A Space Odyssey

Outer Mongolia has almost a million miles of open prairie where nomads on horseback slowly roam, seeking ever greener pastures. But when he leaves the tranquil steppes, Mark Stratton discovers the nation's fighting spirit

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.

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.

The Facts

Getting there

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.

Further information

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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform