Once my students learned of my interest in Mongolian wrestling, they walked me to the hanger-sized Altai City Sports Center, and introduced me to the local wrestlers. Even though they were preparing for Naadam, a handful of days away, they allowed me to hover around practice with my camera. After a couple of days, and much to my delight, the hulking Mongols invited me to participate in their training, after they judged me to be sincere, and sturdy enough to handle the punishment! We warmed up by slapping our thighs in a squat, then sprinting half the length of the gym, and ending in ritualistic dances depicting various winged creatures: falcon, hawk, or garuda. When sweat started to bead, and muscles became sufficiently supple, we paired off according to size, and locked horns for the next two hours. We walked our partners back and forth, probing for openings in their defense, while keeping our limbs from becoming handles. They complimented my strength and grit, but made short work of me, due to my lack of experience and technique. I was slammed repeatedly onto, and sometimes into the wooden gym floor, with only a thin, musty rug as buffer! Along with scrapes, bruises, a stiff neck, and hefty scantily clad friends, I limped away from my session with deep respect and an insiders appreciation, for this obscure form of combat.
Two days before Naadam, saw the unveiling of a bronze ram statue, the proud symbol of the Gov-Altai Province, to kick off Altai City’s 70th Anniversary festivities. Locals packed the small square, on the corner of town, in anticipation of the identity of the massive tarp covered protrusion, installed in secrecy the night before. Children scrambled onto the newly tiled rim of the fountain, and threw fistfuls of water at each other. Chattering teens, converged in circles, sneaked curious glances over their shoulders, at the two foreign teachers their friends rumored of. Ancient ones, with sand etched faces, shimmered in deels, encrusted with medals and buckles, leaned into each other, sharing murmurs. Suddenly, the lights dimmed, calling the bustling crowd to a hushed attention. A spotlight was thrown on two plump men, who drew bows across morin khuurs, calling their wooden horse-head violins to neigh, like their real-life counterparts. A raven-haired beauty, spilling out of her scarlet sequined gown, sashayed in from the night, and moaned her melodies, to the mesmerized masses. With a thunderous crackle, a barrage of fiery stars bloomed above, breaking the siren’s spell, and igniting glittery-eyed wonder in young and old alike. As sparkles showered in from the blackness, the square’s crowning centerpiece was revealed in all its glory! Wild applause rose around the new bronze ram, proudly sporting the biggest set of gonads we have ever seen, in all our travels!
The eve of Naadam, was a day of medal presentations, galas, and banquets, for visitors, and locals to occupy themselves with. It was nice to step inside, to the warmth of shoulder-to-shoulder-standing-room-only venues, for these festivities, from the crisp breeze outside. Much pomp was made to honor Altai City’s finest for their achievements in the past year. The grand opening of the Shuteenii Undurlug Temple lit up the night with more fireworks! It sat, a glimmering gem, overlooking the city from its mountainside perch, with freshly bricked walkways, and a splendid sparkling fountain that shot colorful jets of dancing water high into the air! Shrieking children, damp in the frigid night, crawled across stoney backs of life-sized lion guardians, while their grandparents beamed at the beauty of their new place of worship. A giant Buddha sat serenely in his square temple abode, brimming with the chanting devout, and their fragrant flower offerings.