb tails) followed by an island of sauces. Once you had piled up a suitable raw meat mountain on your plate you passed this over to one of the chefs who used a pair of v shaped swords to cook your meal for you upon a giant, heated, donut shaped slab of metal.

After another night spent in the ger we made our way to Chinggis Kahn airport for the only part of our odyssey (save for the start and finish) carried out via airplane - Mongolian airplane. It turns out that the Chinese government had bought all the train tickets between the UB and Beijing in the run up to the Olympics, presumably so visitors would have to fly in and see how clean and shiny the airport now is.

Chinggis Kahn airport had the ruthlessly clean air of downtown Zurich to it coupled with the overall size of Bournemouth airport, unlike Bournemouth airport its walls were adorned with portraits of bloodthirsty warlords with wry smiles on their faces. The plane itself was very new and didn't fall out of the sky at all, in this respect it exceeded our expectations. The view of Mongolia from the sky was incredible, the landscape slowly evolving from city; to swamp; to mountains to desert.

Within two hours, as we descended through the layer of clouds which had marked the Southern edge of the Gobi desert, the stunning neon sprawl of Beijing came into full view.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Wrestling with Mongolia


Upon arriving at Ulaanbaatar station we quickly met up with our host Gaan. He drove us straight to the hostel in the style of all Mongolian drivers, batshit crazy and dangerous as hell. Absolutely zero adherence to even the most rudimentary of traffic signals.

Gaan's driving however was nothing compared to the bombshell he dropped on us as soon as we sat down in the kitchen of the guesthouse, our backpacks still on the floor next to us.

Gaan: "So, maybe you don't know the situation in Mongolia now"

Us: "Not really. What's going on?"

Gaan: "There was a general election last week and the old communist party won. Not many people believed this, me included. They all went to Sukhbaatar square and threw everything from the party headquarter windows. Printers and chairs and paintings from the walls. Then they burnt it."

Us: "Holy shit"

Gaan: "The prime minister declared a national state of emergency four days ago. This is the first time in Mongolian history"

Us: "Oh"

So now we were seeking not only to engage in feats of athletic prowess with a notoriously proud and physically powerful people; we were doing so whilst they were in the midst of total political upheaval.

From Mongolia

Our accommodation was awesome. The 3 of us had a 6 bed 'ger' to ourselves. The beds were basic wooden frames with ornate looking shells crudely shambled onto them to give a veneer of 'authentic' quality. There were no actual bed sheets or pillow cases but that really didn't seem to matter, neither did the lack of running water or plumbing in general.

Our first impression of Mongolia had barely had time to form when, upon exiting the guesthouse and walking down the Gandam Temple Street, an immensely excited old man insisted on shaking our hands vigorously. For no apparent reason. After shaking all of our hands, whilst laughing uncontrollably, tears of ecstasy streaming down his face he took things to the next level by passionately embracing George's neck.

Before we actually made it onto the main road in central Ulaanbaatar, Peace Avenue, we all very nearly died. It turns out that there are a large number of street children living in the sewers of Ulaanbaatar (6000 or so at the last count) and to them a manhole cover is merely a useless, heavy barricade to their home. To us, on the other hand, it is the one thing stopping us from plummeting down jagged, scatological, portals of pain to our certain doom.

With wide open eyes and necks tucked firmly into our torsos we proceeded to the Naadam stadium where, for 3 days every year, the world's largest wrestling tournament is held. The place is awesome. All around the outside there were various pictures depicting wrestlers locking up with each other, shooting for doubles and performing the obligatory falcon dance, carried out by wrestlers when they defeat thier opponents.

In order to cope with how unbelievably sweet the Naadam stadium was we decided to track down a nearby restaurant which, we had heard, served up something called a Mongolian warrior battle platter. Surely, we thought, nothing could have a name like that and not be ball-crushingly awesome. We thought wrong. Instead of a series of steaks served on a rhinoceros' rib cage, garnished with ground up unicorns and doused in babies' tears; we were presented with 3 foo foo little specks of insignificance served on 'fashionable' glass plates. It took every ounce of self-control within me not to dropkick the waiter over the horizon as soon as he disrespected us with his meagre offering. In the end we settled for quietly eating our food and then paying the bill. I'm sure though that deep inside though, he knew. He knew.

We spent the next few hours visiting a few different temples, all of which were in pretty dire states of disrepair and all of which showed a peculiarly Mongolian depiction of Buddhism. Mongolians don't believe so much in reflection and serenity as they do in cold bloody murder carried out by a series of ghoulish beasts, particularly this guy:

Here is a list of horrors we saw depicted in the temples:

People who's tongues were being ploughed with sharpenedlades
Disembodied heads with organs hanging from them via their spinal cords
Women being raped by laughing gods
People being eaten whole by goats, dogs and even cows
A guy having his wang bitten off by a pack of dogs
Deities trampling the 'ignorant' beneath them
People being boiled alive
People being skinned alive
A man having his stomach pulled out of his body while people pitched stakes into its corners

The number one wierdest:

Gods terrorizing peasants with guns

With the Mongolians being a nomadic people their capital has moved around on a regular basis, because of this the temples we visited weren't much over 100 years old. I have never before seen gods depicted carrying guns in a place of worship or anywhere else, outside of Stargate. for that matter.

