STEPPING OUT ONTO THE MONGOLIAN STEPPES
Chinggis Khaan sits astride his powerful stead clutching a golden whip in his right hand. This behemoth statue of the legendary 13th century Golden Horde leader (who we know as Genghis Khan) rises 40m from on top of the 10m visitors centre and is fashioned from 250 tonne of stainless steel.
Our guide Undra proudly says, "Chinggis united the tribes of the steppes, named them Mongols and with an army of 100,000 skilled horsemen conquered the most powerful civilizations of the time. What is less known is he introduced written script, religious freedom, and sought to incorporate universal political and economic systems." Today he symbolizes united strength to Mongolians, making this a significant stop en-route to our overnight stay in a nomad community.
Sanjay, our driver, pulls onto the dusty road again. The vast steppes (grasslands) give a sense of infinity; distant gers (yurts) appear as white dots with patches of grazing sheep and cattle. Of the country's 2.75 million citizens 30% are nomadic or semi-nomadic.
Arriving at a small cluster of gers, Undra leads us to the main ger of our host family. We are famished, but not for long. Okto, the lady of the house, spoons out delicious mutton, cabbage and noodle soup, plus buuz (steamed dough filled with minced meat and onion).
All meals are cooked in a well-worn steel wok that fits over the woodstove/ger heater, which also serves as a basin to wash the dishes. Water is hauled from a community well a kilometre away. Yet modernity has found its way into today's nomadic lifestyle. A satellite dish bleeps signals to their flat-screen TV, an electric washing machine stands in one corner, and Okto answers calls on her cell phone.
The sound of galloping horses and cheering crowds draws us down the street to where a mini-Nadaam is going on. What luck! This is the next best thing to the National Nadaam Festival held annually July 12th and 13th, where participants from all over Mongolia compete in horse-riding, archery (once only for males, but now open to females) and wrestling (still only for the testosterone gender).
As we join the circle of spectators, five young winners of the horse race are honoured in the traditional way - a medal and drink of airag (fermented mare's milk), and for the horse a splash of airag on his backside. One young fellow looks about five and a girl not much older, fitting the 5-13 age-group common for jockeys.
Wrestling begins. A dozen men strut out. Only one wears the traditional wrestling costume comprised of a blue Speedo-type bottom, and top covering his arms and back. Undra chuckles, "The chest of a wrestler is exposed as once long ago a strong woman entered the competition disguised as a man, so is an insurance against this happening again."
Wrestling in pairs, winners are pitted against winners, until the final match between the fellow in traditional garb and an agile opponent with six-pack abs. They lock in a slow dance, until blue-bottoms makes a quick clever move - and wins! With arms stretched he soars like an eagle around the national flag to celebrate his victory.
Towards evening Okto's husband Dasha arrives home. He has a dynamic presence, but like Okto speaks no English. When Undra reveals he is a Shaman, I am somehow not surprised. My spine tingles as he relates through Undra how he deals with 77 sky spirits, calling them down with the well-worn drum hanging from the ceiling; his body a channel for their healing powers and wisdom.
Before bedtime Dasha starts a fire in the stove of our guest ger, and wool blankets are heaped on our beds. Heavy rain bombards the roof through the night and in the morning chill we move at Superman speed to get ready for the day.
After breakfast the table is spread with dried sheep ankle-bones for a game of Shagai. The four sides of each bone has a distinctive look and given the names "sheep", "goat", "camel" and "horse". When your turn, the aim is to plink a specific animal against the same animal without touching another bone - for which you get to keep one of the two bones in the play. A tie is declared between Sanjay and me when it is sadly time to say our goodbyes. The gracious hospitality shown us by our Mongolian family plucked at our heartstrings and the timelessness and the sense of infinity of the steppes are forever ingrained in our memories.
IF YOU GO:
" The steppes make up most of Mongolia's terrain, spiked by mountains to the north and west, and the Gobi desert to the south.
" Chinggis Khaan Statue complex at Tsonjing Boldog is 54km from Ulaanbaatar. It was completed in 2008 with 36 columns around the base - one for each of the historic Khaans, from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan.
Where to Stay: Suggested accommodation in Ulaanbaatar: Kharaa Hotel www.kharaahotel.com
Photo credits: Rick Butler
1 Irene & Undra at Genghis Khan Statue
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