Looking for a fight

Mongolia, for many years off the tourist map, is now pulling in the crowds. The lure? Men fighting in their underpants and rather a lot of dairy snacks. Mark Stratton joins in
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The Independent Travel

To rapturous applause, several hundred muscular wrestlers, identically dressed in red and blue underpants and pink sequined tops, enter the arena. Their whimsical attire is rounded off by floppy mid-calf leather boots and cloth versions of the spiked helmets worn by Bismarck.

To rapturous applause, several hundred muscular wrestlers, identically dressed in red and blue underpants and pink sequined tops, enter the arena. Their whimsical attire is rounded off by floppy mid-calf leather boots and cloth versions of the spiked helmets worn by Bismarck.

At first glance, they make the choreographed prima donnas of American WWF look like serious athletes. But these are not men to be mocked. To the delight of the spectators, bouts are often brutal and swift. Locking bulging biceps in firm holds, they either shove each other to the ground sumo-style or trip their opponent judo-fashion. No submissions are required; once you're down, you're out.

The wrestling catches my eye the minute I arrive in Khotont, a village west of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar. The country's annual naadam festival is in full swing. Held every July, the three-day celebration of "wrestling, archery, and horsemanship" - is about the only permanent fixture on the Mongolian sporting calendar. The nomadic herders leave their yaks and gers (the tent-like structures they live in) to participate in the raucous, vodka-fuelled celebrations. Paying homage, my guidebook informs me, to traditions dating back to Genghis Khan's day.

Naadam is also fast becoming Mongolia's number-one tourist spectacle; with the largest and most colourful display of this nationwide celebration occurring in Ulaanbaatar. But I wanted to see a smaller, more traditional version of the games, so I travelled two days west of the capital on an organised tour; bumping along in a six-seater Combi-van over the rough tracks which crisscross the steppe.

Around the wrestling arena, crowds of excited spectators build up. Many arrive on horseback; some astride Urals, indefatigable Russian motorcycle-sidecars. Much of the crowd wears Mongolian national dress: long unisex dels resembling dressing-gowns tied at the waist by bright silk sashes. They join families and friends picnicking or drinking the ubiquitous airag - fermented mare's milk. At a makeshift restaurant, I settle for a cup of salted milk tea and a plate of tos khailak, fattening but delicious wok-fried yak's milk curdled like scrambled eggs.

I follow the spectators as they suddenly break away from the wrestling. The first horse race of the day, a 30km dash across the steppe, is nearing its end. Through a fog of dust on the horizon, the racing silks of the riders emerge. If the jockeys seem tiny, that's because they are children. Naadam is seen as a test of the horses' prowess not the jockeys'. So children as young as five often take the reins; although with most learning to ride almost before they can walk, they're not novices.

By the time the stragglers trail in, I'm ensconced on the mayoral platform enjoying drinks and canapés. Actually, mare's milk and cubes of butter. The winner trots into the paddock below us and is sprinkled with milk and is eulogised by the mayor as "leader of the 10,000". The winning trainer, himself an adolescent, is rewarded with a blue sash and the equivalent of £5.

Away from the crowds, naadam's third discipline, archery, is receiving considerably less attention. In 12th-century Central Asia, Genghis Khan's mounted archers were the weapons-of-mass-destruction of their day, responsible for softening up the opposition before the horde did its murderous worst. The bows that I witness two female archers shooting are said to have changed little since those gory glory days: horn and wood frames strung with bovine tendons firing vulture-feathered arrows.

Some of the older archers wear rows of medals from Soviet times. In the 1920s, when Mongolia was subsumed into the USSR, the centuries-old traditions of naadam were formalised into People's Revolution Day. Mongols still wrestled, rode, shot arrows and drank, except they did so in the name of Stalin. One hangover from the Soviet days are the bombastic accolades handed out to naadam champions. At the larger meetings, wrestlers can walk away with such sobriquets as "Famous throughout country and sea".

Those at Khotont's modest affair are competing for the honour of becoming a plain old "lion". They have to triumph through seven successive bouts to win the overall competition and the fights become progressively harder as the remaining grapplers are all lean fighting machines. Individual matches can drag on for hours as the evenly-matched wrestlers become deadlocked in steely embraces.

For one final time that day I watch two motionless competitors reach such an impasse. In the biting wind I shiver against the cold. It's definitely not a good time to be standing around in underpants.

A visit to the naadam festival features in Himalayan Kingdoms' (0845 330 8579; www.himalayankingdoms.com) 21-day all-inclusive Genghis Khan Trek tour. Prices start at £2,695. The Ulaanbaatar Naadam 2005 runs 11 to 13 July, while regional festivals may begin a day earlier

Go global festivals

Gerewol, Niger

Saharan Niger's beauty pageant with a difference sees wodaabé males adorn themselves with make-up to woo female suitors. Generally last week in September (information at www.steppesafrica.co.uk)

Pushkar, India

Camel and cattle traders arrive annually in their thousands. This is one of India's most vibrant festivals (12 to 15 November, see www.exodus.co.uk)

Panafest, Ghana

Africa's largest cultural expo arrives in Ghana this year (24 July to 1 August). A highlight will be a gathering of chiefs to celebrate Emancipation of Slaves Day ( www.landtours.com)

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