After a hard day of sightseeing we figured we'd head to the Wrestling palace (an altogether different place built solely to house wrestling competition within UB) to see if we could join in with some type of training. We tried to communicate this to the guy at reception (who was sporting a fairly decent set of cauliflower ears) but he didn't seem to understand. Either way, he let us just walk about and check the place -which was deserted- out which was pretty damn kind of him. All around the outer hallways were portraits of previous Naadam champions from the past 150 years or so as well as various bits of scaffolding, pipes and cans of paint. The inside had modern looking multi-tiered seating with a large carpeted area for the competitors, it seems that the Mongolians don`t believe in the use of mats.

From Mongolia

After running around like a pair of idiots, taking photos of ourselves on the competition area and climbing the awards podium we decided to head back downstairs to speak to the receptionist again. We tried pointing at George`s monstrous ears and pummeling for underhooks to show him that we wanted to wrestle but all he could do was tell us when Naadam was. We walked away feeling slightly disappointed but still in high spirits with one more potential wrestling venue still on our to do list: the sports palace. Basically just a leisure centre but Mongolians are so absolutely sweet that they call pretty much anything a palace.

The sports palace was right by Sukhbaatar square, where the rioting had just gone down and also the location of the best ever government building in the world: The Mongolian Houses of Parliament. The building dominates Sukhbaatar square with its massive, sand coloured columns and blue tinted glass as well as an enormous, widescreen statue of Chinggis Kahn sat on a throne at the top of its steps. Rumour has it that just beyond the front door is an inner courtyard containing the most badass Ger in all of Mongolia, the place where all foreign dignitaries are welcomed to the country. That is some savage dedication to the Nomadic lifestyle.

In this noble and manly a location we were sure we'd be able to find ourselves some willing opponents and so burst through the doors of the Sports Palace, eager to get started. Right in the entrance hall there was a bronze state of a wrestler plus there were actual people walking in and out of the foyer. Things were finally looking up, or so we thought.

After carrying out our previous routine in order to communicate the fact we wanted to wrestle, the security guard just laughed in our faces. We kept hanging around though and made it clear that we really didn't intend to leave without wrestling. Eventually the guard asked for the help of a man who he knew spoke some limited English. He spoke enough to let us know that wrestling practice was at 9am and 7pm safe in the knowledge that we now had a time and location for our first go at Mongolia's national sport.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

5 days on a train

From Trans Mongolian Railway

I imagine that the usual reaction to being incarcerated in a small room with two other people for an extended period of time is not one of excitement. Nonetheless Magnus, George and myself were giddy as schoolgirls when we stepped aboard the No. 4 train from Moscow to Beijing (via Ulaanbaator). We stowed our belongings away into the various hatches, nets and cubby holes available and decided to 'explore' the train.

Our compartment was spacious and clean enough and was only mildly falling apart. Magnus and I managed to spend our time there with no injuries whatsoever.

George on the other hand was not so lucky.

Upon waking up on day 2, George decided to yawn and stretch much in the fashion of a baboon (more on that later). In doing so he managed to drive his hand through the metal blades of the compartment's fan and slice into 2 of his fingers. Although the fan made its way through one of the nails George wasn't too seriously injured and has now more or less fully healed. He did decide, however, to sleep with his feet facing the fan for the rest of the trip.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

However much the ferociously dangerous fan sucked, the compartment had one awesome thing going for it. The abundance of training possibilities it presented:

2 handles over the door at 45 degree angles for wide grip pull ups.
2 fold out, miniature step ladders for dips and attaching bands.
2 perfectly spaced bottom bunks for doing super deep push ups.
6 other hooks for attaching bands at various angles to perform pretty much any exercise imaginable.

The only problem with using the bands is that you generally have to veer into the higher rep ranges when using them. My love for lifting heavy things finally overpowered me on day 3 when I put Magnus on my back and attempted to squat him whilst on a moving train with a vicious, finger loving ventilation system looming over us.
I attempted one rep.
Magnus was displeased with the attempt.
I went back to the bands.

One particularly enjoyable part of our training sessions was the fact that the conductor was convinced we were going to break the compartment to pieces by the sheer force of our rippling, herculanean torsos. This meant that we had to shut the door every time we trained, thereby eliminating all airflow from the open window in the aisle way facing us. The heat got pretty unbearable with 3 of us in a 7'x6'x10' compartment but at least we didn't have the smell of raw chicken entrails being thrown out of the window by the conductor to bother us while we worked out. Seriously, the dude was disgusting. He did this on a regular basis.

