SIDE ORDER

Steppe lively: Mongolia's Naadam games

By Michael Shapiro
Sunday, April 11, 2010

When President Nixon visited China in 1972, he said that it takes a great people to build a Great Wall. In Mongolia they countered: It takes an even greater people to make them want to build it. That warrior pride is on full display at the Naadam festival.

Featuring contests in the "manly" sports of wrestling, horseback riding and archery, Mongolia's Naadam Games date back eight centuries to the era of Genghis Khan. Before embarking on a 10-day, 300-mile mountain-bike tour of Mongolia's steppes, our cycling group spent two days at the games, held annually on July 11-12.

Arriving at the national stadium in Ulan Bator just moments before the official start of the Naadam, my buddy Walt and I encountered a carnival atmosphere. Archers wearing traditional Mongolian robes, called dels, were warming up by flexing their bowstrings.

Burly wrestlers, clad in sky blue or magenta briefs with frilly matching jackets, were stretching and practicing their takedown moves. Lamb sizzling over pit barbecues cast a heavenly scent across the dusty paths.

The games originated in 1206, when Genghis Khan (pronounced Chinggis Khan in Mongolia) founded the Mongolian empire, naming himself "universal king." Once a training ground for Mongolia's warriors, the Naadam festival today is a national gala celebrating the country's heritage and resurgent independence after seven decades under Soviet communism.

In a way, Naadam is Mongolia's Super Bowl, a bacchanal spotlighting the country's beloved pop and hip-hop singers, soldiers high-stepping to martial music, a pageant of demons in fearsome masks, the celestially lovely Miss Mongolia and dancing maidens. Just as in the Olympics, they all parade around an oval track in the games' opening ceremonies.

And here's the amazing thing: Unlike at the security-obsessed Olympics or a U.S. football game, you can get close to everyone. I greeted Miss Mongolia and she held out her hand, silken to the touch.

I wandered over to the archery practice field. After most of the arrow slingers had completed their warm-ups, an elderly, bespectacled archer beckoned me over and asked whether I'd like to try out his hand-hewn bow.

I grasped the bow, ornately painted with horse designs, placed the arrow in it, aimed for a target about 80 yards away and shot. I missed, but came close. The archer straightened out my left arm and I shot again, coming even closer to the small wooden targets perched on a log. He flashed me a thumbs-up and a big grin. I gave him a little money, which he gratefully accepted, offering me in return a shot of whiskey from his bottle.

An odd thing about the manly games: Wrestling is the sole event in which only men can compete. This is a progressive society: Women participate in the archery contests. And the jockeys are boys, typically about 6 to 12 years old, because they're light enough for the horses to manage over the 14.3-mile course.

We drove about an hour west of the capital to watch the grueling horse races. Some horses don't make it across the finish line, collapsing under the heat of the midday sun. We saw a boy walk in front of his horse, pulling the bedraggled beast across the finish line by the reins.

All around us, nomads who had traveled vast distances on horseback greeted friends they hadn't seen in a year. They clasped hands, hugged and caught up on recent events. Most don't have phones, and they're certainly not online, so this annual gathering is their time for sharing their news and hearing how old friends are doing.

Near the finish line, I joined a group of nomads for lamb and potato stew cooked in a metal jug with hot stones, a genuine Mongolian barbecue.

"Good?" asked the cook, a sun-browned woman with rosy cheeks and a crinkly smile. I smiled and gave her a thumbs-up, a common gesture of approval in Mongolia. Through our translator she said that it's like "hunted meat," rich, hearty and nutritious. "You eat just a little bit and feel full." She was right.

Back at the stadium that afternoon, nine pairs of wrestlers grunted and tugged at one another simultaneously. It's an elimination tournament with 512 men; the loser is out, the winner moves to the next round. There's a single objective: to take down your opponent. A wrestler doesn't have to pin his adversary: If a competitor's knee hits the ground, the match is over.

Contests have been known to go on for hours. A few years ago, one spectator told me effusively in English, one match went on so long that at dusk, a dozen cars drove into the stadium, surrounded the wrestlers and shone their headlights on them to keep the match going until one of the exhausted men collapsed.

Unlike in sumo, there's no ring. Wrestlers spiraled out like a beast with four legs. Referees, clad in burgundy robes with gold sashes, followed the beast as it twirled across the field. At the end of each match, the winner bowed to the referee and danced like a steppe eagle, flapping his arms in a gesture of victory.

After two days, the field was down to the two strongest wrestlers in Mongolia. Each man had thousands of howling fans exhorting him. As the late afternoon match commenced, lightning shattered a gunmetal sky. The atmosphere was literally electric.

The wrestlers feinted and grabbed each other's shoulders. After 10 minutes of pressing and pushing and leg strikes, the beefier man got his chest atop the other man's back. The smaller man resisted and appeared to be on the verge of escape.

The top man exerted a final forceful push, the smaller man buckled, and his knee hit the ground with a dusty thud. Mongolia had a new champion.

Thousands of spectators thrust their arms skyward, hollering and hooting. Then they leaned back in their seats and exhaled, appearing as spent as the wrestlers, and just about everyone around me lit a cigarette.

Michael Shapiro is the author of "A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration" and co-author of "Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya," His Web site is http://www.michaelshapiro.net.


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