Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on the planet, but if you arrive in Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital, in July, you wouldn’t know it. Every summer, Mongolians flock to the capital to celebrate the anniversary of their independence and enjoy the summer festival of Naadam. In 1921 the Mongolian and Russian armies drove out their Chinese occupiers in a display of Mongolian strength and bravery, so to mark the occasion, competitors test their own virtues in a series of “manly games”.
In reality, men, women and children alike are invited to take part in the games, which last for three days in July. Competitors test their metal in three disciplines, horseracing, archery and wrestling. But the games are as much a celebration of Mongolian pride and culture as they are a competition. The throng in attendance are treated to traditional singing and dancing and a visual feast of vibrant traditional garments but make no mistake, the main event is the wrestling.
Mongolian wrestling, or Bökh, is a spectacle to behold. The men don high boots (gotol), tight, colourful briefs (shuudag) and a shoulder piece (zodog), which flows down their arms as two long sleeves. The bare-chested men slap against each other’s bodies, using any move they can to send their opponent to the floor. The objective is to avoid making contact with the ground with any part of your body except your hands and feet. The sport has been around for centuries, with winners historically taking home new horses. In the modern version, the winner is crowned “Lion of the Nation” and can go home with a new motorbike or television.
This is not a village fete with some light sports. Competitors clatter against each other in a show of determination and pride. There are no weight or age categories, so not every match is a hard-fought battle. As a gesture of respect, the losers have to walk under the victor’s outstretched arms.
Women are no longer permitted to compete in the Bökh contest. But, the story has it that a Mongolian warrior princess named Khutulun, would only marry a man who could defeat her at Bökh. Those who wished to fight her and lost would have to give her a horse as a token of their defeat. The legend orates that she curated a collection of 10,000 horses for her superhuman efforts. Mongolian strength does not gender discriminate.
Naadam is more than just a Mongolian Olympic Games for the toughest and most skilful, it is also an integral part of the Mongolian social scene. Most of Mongolia’s three million inhabitants live nomadic lives, but once a year, at Naadam, families and friends get together and eat, drink and share stories. They dine out on fried mutton or beef pastry and drink fermented horse milk, a national delicacy.
As the festival gains international notoriety, more and more foreign visitors to Mongolia want to take part. For the best chance of competing yourself, head to one of the smaller, rural villages. The games in Ulaanbaatar are likely to be oversubscribed as it is. A word of warning: don’t take the decision lightly. Mongolians are fiercely proud of their Bökh, they won’t go easy on a foreign novice.