A thought occurred to me as I waited for the governor of Tsetserleg to officially open Naadam, the province's three-day festival of sport. If it hadn't been for perhaps the most abrupt volte-face in military history, Ulan Bator and not Manchester might have been the venue for last summer's Commonwealth Games.
Sounds ridiculous? Maybe so, but consider this. The year is 1241, and Mongolia's indefatigable "Golden Horde" has swept across Asia and overrun Bohemia and Hungary. Western Europe looks doomed. Brutality and strategic brilliance have placed the Mongols on the cusp of assimilating us into the greatest commonwealth of nations history has ever known. But then, almost inexplicably, they turn around and return home to the steppes. Back to their felt gers. Back to their livestock. Soon afterwards, their empire disintegrates, and over the passage of time Outer Mongolia becomes an aphorism for obscurity.
Sixty-nine years of stifling Soviet-style Communism, which ended in 1990, are partly to blame for the virtual disappearance of Mongolia from the world stage. So I was looking at Eriyn Gurvan Naadam – "the festival of three manly sports" – for signs that the warrior spirit that once made the Mongols so feared under Khanate rule might still exist in the blood of modern Mongolians. I hoped Naadam would capture the romance of the nation's pyrrhic past, although the "three manly sports" – wrestling, archery, and horse-riding – are no longer part of impromptu nomadic gatherings held on the withering steppes, but organized events within the confines of concrete stadiums.
That's why I am waiting in a crumbling sports arena in the pleasant mountain town of Tsetserleg; amid the pine forests of Arkhangai aimag (state) in central Mongolia. Every aimag has its own naadam, and Tsetserleg's is a suitably low-key affair. But I was content to attend a more traditional naadam, away from the capital Ulan Bator's higher-profile event – probably the biggest draw for summer tourists to Mongolia. There would be no finely tuned athletes competing here, and definitely no synchronised swimmers. Just nomads and shepherds.
Eventually, the governor completes his panegyric to a near-empty stadium, and Naadam begins. Not a moment too soon, as I need a distraction to take my mind from the frosty winds sliding off the surrounding steppe, which threaten to remove the governor's grey Homburg from his head.
First into the arena are the wrestlers. Some muscular and lean, others clearly no-hopers, they skip on to the playing field performing a kind of affected trot and flapping their arms slowly. They are mimicking a hangard, I'm told, a mythical bird, part-falcon, part-vulture, which possesses strength and sharpness. They're more fey than fearsome, though. Their costumes, too, probably defy what convention would call manly. Painfully tight pink underpants, and gutuls, mid-calf leather-boots with upturned toes, are completed by the zodog, a sequined crop-top covering only their shoulders. Legend says the vests were deliberately altered to be open-chested to deter females from entering, as it's said one particular Amazonian roundly thrashed her male counterparts many naadams ago.
In the early fights, the bouts are fleeting. Five minutes of ritualistic preamble is followed by an explosive contest, more sumo than the prolonged theatrics of WWF wrestling. There's no weight or time limit, and the more-favoured, seeded wrestlers – some with colossus physiques – are fed a stream of pigeon-chested boys and flabby veterans. Each outcome has an air of inevitability. The first bout lasts all of three seconds. The combatants clasp each other at arm's length, and grapple, looking to force their opponent to touch the ground with either elbows, knees, or back. A little guy, Mr Puniverse I think, for whom I feel quite sorry as his naadam ends before most of the locals have struggled out of bed, is comprehensively flattened. He dusts himself off and, meekly, as a sign of submission, stoops under the arm of his vanquisher who is now flapping his arms wildly. Bully. Still, as the bouts progress, they even up, and the latter contests, which take place deep into Naadam's second day, can individually last several hours. There are no medals on offer, but plenty of honour. Tsetserleg's champion will be declared a lion, and the runner-up, rather curiously, an elephant. Multiple champions, like the legendary (so I am informed) Khorloogin Bayanmunth, may have titles showered upon them like confetti – The Holy Titan, The Perfect amongst Ten Thousand, and The Mongolian hero of Labour – to name but a few.
I'd reached Tsetserleg after a two-day drive west from Ulan Bator. The town lies at around 1,700 metres down-slope of the Khangai Nuuru mountains, and is overlooked by a 16th-century Buddhist complex, Zayayn Gegeenii, now a museum, and one of the handful of Mongolian monasteries which avoided being razed during Stalinist purges in the 1930s. It's just possible I'd arrived there with as many bruises as some of the wrestlers departing the arena, as the solitary road westwards, is bone-jarringly awful. Though our Russian-built Forgon a 4WD combi-van coped admirably.
My distraction from the vigours of the drive was the Mongolian steppe. It should be quite uninteresting; 1.5 million square kilometres of monochromatic parched green prairies under deep-blue skies. Fenceless and virtually roadless. But I'm quickly captivated upon leaving Ulan Bator by the minutiae of plains life, and by a degree of nomadism I'd never witnessed before. We pass nomadic horsemen herding yaks and sometimes great herds of horses, and scattered clusters of gers, where ferocious dogs feverishly snap at our tyres. Each pass is marked by ovoos, shamanistic cairns draped with tattered blue-silk scarves, and eagles shun the overhead thermals to lumber across the steppes on their talons. Perhaps frequent stops at roadside stalls to imbibe airag fermented, alcoholic horse milk are responsible for my enhanced enjoyment of the journey.
I don't doubt the traditional Mongolia I'd hoped to find is within the realm of the nomads. A third of families live their lives in the saddle, dependent on their livestock, packing up their gers to move several times per year to greener pastures. You rarely see crop fields; mostly dairy produce and tenderly reared meat are eaten.
