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.


Murray said...

Yo Jarv, the tale of your recent exploits has significantly enhanced my lunchtime. Show em what Blighty's made off

Pete W said...

This is proving to be quite a read! Did Magnus stay behind in the end anyway?

slideyfoot said...

Fantastic: like The Last Wrestlers, but without the misogyny. Plus you even have video! Very cool.