Bikini sumo wrestlers
Ulaanbaatar is a pretty interesting place... like a really huge shanty town in the middle of a country of vast empty steppes. Most of Mongolia's population lives in the city and it's growing really fast but most of the center feels very Soviet. The buildings remind me of the old apartment blocks I remember seeing in Ukraine but there are also a lot of really modern highrises popping up all over the place as well as a lot of ger neighborhoods as well. I was able to find a guesthouse to stay in for two nights but because of Naadam - their huge annual festival - everywhere was booked for the first night of the celebration. It really felt like the whole country had come to the city for a few days... the traffic was so horrendous that I got off of buses on several occasions because walking would be faster than staying on! After seeing no one and nothing for so many hours on the train, seeing gridlock here was just hard to comprehend.
So, when I got kicked out of the guesthouse for a night I ended up sleeping on the floor of this Irish guy's apartment who was offering space to others in my situation. Ordinarily I would have had no problem sleeping on the floor but I was told the only spot left was under the table... but in the morning, after a night of kicking the legs of the table and freaking out that the glass vase of flowers that was on the table would fall on me, I was a bit miffed to find that most of the floor of the living room was free and clear... and then it just got worse when I found a nice layer of water on the floor of the bathroom (it was coming out of the toilet) and that the shower only provided scalding hot water. Needless to say I was happy to take a bed back at the hostel the next day. ;)
Since we were told that the festival was sold out and it would be very hard to get tickets off the street, I splurged and paid for an overpriced tour to go to the Naadam celebrations. A bunch of us loaded onto a bus and fought with the gridlock trying to get to the stadium for an hour before giving up and walking the rest of the way. We got there just after the president had given the opening speech but it was OK since we couldn't understand anything anyway. The opening ceremonies were pretty impressive with thousands of costumed performers - singers, dancers, warriors simulating battles, etc. We were in the nosebleed seats but the stadium wasn't all that big so were able to see quite a bit. Photos were a bit hard to get but one of my friends had a great zoom so I'm hoping to get some good ones from her. The wrestling started after the ceremony with some huge sumo wrestler-type guys fighting some really skinny guys - they don't seem to have weight classes here. They all wear these funny bikini outfits and seem quite proud of their fat rolls. ;) It wasn't all that exciting though ... they just kind of danced around each other for a few minutes and then one of them - usually the bigger one - threw the other one on the ground. After about 15 minutes we were ready to move on to the archery. I really loved the traditional dress the competitors were wearing but it was hard to get good photos without other tourists in the background. They/we were everywhere and the officials didn't seem to care that we were literally inches away from the archers!
After archery, we checked out the anklebone shooting which is basically flicking a little bone (probably from a sheep I think) with your finger to try to hit another little bone that is sitting on a platform a few meters away. It's amazing that something so basic is a national sport! We were soon bored of that so we loaded back on the buses and drove about 50km out of the city to the horse racing area. Kids - boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 16 - ride horses for about 25km out in the countryside as fast as they can. Everyone is bareback and only a handful wore helmets. Armed guards kept us quite far away from the course but it was still quite exciting and the area was really beautiful. When the leaders started to appear over the distant hills we could see their dust being kicked up even though we couldn't see them yet ... like an army coming from far away to attack. ;) It was great to see tons of Mongolian families picnicking (some were there with whole sheep that they planned to slaughter and roast right there) in the steppe, just waiting for the few minutes when the horses would come by. Every once in a while we saw a horse galloping without a rider which was quite disturbing. There were some cars that were following the horses but I never saw an ambulance or any other kind of medical help. I think if you fall off, you're pretty screwed.
Luckily I had brought my umbrella because there were no bushes, trees or even any little hills to hide behind if you needed a toilet... I ended up using two umbrellas to shield myself... while my friend snapped photos and cracked up. :) All in all, it was a great day but I still hope to catch a smaller Naadam festival in the countryside somewhere because you can get a lot closer to the competitions... but it all depends on the timing because they have their celebrations on various days throughout July.
So, now my mission is to find others that want to travel out to Western Mongolia which is the remotest (and most beautiful) part of the country. It takes about 30 days to do a trip out there, stopping in the Gobi desert on the way, visiting a bunch of the national parks in the west (Altai Mountains right on the border) and then coming back via the northern part of the country and seeing the famous Lake Khovsgol. I've recruited two others willing to do the trip but we need at least one more to split costs with. The guesthouses in UB arrange budget tours for people like us... everything included with a guide and driver (in a Russian minivan) for about $40 per day if you have 5 people. So we'll see...