Surely this well-practised pastoralism was a window into the soul of ordinary life during the 13th-century rule of the Khans? And now, I suspected, a tried and tested retreat from the market-forces of the modern world, into which Mongolia has stumbled recently, totally broke, and without the security net of Soviet subsidies.
As the wrestling becomes somewhat fatalistic, Catherine, my guide, appears to tell me the first horse-race is due to finish soon. She lives an exotic double-life; a Leicestershire pharmacist for nine-months of the year, with summers spent roaming the steppes accompanied by her Mongolian husband, Enkhbold. Her command of a difficult language its guttural delivery at times is Klingonesque is impressive. Particularly as there exists a code of euphemisms to be mastered as national ethics, I'd read, doesn't permit negative responses. "One of the first phrases I was taught," she told me, "was one for long journeys when I needed to tell the driver to stop for the call of nature: Be mor kharmar bain I want to get out to look at the horses." And the ritual response to the ubiquitous greeting, Sainbaino, whatever your mood, is always "fine ... nothing but beautiful peace".
We wandered out of the stadium, climbing a brushed-green hillside to the finish of the horse-racing. Passing an encampment of gers, now functioning as canteens serving mutton pancakes (khuushuu) and mutton dumplings (buuz), I pause briefly to sip on a bowl of milk tea, salted, and made purely from yak milk.
There's a modest turnout for the first race; a 35km hack for nags in their dotage, and my mind drifts back to the previous day when at Khotont we'd stumbled upon a smaller naadam. The festivals are supposed to run the same day each year, but Khotont's mayor had decided to hold it a day earlier. It was one of those magical moments when you arrive in the right place at the right time. The atmosphere was supercharged as the horses stormed home glistening with sweat and the dust of the steppes. But I was transfixed by the crowd. Both sexes dressed in the traditional long-coats, dels, often silk, and tied with bright sashes around the waist. Many also wore loovuz a type of crested, Confucius-style fabric crown. I watched bowlegged old men squat and exchange snuff-bottles, and families picnicking across the steppe. As a curiosity, we're invited to the mayoral hospitality box to press some flesh, and sample cubes of yak butter and a bowl of airag which would shortly be sprinkled over the winning horses.
Experiencing the vibrancy of Naadam, it's easy to over-romanticise the nomadic lifestyle, not least the dependency on horses. Whenever I saw children riding barefoot in the stirrup, or nomads driving and lassoing semi-wild herds of horses, I would think to myself, this is the real Wild West. But for most Mongolians, Naadam is a respite from a tough existence; particularly during winters when temperatures can plummet to minus 30C.
I'd had it in my mind, before travelling, that the nomads would be prospering, thanks to the end of Communism and collectivised herds, as these roaming free spirits have never sat comfortably within an ideology of social and political control. But Enkhbold explained I was wrong. Translating on several occasions when we spoke to passing nomads, he said they complained that life had toughened with the introduction of a free-market economy. "Under Communist rule," explained Enkhbold, who was old enough to remember class drills preparing for nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, "the government owned all the animals, but the nomads had fixed wages, guaranteed markets for their meat and fleeces, and pensions when they retired. But now people worry they can't believe in the future." On one occasion, we passed a family with their ger and possessions loaded on three Bactrian camels making a 50-day journey from far western Mongolia to begin afresh in Ulan Bator. How would they cope, I wondered, with the capital's polluted sprawl?
By late morning, Tsetserleg's archers made their appearance. I gathered that this was the minority sport of the three, and, indeed, the judge apologised for the reduced field. The best archers, he claimed, were competing at Ulan Bator's more prestigious naadam. Nevertheless, the prize on offer here of 60,000 togrogs (£40) is around twice the average monthly salary in this region.
Archery has been popular since the 11th century in Mongolia, and I doubted if the bows the competitors were using fashioned from twisted cows' tendons and carved bone or wood had changed at all since then. Watching two female competitors in striking electric-blue dels, I was enthralled by their consistent accuracy. From 60 metres, and in swirling wind, they repeatedly peppered the straw bale targets. Their concentration never waned, even after the governor happened by to try his hand. He was a dismal shot, burying one arrow into the turf in front of him. Mind you, one of his entourage let fly a magnificent shot, off target, yet fully 75 metres, hitting a judge squarely on the knee. Fortunately, the arrows were blunted some things have certainly changed.
By lunchtime, we headed up to a ridge above Tsetserleg, rich in pines and spruces, to picnic in a meadow of wild catmint. "I hope you weren't disappointed," said Catherine, referring to the morning's activities, "because that is about all Mongolia has left, in terms of culture." I certainly hadn't been. It's easy to come here weighed down with historical hang-ups; obsessed with rekindling the spirit of Genghis Khan (there now, I wasn't even going to mention him). But these days the great leader's relevance in Mongolia is more prominent as a brand-name for beer, vodka, and cigarettes. Naadam is a colourful beacon for a lifestyle that has flourished under triumph and adversity for several thousand years, yet for all the skills I saw there, none impressed me more than the Mongols' ability to take time away from the extraordinarily rugged and beautiful steppes, and simply have a good day out.
Mark Stratton travelled courtesy of Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400; www.himalayankingdoms.com). The next 21-day Genghis Khan trek departs 27 June and costs from £2,950, including return flights and internal transport (including the Trans-Mongolian Express), accommodation in gers and hotels, most meals, and a Western trek leader.
The author flew to Beijing with Air China (0207 7440800; www.air-china.co.uk), which operates six non-stop flights per week from Heathrow, and has connections to Ulan Bator.
Naadam takes place between 11-13 July each year.
A visa to enter Mongolia costs £30 for a minimum of 30 days and is easy to obtain from the embassy at 7 Kennington Court, London W8 5DL (020-7937 0150; www.embassyofmongolia.co.uk).
Recommended reading: Mongolia (3rd Edition) Lonely Planet (£11.99).