Why you should care
Genghis Khan would have wanted it that way.
Two and a half months in Mongolia hadn’t broken me yet. I may be, by nature and birth, a small-town Englishman, culinarily unadventurous and perfectly content just streaming British TV on my laptop, but the opportunity for a funded journalism internship to literally the remotest country in the world had come my way — why the hell not? I was 20, curious and above all wanted to do something that would impress anyone who would listen.
But with just 10 days left before I could head home in mid-July, tick the country off my world scratch map and boast about having been somewhere you haven’t, my hosts informed me that Naadam was approaching. It’s a Mongolian sporting festival held every summer, usually in July, that sits somewhere on the spectrum between Christmas and the Olympics — something that Mongolians look forward to for six months of the year and then reminisce about for the other six.
The traditional festival is pretty much unchanged from the days of Genghis Khan …
We drove for about a day and a half to visit my host family’s parents in “the Countryside,” a term used to describe everywhere in the vast country outside the capital. The father of the family I had been staying with spoke broken English, the wife and kids almost nothing and the grandparents, who were nomads in the middle of the vast grassy steppe, absolutely zero; meanwhile, I had picked up little Mongolian other than “hello” and “thank you.” We were fresh out of the car on our arrival at the family’s ger, a Mongolian yurt, and the grandfather had me helping him herd his flock of a couple hundred sheep — him on a motorbike, me running around waving my arms.
Communicating with hand gestures and grunts, we chose a healthy-looking animal and took it back to the ger to slaughter, cook and eat. Every imaginable part of the sheep (from brains to bone marrow) became breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of the visit, each time washed down with traditional salty milk tea. One day my stomach had had enough. I spent the whole night vomiting and with diarrhea in the middle of the steppe as a storm rolled in, the grandfather insisting I drink a shot of tequila to help soothe my insides. It didn’t.
Naadam eventually rolled around, and the family drove to a nearby settlement of tents where a couple hundred other people had already congregated. With the exception of the tinny amplification of wailing folk music over loudspeakers, everything else in the traditional festival, from the attire to the ceremonies themselves, seemed pretty much Genghis Khan-approved. The stretch of grass acting as a parking lot was half-filled with cars; the other half with tied-up horses. Naadam comprises three “games of men,” the father explained to me — wrestling, archery and horseback riding. Only kids can enter the horse race, but the wrestling competition is the pinnacle of masculine virtue.
“You have wrestled before?” he asked me. “Never,” I responded, smirking as I gesture at my skinny frame. With a raise of an eyebrow and a wry smile, he disappeared to the organizers’ tent.
My first-round fight was against a 12-year-old.
At first I thought I’d been put in the children’s event as a joke, but apparently it’s customary for young boys to learn by trying out against the men each year. I’m only about 165 pounds (probably closer to 150 after a summer of Mongolian food), but he was less than 100, and yet I was worried that he’d somehow get the better of me with superior technique. It was my longer arms that kept my pride intact — you lose if you touch the ground with anything but your feet — and I was able to grab him behind the knee and push him backward (as gently as I could, given the adrenaline rush from crowd all staring at the only white person they’d ever seen wrestle) before he could even reach my body.
My second-round matchup didn’t go so well. Each fight starts with a mini ritual whereby the wrestlers slowly flap their arms as they step around in a circle to honor the memory of Genghis Khan, then bow in front of a judge who removes their spiked hat (the rest of the wrestler’s attire features bolero-style sleeves tied on with rope, and tight colorful underpants). The dance seemed graceful and pious; I can only imagine that my attempt at it was nothing short of offensive, especially as the closest I could get to the costume was being topless, with rolled-up trousers and a fedora. When it came time to engage, after about 10 seconds of me attempting to swat my opponent’s hands away from mine, I found myself on my backside.
Several hours later, as we were about to leave, one of the judges — the one who had held my fedora during the fight, as it happens — rushed over to me and placed two bills into my hand: 30,000 tögrög, worth about $10. That was the prize money for winning my first-round fight, the father explained. For flooring a child? Never thought I’d get paid for this.
But that night, to celebrate Naadam, the grandfather of the family caught a marmot for dinner (though apparently overhunting of the Siberian marmot had led to a government ban on its consumption). After removing the animal’s head and insides, which were fried as an appetizer, red-hot rocks were inserted into the carcass to cook it from the inside out.
An age-old Mongolian delicacy, I was told. An age-old Mongolian delicacy that didn’t make me sick. Impressed?