Sports with a twist in the land of Genghis Kahn

MongoliaEntertainment

KARAKORUM, Mongolia — The four massive wrestlers walked into a clearing in the middle of the Mongolian steppe. They wore the traditional outfit of brief — very brief — shorts and matching garment covering only the tops of their backs.

Nearby, a 9-year-old flew across the landscape whipping his horse's backside while being pursued by about 30 other 9-year-olds, one angrily grabbing at the lead boy's shoulder, trying to overtake him. It seemed surprisingly dangerous, considering their ages. Then again, this is the land of Genghis Khan.

Meanwhile, the wrestlers and child jockeys hoped archers aiming for nearby targets were true to their aim.

While cruising the roads of rural Mongolia last July, I stumbled onto one of its cultural gems. Mongolians believe Genghis Khan founded the Naadam Festival more than 800 years ago for military training.

It's held every July 11-13 in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, but I got lucky. I found three Naadams in the countryside where tourists are as few as TV cameras.

Here outside Karakorum, Genghis Khan's first supply base and the original capital, locals surrounded the wrestling ground. The wrestlers emerged from a tent, slapped their thighs and ran like defensive linemen to the front of the clearing.

The rules are simple. Whoever makes his opponent touch his elbow or leg to the ground wins. They clasp in a bear hug and try gaining leverage through quick movement or grasping of what little clothes are usually available. The range in abilities was vast: from the Naadam wrestling veterans to simple local herdsmen.

After winning, one massive wrestler walked to a flag in the corner of the area and danced around it with his arms outstretched. Following the "Eagle Dance," he grabbed dried cheese curds from a bucket and flung them to the audience.

My souvenir didn't last long. But my memory will last forever.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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