Let the Games Begin
A summer expedition to Mongolia is the ideal time to discover the country’s traditional sporting heritage.
The Great Khan believed wrestling to be a vital way to keep his army fit and combat-ready.
The beauty of Mongolia in summer is mesmerising, with endless miles of wide, treeless valleys carpeted in green and patterned by the shadows of clouds. Occasionally, the scene is tweaked by the glint of sunlight in a stream, or a lonely dome of white felt. Ger, the portable homes of Mongolia’s pastoral people, dot the landscape. Little has changed since the days of Chinggis Khan, they remain the abode of choice for more than half the country’s population.
Where horses once reigned supreme, travel across the steppe today is mostly by Japanese jeep. Driving is a respected trade in Mongolia; in a country where most roads are merely tracks in the grass, your driver must also be an accomplished mechanic and navigator. Navigation is via the points of the compass, cleverly aided by the custom that the front door of a ger always faces south. However, the horse still looms large in the culture. Mongolian pop stars sing ballads about them, and steppe children are practically born in the saddle. The best young riders compete in gruelling long-distance races across the grassland as part of the summer festival known as Naadam, which unfolds in remote communities all over the country each July.
Extravaganza on the Plains
Making arrangements to travel to one of many traditional Naadams is the cultural highlight of a trip to Mongolia. Attendees come from far and wide, often by horse, dressed in their finest overcoats called deel, which are tied at the waist with a brightly patterned sash. It’s one of the few occasions each year when folks in the world’s least densely populated country come together, have fun, share news and perhaps even find marriage suitors. The jovial atmosphere is not unlike Royal Ascot or the Kentucky Derby, with seating stands arranged around a circular arena where the locale’s VIP guests sip salty milk tea and eat dried curds of cheese called Aaruul as they watch the spectacle unfold over three days.
Horse racing comprises one of the “three manly sports”, together with wrestling and archery. These pastimes hark back to an age when the mounted warriors of Chinggis Khan ruled an empire that reached all the way to the fringes of Western Europe. The Great Khan believed wrestling to be a vital way to keep his army fit and combat-ready. There are no weight classes, time limits or age limits, but simply a battle of strength, skill and endurance in Mongolian wrestling, in which the goal is to force your opponent’s upper body, knee or elbow to touch the ground. Mismatches are common, and the biggest cheer is always reserved for the bouts when leaner wrestlers outwit heftier opponents.
Archery is played by both men and women; with fewer practitioners these days, it is often staged mostly for exhibition purposes. By contrast, a type of ancient parlour game where players attempt to knock over targets by flicking shagai (sheep ankle bones) remains a highly competitive pastime for men attending the festival, drawing keen crowds and often getting its own tournament venue.
The biggest Naadam event in the country is held in the capital city Ulaanbaatar every July. It features a glittering opening ceremony at the National Stadium and over 1,000 wrestlers doing battle, and at least as many horses and infant jockeys racing. A short walk from the festivities in the centre of town, the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar is the perfect base from which to enjoy a singularly unique cultural sporting spectacle recently added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
Fit for a Khan
The 290-room Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar is the city’s latest luxury five-star international hotel and doubtless the finest accommodation the country has known since the grand tented palaces of Karakorum, Chinggis Khan’s 13th-century capital in the Orkhon Valley, of which barely a trace remains today. Choose a north-facing room for magisterial views over grand Chinggis Square or face south to gaze at the green hills encircling the city, and see if you can spot Chinggis Khan himself, his stoic face carved into the hillside.
In tribute to Mongolia’s sporting heritage, the hotel has named its bar and grill restaurant Naadam; an intimate, wood-panelled space in which to enjoy Western comfort food, live music and the city’s best vodka menu either indoors or al fresco on the terrace. Hutong, soon to open in October 2015, will introduce Mongolia to the finest dishes of northern China, including authentic Peking Duck, Clay Pot Stews, and a cellar of international wines. Beside the chandelier-strewn lobby, Café Park offers exemplary buffet dining that draws on culinary influences from East Asia and beyond.
After returning from an exhilarating expedition, there is no treat more luxurious on the steppe than resting weary limbs in the sauna, steam room or Jacuzzi, then slipping between crisp sheets in the feather-soft Shangri-La beds. Together with touches of local hospitality like in-room welcome treats of sweetened Aaruul and Mongolian tea, it’s enough to make you feel like a Khan yourself.
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I have tried to book your hotel during the summer of 2016 and you do not seem to have space during the Naadam festival.