In a remote corner of the outer
reaches of Inner Mongolia
Something is going on.
Thousands are gathering from miles around.
and there’s not a tourist among them.
They’re competing in a naadam –
a traditional festival.
It’s the Mongolian’s version of the NFL
and World Cup Soccer, all rolled into one.
Featuring Mongolia’s favorite national sport –
Originally a military sport,
Genghis Khan encouraged “bakh”
to keep his soldiers in shape
and ready for combat
and occasionally to murder someone he didn’t like.
Thought by some to be almost 7000 years old,
It still starts with an ancient shamanistic ritual:
an animal dance.
The rules are similar to Japanese sumo.
You lose if you touch the ground with anything
other than the souls of your feet.
Mongolian wrestling has no weight classes,
no age limits,
and no time limits
so a match can take an hour or more.
With plenty of breaks to catch their breath
and rearrange their clothes.
The “jangga” is a necklace decorated with
strands of colorful silk ribbons.
Only highly ranked wrestlers are allowed to wear them.
If things go on for too long
then the refs may reset the wrestlers’ grip
to speed things up.
Mongolian wrestlers are supposed to
embody good sportsmanship.
The winner helps the loser up
before heading to the judge’s table.
A wrestler’s rank is based on how often he wins
during these elimination competitions
where he earns honorary titles like Falcon,
The highest rank–
Undefeatable Giant –
has only been granted some twenty times.
It comes with a purse of 7 million Tagreek
around 3000 dollars
and enough fame that the last undefeatable giant
ran for president of Mongolia.
There’s just one more rule:
only men are allowed to wrestle.
As legend has it,
a wrestler once won a great tournament
and then ripped open her vest to reveal her gender.
Wrestling jackets are now cut away in front
to keep anything like that from happening again.
Which is why I first thought these might be wives
until a whole bunch of them showed up on the field
all wearing wrestling jackets.
Some, it turns out, are just learning the ropes
though they’re quick studies.
Others are already seasoned pros.
Though none are allowed to wear those
honorary silk ribbon necklaces
that the men are so proud of.
They express themselves in other ways
and they seem to be having much more fun
whether they win or not.
The tournament goes on from dawn ‘til dusk.
Even the most die hard fans need an
occasional break to stretch their legs
and check out the nearby stands.
Where vendors have set up colorful booths
stocked with everything from the latest
to the eminently practical.
There’s something for every man,
and, of course, plenty of toys for the kids.
There’s even a bouncy house!
Back on the field
the wrestlers are still battling it out.
Though in the end,
it’s Mother Nature who wins.
Around here, even an Undefeatable Giant
knows better than to take her on
in this harsh and unforgiving land.