Magazine article Geographical

Wrestling with Modernity

Magazine article Geographical

Wrestling with Modernity

Article excerpt

A few years ago Ulaanbaatar was a sleepy backwater--not anymore. Today skyscrapers and coffee shops dot its busy streets. Multinational corporations now sponsor star wrestlers, while amateurs often combine day jobs in the mines with training and competition. Peter Geoghegan found out why Mongolia's national sport is changing the country's image

Never accept a physical challenge from one of Mongolia's strongest men. Khulan's biceps are as wide as my thighs. He is standing outside his circular, canvas-topped ger flexing his muscles. Behind him the grassy steppe unfurls, framed in the distance by gentle rolling hills. It is late afternoon, the day's wrestling training is over, and Khulan fancies some fun.

'You do what I do,' he says, plucking a dumbbell off the ground as if they were made of foam instead of back-breaking weights. One in each hand, Khulan strides across the sandy scrub in front of the tents where he and the other wrestlers sleep. 'Now your turn,' Khulan smiles as he drops the bars at my feet, a couple of beads of moisture on his brow the sole concession to his effort.

I had arrived at the wrestling training camp a few days earlier, with a single rule: never say 'no'. Gingerly I pick up the weights. My thin arms feel as if they are being yanked from their sockets. Slowly, I began to shuffle along in Khulan's footsteps. Sweat stings my eyes. A canter that took him seconds, takes me almost ten minutes. But I manage it, almost collapsing with the dumbbells in front of him. 'Well done,' Khulan smiles again, and wraps an arm around my aching shoulders. 'You are becoming a wrestler.'


Wrestling has been a part of Mongolian life for centuries. Cave paintings depict two men grappling with one another in front of a crowd. The Secret History of the Mongols, the 13th century chronicle of Genghis Khan, praises the virtues of the sport. Nowadays, mineral-rich Mongolia is one of the world's fasting growing economies, but wrestling remains a national obsession. In a nation of barely three million people, some 30,000 of them are active wrestlers.

Each July, in villages, towns, and cities across this vast central Asian state, wrestlers compete in the Naadam or 'games'. Although the sport is largely amateur, many wrestlers spend weeks before the Naadam sequestered away in training camps, honing their skills and their bodies.

I travelled to Mongolia to learn how to wrestle, and to learn about the wrestlers themselves. Despite being told by a wrestling expert on my second day in Mongolia that I was 'not fat enough' to fight, Khulan and his fellow wrestlers from the central province of Bayankhongor agreed to let me spend time at their camp, one hour's drive from the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

I arrive on a sunny Sunday morning. Dozens of wrestlers in brightly coloured, open-shirted tunics and tight-fitting briefs are sparring on the steppe. Each victor spreads his arms in the devekh, the 'eagle dance' that symbolises power, bravery, grace and invincibility. Men in hats and colourful dee/, traditional knee-length tunic sashes, watch solemnly, their arms folded behind their backs.

In a nearby pagoda, a young man in dark sunglasses and flowing burgundy-coloured robes sits before bowls filled with hard biscuits and candy. The Buddhist lama has come to bless the wrestlers. Afterwards I am invited with him into a nearby ger for lunch. A plastic paddling pool filled with fatty lumps of lamb is passed around the crowded tent. The head of the camp gives a short address, he gestures towards the lama and then towards me. I can't understand what the senior wrestler says but I smile and say 'thank you' in Mongolian. I can stay for one week.


Our camp is in a former communist-era holiday centre. I share a room with a couple of younger wrestlers. The garish floral wallpaper has faded and the natty brown carpet does not quite cover all the floorboards. …

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