Information for Australians to visit Mongolia and for Mongolians to know what others would say about our country.
Rock and roll wrestling in nomad’s land
Cheese vodka, restless yaks and dirty, drunken grappling; just another Saturday night in Weirdest Mongolia for travel author Tamara Sheward.
It was the most unlikely disco on earth.
With the moon as mirror ball, yaks for bouncers and animistic chanting in lieu of Top 40, it was also the weirdest disco on earth. But weird is why people come to Mongolia, one of the world’s most obscure destinations.
I’d come to get a break from Russia, which I’d been criss-crossing for three months, and to give my liver a rest from the Russians and their vodka-centric hospitality. I’d imagined Mongolia to be an almost desperately quiet place, serene with its ancient Buddhism and population of peaceful nomads. I saw myself gently trotting across the steppes on small native horses and breezily adjusting to the taste of the staple thirst-quencher airag, fermented mare’s milk.
I did not, however, imagine I’d find myself rolling down a hill in a wrestler’s embrace with a pissed descendant of Genghis Khan and a bottle of cheese vodka under my belt.
We’d arrived at the isolated Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nurr National Park, after four days of aimless driving around the wilds of Mongolia. Five of us – a 25-year old New Yorker, an Aussie couple en route to teaching jobs in China, an intrepid Englishman and I – had hired a local van driver with the improbable nickname “Ozzy” as our guide. We had no idea where Ozzy had actually taken us since leaving Ulaan Baatar, as Mongolia has virtually no paved roads outside the capital and what actual destinations there were – much of the country is free of permanent settlements – had names as impossible to fathom as that of the park’s. But we didn’t care much; one of the joys of Mongolia is the detachment it offers from realities like time and space, and as long as we found a welcoming ger (Mongolian nomad’s tent) to sleep in at the end of the day, location mattered naught.
We’d decided to camp at the park, an isolated playground of volcanic lakes and Martian hillscapes, instead of hunting out any nearby ger settlements, and were looking forward to a quiet night under the stars when the silhouettes appeared on the horizon. Despite three nights spent eating mutton and sharing progressively humble sleeping quarters with a miscellany of nomadic families, the novelty of contact with these elusive reminders of an erstwhile era hadn’t worn off, and we welcomed them – three nomads and their herd of yaks – to our campfire.
The men were dressed in traditional garb. Unlike Germans and their lederhosen or Australians in powdered wigs and pantaloons, Mongolians don’t reserve their national costume for special events. Grime-smeared with dust-crusted hair that stuck up in all directions, the men were nevertheless resplendent in long woollen gowns (del) tied with bright sashes and when we offered them a belt from my bottle of vodka (new habits die hard), their mood became as colourful as their apparel.
With no common language bar the Russian gesture for “Let’s drink!” (a light flick to the throat), East met West with loud slurps from the bottle and increasingly boozy smiles. As with the throat-flicking, Mongolians had adopted their former conqueror’s taste for vodka and were proving themselves equally adept at knocking it back.
“Finished?” I cried, as one of them, a cheeky-looking twentysomething, handed me the empty bottle. I shook my head sadly and prepared myself for the departure of our new friends.
But there’s no such thing as “finished” in Mongolia. Ever-resourceful, these are the same people that established the largest empire the world has ever known, using tiny horses and alarmingly garish hats. So it should have come as no surprise when one of them pulled two bottles of label-less, clear spirit out from under his robe. “Vodka, yes?”
I am unsure to this day if he was merely proffering the bottle or seeking confirmation as to its contents. In the latter case, the answer is a resounding “Not where I come from.” The so-called vodka tasted like Mongolian cheese which, like nearly everything else in the country, was made of warm, sour horse’s milk and reeked of mutton. But while cheese vodka will never overtake absinthe as the exotic drink of choice in trendy overseas bars, it went down a treat at the Khorgo Cabaret.
After entreating us via Ozzy for some Australian music, the men were soon bopping around the campfire to You Am I, not quite blasting out of Discman headphones amplified through an overturned glass. Half the bottle later, they were drowning out “Berlin Chair” with spontaneous attempts at khöömei, the famously tricky Mongolian throat singing. Culture swapping being the theme of the festivities, it only took them another two shots to introduce us to the oldest of national institutions: Wrestling.
Traditional Mongolian wrestling – boke, the country’s favourite “manly sport” – involves contestants dressed in what resemble ornate hotpants several sizes too small, grappling with each other for first prize, usually a live camel. Sadly, none of us had thought to pack glitzy trunks or dromedaries, so we wrestled for pride. Unfortunately, this too was in short supply, for the tourists anyway; no sooner had the match begun than the three wiry men had us five hulking Westerners pinned and flailing uselessly in the dirt. Boke philosophy dictates that size is irrelevant, but try telling that to a six-foot Queenslander who’s just been whupped by someone the size of Kylie Minogue.
