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.

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