Mongolian wrestling is similar to wrestling found elsewhere, except that there are no weight divisions, so the biggest wrestlers (and they are big!) are often the best. Monglian wrestling also has no time limit – the bout will continue, with short breaks, until the first wrestler falls, and anything but the soles of his feet and open palms touch the ground.
Before each elimination bout, wrestlers limber up and honour the judges and their individual attendants (zasuul - besides seeing fair play for his wrestler and holding his hat, it is the job of the attendant to proclaim his skills and issue challenges on his behalf) with a short dance called a devekh, or ‘eagle dance’ (the wrestler stretches out his arms like an eagle’s wings in representation of Garuda, King of Birds). After the bout, the loser must take off his jacket and walk under the right arm of the winner, who then makes a lap of honour around the flag on a pedestal and does some more eagle dancing.
Wrestlers wear heavy boots called gutals - similar to the traditional boots worn by ordinary Mongolians. The tight, unflattering pants are called shuudag, and the small vest across the shoulders is a zodog. Winners are bestowed glorious depending on how many rounds they win: Falcon (five rounds), Elephant (seven) and Lion (for winning the tournament). One renowned wrestler was given the most prestigious, and lengthy, title of the ‘Eye-Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty and Invincible Giant’.
By tradition, the wrestlers enter the arena from the left or the right, the left being the north-east (sunrise) corner.
You will see plenty of wrestling if you are in Mongolia during the Naadam Festival, or during the Ikh Sorilgo (Major Test) tournaments in the weeks before Naadam.
Like horse racing, the sport of archery orignates from the era of almost constant war, starting from around the 11th century.
Archers use a bent bow made of layered horn, bark and wood. Usually, arrows are made from willow, arrowheads from bone, and the feathers are from vultures and other birds of prey.
Traditionally dressed male archers stand 75m (women usually 60m) from the target. The target is sometimes a line of 360 round leather grey, red and/or yellow rings (known as a sur) on the ground, but usually there are only about 20 to 40. After each shot, special judges who stand near the target (but miraculously) never get injured) emit a short cry called a uukhai, and raise their hands in the air to indicate the quality of the shot. The winner who hits the targets the most times is declared the best archer, or mergen.
Probably no people have more intimate understanding of, and pride in, their horses than Mongolians, who greatly depend on them for sustenance and transport.
There are normally six categories of horse racing, depending on the age of the horses: for example, a two-year-old horse, called a shudlen, will race for 15km, and six- and seven-year-old azrag and ikh nas horses go for up to 30km. There are no tracks or courses; it is just open countryside. The horses in each category are taken from the starting line to some designated landmark a suitable distance away, and then race back. Jockeys – boys and girls aged between 5 and 13 years old – prepare for months for special races, particularly at Naadam, and horses are fed a special diet for weeks beforehand.
Before a race, the audience, all decked out in traditional finery, often sings traditional songs. The young riders sing a traditional anthem called a gingo before the race, and scream ’Goog’ at the horses during the race.
The winner is declared tummy ekh, or ‘leader of ten thousand’. The five winning horses are admired and talked about in reverence by the crowd, and traditional poems are read out extolling the virtues of riders and trainers. The five winning riders must drink some special airag, which is then often sprinkled on the riders’ heads and on the horses’ backsides. During Naadam, a song is also sung to the two-year-old horse which comes last.
Other Sports & Games
Football (soccer) is played in Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet and Darkhan, but the game is still not as popular as in most countries. Boxing tournaments are held in major cities, and basketball is increasingly popular – it is not unusual to see a ring and backboard in the most remote places. Stadiums in Ulaanbaatar and various sports palaces around Mongolia sometimes hold live sporting events. The country’s first golf course is just south of Ulaanbaatar, but it is probably a long time before we will see the start of the annual Mongolian Open.
THE ANKLEBONE SHOOTING GAME *
1. Number of players: Unlimited 2. Number of bones: Unlimited 3. Types of bone: sheep, goat, horse and camel, in that order (although many sets only have sheep and goat bones) 4. The youngest player is the first to begin. 5. The first player picks up the bones and tosses them up into the air onto a flat surface (usually a table or the floor) 6. With any finger, the player must try to knock one kind of bone with another of the same type (sheep-sheep, goat-goat, horse-horse, camel-camel) 7. If the player fails to touch the second bone, or hits a third bone, or hits a bone of a different type, he loses his turn. 8. If the player is successful, he picks up and keeps either one of the two bones with his other hand - which must be empty – and takes another turn. If the player picks up a bone with the hand he shot with, or if he is already holding a bone in the other one, he must forfeit his turn. 9. When a player loses his turn, the next player must pick up the bones and toss them up into the air. 10. When there are just two to four bones left, all of a different type, players take turns tossing them up into the air until two have fallen into a similar position. The player then attempts to knock them successfully. This goes on until the last two bones have been knocked out. 11. The player who knocks out the last two bones receives two extra bones from each player. 12. If, at the end of a round, a player has no bones, he is eliminated. 13. The rounds continue until one person captures all the bones and his opponent has none.
It may appear impossible, in a final match, for one person to collect all the bones, but like professional pool and snooker players, good anklebone shooters can often ‘run the table’.
The Anklebone Shooting Game resembles Croquignol (Pichenotte in the Quebecois dialect) in technique and style, if not in rules. The most amazing thing about this game is that all the bones look alike to me, but Mongolians are able to tell a sheep bone from a goat bone without batting an eyelash!
P.S. If you withdraw four bones from a bag, and they’re all different – sheep, goat, horse and camel -, then you’ll have good luck!
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet – Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 90-92.
Sanders & Bat-Ireedui’s Colloquial Mongolian – The Complete Course for Beginners, First Edition, Routledge, London, 1999, pp. 184-186.
* Daniel Andre Roy.