Robbed of dignity and the chance to earn a really cool honorific (boke champions are conferred with elaborate titles, the most famous being “Eye Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty and Invincible Giant”), it was a relief when closing time was called by the impatient shuffling of the yaks. We waved goodbye to the warriors beneath the waning mirror ball and staggered, indescribably filthy and stinking of horse cheese, to our tents.
Just another Saturday night in Weirdest Mongolia.
Editor’s note: Tamara Sheward is the author of Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in Southeast Asia (Penguin 2003). She is currently working on her second book, a deranged look at modern Russia and those crazy Russians.
Mongolia’s national carrier, MIAT (wits in-the-know claim this stands for “Maybe It’ll Arrive Tomorrow”) offers flights between Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia’s only international airport) and Beijing, Moscow, Irkutsk (Siberia), Berlin, Tokyo, Osaka and Seoul (www.miat.com). Air China, Aeroflot and Korean Airlines also offer fairly regular services. The only way to enter Mongolia by land is on the Trans-Mongolian Railway service that links Beijing and Moscow. It’s a slow journey marked with frequent stops and delays (my train was held up for an hour while the driver picked up a clinking armful of “supplies” from a Mongolian border-house) , but worth every minute, if only to watch the utterly alien Mongolian landscape unfurl slowly out your greasy window.
Every Australian citizen needs a visa to visit Mongolia. See the visa section at http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/mongolia/mongolia_country_brief.html#visitor for full details.
There are organised package tours available in Mongolia, but if you want to experience the country in true, nomadic style, the best option is to hire an independent guide. But don’t just let any deadbeat off the street take you off into the wild unknown: most guesthouses in Ulaan Baatar (where you will undoubtedly be starting your journey) have guides available or can point you in the right direction.
While Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s seedy, sleepy capital city, offers a relatively wide range of accommodation options (check out Nassan’s Guesthouse at http://www.virtualtourist.com/vt/6d6/3/?o=3&i=3 ) finding a conventional hotel or guest house off the beaten track (read: anywhere outside of UB) is a different story. The occasional hotel pops up in populated settlements, but given that 96 % of Mongolia is unowned land, the country is a camping enthusiast’s wet dream.
Tourist ger camps, found near National Parks and other countryside attractions, give visitors the chance to live like a nomad. If nomads drank at pricey bars and sang karaoke, that is. Don’t waste your tögrögs; most nomads you happen upon will be only too happy to feed and house you for the night. Payment is not essential, but don’t be a cheapskate. A gift or token bakshish is always smiled upon, but should be given to the family’s children, who pass it discreetly on to the adults. Find out how not to make a boorish disgrace of yourself in a nomad’s ger at http://danielroy.tripod.com/cgi-bin/alternate/mongolia/gers.html .
http://www.mongoliatoday.com was set up by two Mongolian journalists “dedicated to the preservation of the centuries old unique culture of Mongol nomads”. As such, it features in-depth articles on history, current affairs and the trendsetting hairstyles of Genghis Khan.
Set up by the UB Post, Mongolia’s national independent weekly newspaper, Virtual Mongolia (http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/virtualmongolia/index.htm) is crammed with useful tidbits (visa info, travel tips, a language translator with every tongue but Mongolian) and interesting articles on everything from traditional costume to the history of the Mongolian 13th century postal service.
For something a damn sight less cerebral, check up on the doings of Mongolia’s version of Bigfoot at http://www.paranormality.com/alma.shtml . The Alma is said to be half-man, half-ape, sporting buck teeth and a “distasteful smell”.
Sports fans can learn about Naadam, the annual festival celebrating Mongolia’s three “manly sports” – wrestling (boke), archery and horseback riding – at http://www.gluckman.com/Naadam.html while the less-athletically-inclined can soak up all they need to know about the wonderful world of mutton, marmot and mare’s milk in an article that asks: Is Mongolian cuisine “The Worst Food in the World”? Find out at http://www.pilotguides.com/destination_guide/asia/mongolia/food.php.
The Australia Mongolia Society is a private organisation existing for the purpose of creating friendship and understanding between Australia and Mongolia. Contact: Mr Peter Sloane, P O Box 1731, North Sydney NSW 2060 on (02) 9966 1916 or fax: (02) 9966 1917.
The knowledgeable Mr Sloane is also the Honorary Consul-General of Mongolia, and can be contacted further on firstname.lastname@example.org .
Get Lonely Planet Language Guides