It was the end of our first week in Ulaanbaatar and my colleagues and I were looking forward to getting out of the town to refresh battered senses with some idyllic countryside. But we still had a Friday evening to kill, and another few hours nursing beers at the Grand Khaan Irish Pub didn’t really appeal. Luck for us, due to the recent presidential inauguration, there were some festivities going on, including a wrestling bout in the arena just down the street from the hotel, so we decided to check it out.
Wrestling is one of Mongolia’s three “manly skills,” along with horsemanship and archery, and it’s also the most popular sport in the country. It’s said Chenggis Khaan thought it was a good way to keep his troops in shape. And from what we saw, he might have been on to something, although I feel for the horses these men might have been riding back then.
Inside the wrestling arena, just down the street from our hotel, we happened upon a strange site. Some 20 hulking men, dressed only in small blue briefs and red jackets of a sort or just red sleeves sans any jacket, were in the center of the arena, amid a few robe-and-hat wearing men. To my untrained eye, it seemed they were just walking around somewhat aimlessly. Maybe every now and again two of the men would lock arms and pushing against one another. All of this was accompanied by a constant drone of a Mongolian announcer. Sometimes one of the wrestlers would fall, sometimes not.
As I was standing in the stairwell, failing to make heads or tails of anything, I suddenly felt a hand grab my shoulder and pretty much jerk me backward, almost off my feet. I turned around indignantly, ready to rail against the rudeness of it all, when I saw that that hand belonged to a man about the size of a tank, whose way I was apparently in.
Our chosen stairwell turned out to be the one through which wrestlers who’d been knocked out of the competition, or maybe just taking a break, returned to their seats. In any event, they weren’t smiling and didn’t appear like they’d be receptive to a lecture on stadium etiquette. I kept my mouth shut and made sure I noticed who was approaching from behind so I could meekly stand aside in time.
These were big guys, some with Sumo wrestler stomachs, others solidly built like moving brick walls. I did find the uniforms odd – kind of like a Wonder Woman meets the Incredible Hulk.