As well as our, now fairly routine, bands, dips and chins workouts we all had a go at the 50 burpees challenge in the space between our carriage and the next.

Magnus: 3:16
Me: 2:35
George: 2:30

Our hands and feet got so disgustingly filthy that we decided we might as well try doing these on the platform, at one of the train's regular stops, the next time.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

Our hands and feet still got absolutely putrefact but seeing the looks on the other passengers faces as we jumped around whilst panting and sweating profusely made it worthwhile. Our outdoor attempt took place after George's 'incident' so only Magnus and I got involved:

Magnus: 3:05
Me: 2:19

Just enough time left after to buy some lardy, mashed potato pasties from the local vendors before getting back on the train. A real man's post workout meal.

One surprising aspect of the journey was seeing how different from our expectations Siberia was. When thinking of this region of the world people tend to conjure up images of frozen tundra, gulags and black bears. While this may be the case in the Northernmost reaches, the Siberia we saw from the train was an incredibly green place, filled with trees and shrubs and lakes. This of course only applies to the few parts that weren't filled with people. Most of the time we would see settlement after settlement, millions of people live in Siberia. Some places were comprised of little more than tin roofed shacks, not even separated by rudimentary paths, looking more like glorified allotments than villages. Elsewhere enormous cities, larger than Manchester, would punctuate the landscape with their skyscrapers, shopping malls, cooling towers and outdoor lcd advertisement screens.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

At around 7pm on day 4 we made what we thought would be a 2 hour stop at the Russian border with Mongolia. We thought wrong. Our passports were taken from us almost immediately for inspection and were duly returned to us an hour later. We then waited, for no apparent reason, for another 3 hours before making the 5 minute journey across the border in order to begin Mongolian border formalities.

We got to sleep at around 2am.

We were woken abruptly by chicken carcass man at 6am who insisted we get ready to disembark the train.

Looking out of the window was a pretty incredible experience. The landscape looked like something out of a video game. Green rolling hills as far as the eye could see, wild ponies running around in packs and a landscape interrupted only by the occasional 'Ger' - Mongolian tents, owned by almost all Mongolians (even those living in cities will pitch one up in front of their regular house and live in it intermittently). Crystalline streams the only visible divisions across the open plains.

We had arrived in Mongolia.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The long awaited Moscow update

From Moscow

Due to the fact that we only had access to 14.4kbps internet in Mongolia for the last few days, we haven't had a chance to update the blog. We are currently in Beijing but will update you chronologically before talking about our time here.

We will also be putting up photos on all the posts now that we finally have access to a halfway decent computer.


We only spent a couple of days in Moscow but to be honest I think we got the balance between there and St Petersburg right, once you've been to Red Square you've basically seen most of what the city has to offer a tourist. The Kremlin is there, Lenin's Mausoleum is there (although his brain was removed by Stalin under the auspices of "studying true communism" years ago), St Basil's is there and The Tomb of the Unkonown Soldier is a few feet away.

One thing we weren't expecting however was to find ourselves face to face with an enormous, gothic skyscraper whilst walking down Arbatskaya. The monolothic building was obviously built within the 20th century as it was adorned with a huge hammer and sickle. However, the main section looked like a malformed, enormous Houses of Parliament; whilst the top was adorned with an audacious looking spire. Out of all the sights we saw in Moscow it was definitely my favourite.

From Moscow

The one workout I managed to get in at our Hostel looked like this:

10 x 10 Tricep dips (using 2 bunk beds) - George joined in for this bit, Magnus was asleep
3 x 12 Push ups (medium band)
5 x15 Behind the back pull-aparts (medium band)
5 x12 Bicep curls (doubled up monster mini band)

We were in a hurry to get out and eat some food so I went for as fast a set of burpees as I could muster at the time. I managed an abysmal 50 reps in 3:19 and headed off to Mu Mu (a cow themed Russian canteen) for some borscht and beef.

On our second day we came to the sharp realisation that we were about to board a train and not get off it for 5 days. Having heard about the quality and price of food available on the train we decided to perform two acts:

ACT 1. Eat like fucking savages while we could

ACT 2. Prepare for the journey ahead by buying 48 boxes of instant noodles and several packets of cured sausages which later turned out to taste only of blood and fat.

Let me tell you this: when it comes to buffets, Russians have got their shit together. We found a place that, for about 8 quid had a buffet that included all manner of salads, sushi, Georgian food (including some, rather unusual, veal bone slices), pancakes, about 5 different kinds of cakes and fruit salad. We stocked up like bears preparing for winter and hobbled away to the train station with our sights firmly set on Mongolia.

From Moscow