The child contortionists of the Mongolian State Circus start learning to stretch and bend their bodies as young as seven. They train six days a week, from early morning to late at night. If they are successful, they will perform around the world. The greatest challenge? To keep smiling. Photographs by Witold Krassowski. Words by Holde-Barbara Ulrich

ongolia may have broken free from the old

USSR, but the skyline of the capital city Ulan Bator still has something of the look of Moscow. On the streets the portraits of Lenin have vanished; in their place is an older icon, Genghis Khan. You see him on every wall, including the outside of the blue-domed circus building in the middle of the city, known locally as the Blue Mountain. Also pasted up there is a colourful poster of two graceful girl gymnasts, their bodies entwined. Underneath is the announcement, "Mongolian State Circus, on tour in Latin America".

The two girls are contortionists, "rubber girls", their fine-limbed, flexible bodies seemingly defying physical laws. Now they are bringing Mongolia into the circus rings of the world.

9am. The rubber girls are training. They come here three hours a day, every day, except Sundays. The youngest is seven, the oldest 15. The teacher, Madame Norovsambuu, waits downstairs in her "studio". The room is only just big enough to accommodate all 13 children. It becomes less crowded, however, when the girls practise their double acts, standing on each other's shoulders. Anyway, they are so agile, they can train in a space no larger than a breakfast tray.

Two of the girls, aged 15 and 13, are just back from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where they took part in a big circus festival. They came away with gold medals. The foreign competition isn't impressive at the moment, they explain - except for the Chinese, maybe.

Madame Norovsambuu claps her hands. The training begins. Ten minutes' warm-up. Light exercises. Motionless faces. Then individual training. Each of the girls goes up to the teacher. They make a handstand, bend their arms, and bring their noses to the ground - the teacher counts up to 20 as they hold each position. "More, more ... " the teacher says, until the girl groans, and can take the pain no more.

Then comes the next girl. She raises a leg high, up to her head. The teacher grasps the foot and pulls it up behind the child's shoulder. The girl grimaces. The teacher notices. "Smile! smile!" She insists that the extreme twists and turns she forces the girls to go through do not cause any damage. "On the contrary, they stay very elastic and supple. It's like with sport - this way the body doesn't lose its beauty." Madame Norovsambuu, who is now 51, only gave up the circus herself six years ago. "If it weren't for my little son, I would probably still be performing," she smiles.

A group of six appears: two girls, four boys, aged between 13 and 17 years old. They are working on a quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze. One boy, a 16-year-old, is already doing the triple. He needs another two years before he can do the fourth somersault. "I would like to be famous," he says. "Not for me - for my country."

Madame Norovsambuu sits on her stool. She watches the girls practising. She says nothing - just occasionally she utters a dza, which is the equivalent of an "uh-huh" or a "wow" or a "just look at that". Two girls do a snake dance, which they will perform at a competition in Wuhan in China. "Smile," says the teacher. "They have been on holiday for a few days," she explains, as if to excuse them. Then they smile. "There's a lot of work to do," says Madame Norovsambuu at the end. She means the smile.

Two little girls are cuddling together. Because they look similar, they are called "the twins". They can do everything the older girls can, but not quite as perfectly. Enormous concentration is needed: mastering a smile while contorting is hard work for girls aged eight and 10.

Like most of the circus families, the twins live in the new blocks around the circus building. Their mother is a performer, so is their older sister. Their father is performing in Sweden. The family live together in three rooms. The television is permanently on - Tom and Jerry bounce across the screen.

A low table is piled high with food. "That is how we receive guests," says the mother. She herself does not eat. "My weight," she apologises. She is the pinnacle of a 10-person pyramid, together with her husband, daughters, nephews, and nieces. When Tom and Jerry disappear from the screen, the twins' evening programme begins. "You don't have to tell them to work at it," says their mother. "If anything, they practise too much." After an hour, they go to bed.

Their day had started at 8am. From nine to 12 they train with Madame Norovsambuu. Half-past-twelve until 5pm, they are at school. Then they get an hour of fresh air outside the house, followed by dinner with the family. A bit of TV. Training. Supper. Bed.

Is it fun? The two girls nod enthusiastically. "It's our life," says the mother. "The circus is our family"