Mongolian Independence Day. It celebrates them gaining independence from China in 1921. The biggest thing going on today? Wrestling! More specifically Mongolian Wrestling. Mongolian wrestling is a traditional style of wrestling that has been practiced in Mongolia for centuries and is one of Mongolia’s "Three Manly Skills". The other two are archery and horsemanship. It is a big deal here.
The matches happen all year but on Independence Day they have the biggest one. Boldbaatar, one of the teachers at my school, organized for a group of us to go. The tickets cost 5000 tugrig (about 5 dollars) for five hours of wrestling fun. It was very much a man think. There were about 200 men for every woman inside. There were also very few non-Mongolians. Shoving your way into the Wrestling palace was interesting. Not only was there shoving but in between you sort of had to run to keep up with the crows. We were there a half hour early but that wasn’t nearly early enough. We ended up behind the camera crews for Mongolian Television.
The Mongolian National Anthem was played by the Army band. In case you are wondering the Mongolian National Anthem is called M"ongol ulsyn töriin duulal":
Our unwavering independent nation
All Mongols' sacred ancestry
All world's good deeds
Always stable, forever continue
With all honest nations of the world
Strengthen our bonds
With all our will and strength
Let's develop our beloved Mongolia
Our great nation's symbol blesses
The people's fate supports
Our ancestry, culture and language
Let's forever cherish and prosper
Bright people's of brave Mongolia
Have freedom and happiness
Key to happiness, column for prosperity
ur great country prosper
After that the refs (in full on traditional dells) and then the wrestlers marched in. There were about a hundred of them. The outfits were great and supposed to reflect simplicity and mobility. First there is the Jodag which is a tight, collarless, heavy-duty short-sleeved jacket of red or blue color. The wrestlers buy their own outfits so they choose which color they like best and which variation of the color that they like. Some of the reds are almost pink and the blues can be anything from purple to bright turquoise. The front is open, but tied at the back with a simple string knot, thus exposing the wrestler’s chest. I was told that the reason for the shape of the vest has to do with the fact (or legend, whatever) once a wrestler after defeating all other wrestlers and ripped open the jodag to reveal her breasts. This of course did not make the manly Mongolians happy and so from then in the vest was open so that everyone can always be sure that all the wrestlers are male. They also wear Shuudag which are small, tight-fitting briefs that make the wrestler more mobile. They look like blue or red tighty whitey. I am told that the style also has to do with not letting an opponent have the advantage of fabric to grab onto or trip on. However, the wrestlers grab onto fabric of the jodag all the time so clearly that isn’t against the rules and the style isn’t completely successful in preventing it. The last part of the costume are the Gutal, which are leather boots, either in traditional style which has upturned toes. I have talked to some people who would like to buy some of these boots (as they are super warm) buy haven’t as the boots don’t have right or left soles. It might be a small thing but I think westerners are so used to shoes fitting a certain way that shoes that are different are just too much to get used to. The boots are reinforced around the sides with leather strings.
The wrestlers were introduced one by one. As there were so many of them it took a really long time. There were some that got tons of cheers and some others that got crickets. Maybe some of them brought their whole families. Or perhaps there are large fan bases for some of them. Wrestling is on television here all the time so it would be easy to follow. Especially, if you spoke Mongolian. After the introduction the wresters dispersed into the crowd to change. While this was going on a traditional Mongolian band started playing. I have said it before and I will say it again. Mongolians are very very musical.
At any one time there are about ten couples of wrestlers on the floor. It basically looks like chaos and it is hard to know where to look. Having said that it is also fairly fascinating. The wrestlers come out and do this strange eagle dance around the refs. After that they run around the flagpole. Slap their thighs and do some more eagle dancing. I think that the origins of this have to do with Mongolia’s history before Buddhism when they were more shamanistic. The point of imitating animals was more religious at that point. Now, it is more of a ritual as well as a warm up and cool down.
A pair of wrestlers hand their hats to the refs. Did I mention that they are wearing one of the traditional Mongolian hats? There is a top to bottom rank which means at first there are a whole lot of skinny fat combinations. Mongolian men in general are pretty big and the wrestlers are humongous. Not steroids huge though. They have more of a second helping of mutton build going on. The point is to get the other wrestler to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground. There are no weight classes or time limits in a match. Again that means skinny fat combos. It also means matches can last a really long time. Each wrestler must wrestle once per round, the winners moving on to the next round. The rounds sort of run into each other After the fight is over the loser passers under the arm of the loser and takes the hat from the ref. The ref hands the hat to the winner who again begins the victory eagle dance to begin the whole process again.
The refs were also interesting to watch. They had three or four matches to watch at any one time. Hey also seem to be required to slap each of the competitors on the butt at least once during the match. Of course sometimes they were not all that attentive. Technology has invaded Mongolia along with the rest of the world and at least twice I saw a ref on his cell phone when he should have been watching a match. And of course not everything went smoothly. Because there were so many matches going on at one time the wrestlers were constantly bumping into each other. Sometimes the refs themselves were also taken out and once I saw one of the matched degenerate into an actual fight before it was broken up by the “ultimate judge”.
So that was how I spent my Mongolian Independence Day. I have to admit that I still am not sure about the rules and some of the rituals made me giggle, not to mention that I still don’t know who won. Maybe I will see it on television later and finally be able to figure it out! All in all it was one more “essential” Mongolian experience to add to the great day to day experience that I am having every day.