Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Tuesday 11th to Saturday 22nd July
We boarded the train at Irkutsk ready to head for the border, and on to Ulaanbaatar. Within a few minutes we’d discovered that some of our companions from previous legs of the Trans-Mongolian trip were sharing our train. With the ice already broken, and conversation flowing, this finally felt a little bit like the train ride that Hollywood had taught us to expect.
Farewell to Lake Baikal (view from the train)
The border crossing was uneventful, and nothing like as sinister as we’ve been indoctrinated to believe. But, crossing in the dark, we had to wait until morning before we could get a glimpse of the Mongolian countryside.
We woke, after just three hours’ sleep, with the low sun streaming into the cabin. Outside, the landscape was transformed. Undulating grassland, dotted with gers, and the occasional herd of sheep, cows, or horses from horizon to horizon. We’d stepped (get it?) straight into a poster image of Mongolia.
Alighting in Ulaanbaatar, we shared a cab up to the Secret Garden Hotel, where we were to be based for the week, for £23 a night.
A horseman at Naadam
Our arrival coincided with the annual Naadam festival, which runs every year on the 11th and 12th of July. Naadam is a festival of the manly Mongolian pursuits: horse riding, wrestling, and archery. Though in recent times they’ve also added the less manly, but equally exciting, ankle bone throwing. Despite modern Mongolia’s fairly gender-equal stance, women are only allowed to take part in the archery contest.
After crashing out for a few hours, we walked into town and down to the Naadam Stadium. There were hordes of people, and around the stadium was like a carnival free-for-all. Countless stalls peddling identical trinkets; strength challenges; children’s rides; craps games set up on cardboard boxes in the dirt; nomad horsemen with their charges, watching proceedings. I’d say it was pandemonium, but actually it was all very polite and ordered, albeit very busy.
Hannah loved watching the feats of strength
Eventually, we made our way through to the stadium, where the wrestling was taking place. 512 wrestlers were competing in elimination rounds over two days to reach an eventual winner. So in front of us were plenty of matches to watch, even if we could only just work out what was going on.
A wrestler performs an eagle dance while a soldier looks on
Prior to each bout, the wrestlers would perform a ceremonial eagle dance; and after they would hug and shake hands. All of the aggression was limited to the bout itself, where the wrestlers would grapple and try to throw their opponent to the ground.
A few minutes after we were settled, a wind storm kicked up, filling the air with dust and grit and sending giant parasols sailing into the crowds. A short downpour quelled the storm, and we were quickly drying out in the hot sun again.
After a while we sought out the archery stadium, to watch some of the ladies’ competition. Each archer shot 40 arrows at a row of leather tumblers on the ground. Phil found it mesmerising. Hannah read her book. I think in this case, both of us were right.
That evening, there was a giant free open air concert on Chinggis Square, so, fed and watered, we made our way there to join in the festivities. We were treated to an audio visual extravaganza! There was a huge stage set up, covered in LED screens, with techno and hard house music filling the square. Somewhat incongruously, this was an alcohol-free, family friendly affair. I guess little kids like electro here!
The free open air party on Chinggis Square
The festivities closed with a late night firework display over Ulaanbaatar, which we watched from our hotel window, having sloped away, exhausted, before the end of the show.
We returned to the stadium the next day to watch some of the men’s archery, and catch some of the anklebone throwing competition which we had missed the day before.
Anklebone throwing is like a tiny version of skittles, or perhaps more like bar billiards, where teams compete to throw a sheep’s anklebone five or so metres to hit a diminishing row of anklebones.
The anklebone throwing competition
Unexpectedly, the atmosphere was amazing. To encourage their teammates, all the participants continually throat-sing, creating a constant drone, punctuated by cheers after a particularly good throw.
One thing that stood out was the incredibly encouraging nature of the games. All participants were encouraged and praised. It was apparent that there was no great shame in losing. While winners were granted accolades, and attained rank through their skills; there didn’t appear to be any real losers, as such. It struck us a very magnanimous approach to competition – one from which many western sports could, I’m sure, learn a thing or two.
Teammates throat-singing in encouragement
That night we decided to try the North Korean-themed restaurant, Pyongyang. This was recommended by both Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, so we should have known not to expect much. Nevertheless, we were still surprised to be served completely the wrong dishes (one of which I swear was covered in Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour sauce). We were duly ‘entertained’ by the waitresses painfully getting through North Korean karaoke songs. Notably, our only companions were other tourists, clearly having read the same reviews. Then we were charged three times the going rate for our meals.
The next day we were both struck by iffy bellies. As expected. Travelling lesson number 32: Don’t rely on the tourist books.
Almost all the other places we’ve eaten have been good to at least ok, and mostly pretty cheap. Our method being: if we like the name, try it.
Thursday we spent on admin and sorting out our train tickets into China; then on Friday we visited the rather good National Museum of Mongolia, to soak up a bit of culture.
Next week, we’ll be heading to a modern Mongolian music festival in the countryside, and day tripping out of Ulaanbaatar.
Hannah and Phil x