It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good job should refrain from entering into physical combat with his colleagues. I have always managed to adhere to this excellent policy in the past, and it was therefore with some surprise that I found myself facing up to a gent nearly twice my height with actual arm muscles. How on earth did it come to this?
It all started in my first week of work. I had been invited to some kind of an off-site work training event/Naadam celebration. At least, that’s what I believed it to be. When one moves to a new country utterly different to one’s own, one is often not really entirely sure what is going on. I just pack a towel, be at the place I’m told to be, when I’m told to be there, and toddle off with an open mind.
After an hour’s drive we arrived at an old communist-era rest and recreation camp that I was told had been once reserved for generals and their families. Sitting in a broad valley, it was surrounded by deep green forest; a light rain added to the atmosphere. A sow and her eight piglets rutted joyfully about, causing havoc in the manicured garden, but no-one seemed to mind.
The interior was a combination of austerity—unadorned concrete corridors with simple rooms branching off—and flamboyant art and architecture. In the entrance hall sat a large reception desk above which hung three clocks showing the current times in Ulaanbaatar, Moscow and Beijing—a nod to Mongolia’s former comrades in communism. On one of the dining room walls was a large bronze sculpture of Mongolian horses in full flight, forelegs outstretched. Next to them stood several archers in Mongolian clothing, one of them poised to loose his arrow into the distance. On the far wall were three enormous wrestlers, Slavic looking, watching grimly down over everyone as they ate. This seemed appropriate given that this was the week before Naadam, Mongolia’s most important holiday, and the three sports which the whole country stops to watch are horse racing, archery and wrestling.
After a two-hour training session on data management systems, the Naadam celebrations began. There were speeches and songs, vodka and khuushur (a kind of meat dumpling), and many, many gallons of airag—fermented mare’s milk—which had been specially brought in from the countryside. It is only 2–3 per cent alcohol, but packs quite the flavour punch—sour, sharp and horsey all at once.
The competitive games then began. But lacking horses, there was a running relay instead. Each team chose three pairs of boys and girls to hold hands and sprint around a circuit. We were narrowly second, pipped on the line. Also lacking bows and arrows, we played a game using hundreds of sheep anklebones. Finally, it was decided that the winning team would be decided by arm-wrestling. I wasn’t chosen by my team for that one, I’m not really sure why. I guess they may have been nervous that with my enormous biceps I would literally kill someone. It came down to the wire, but we won—sweet victory was ours.
And that was that, I thought—until the wrestling began. ‘We’re going to do wresting? You mean like more arm wrestling?’ I asked naively. Lots were cast, and the bouts began. A knockout format, the rules are simple: the person who first puts down any part of their body that isn’t a hand or a foot loses. The weedy guys were being knocked out one by one. And then came my turn. My opponent had at least 15 centimetres on me, and was built like the wrestlers in the dining-room art. Nonetheless, never one to lack undue confidence, I approached my opponent with a jaunty gait. The bout began, I kept my centre of gravity low, muscles like coiled springs. The next thing I knew, I was being placed delicately upon my derriere, not really sure where it had all gone wrong. My opponent, Bayaraa, was too fast, too strong, too good, and ended up coming equal first in the competition.
Further research has taught me that it is considered sound tactics for a smaller guy to get in quickly when facing up to a bigger guy, to get in a sneak attack before the bigger guy can get a hold. So perhaps I should have just launched a swift scissor-kick attack to the groin as soon as we started, and then claimed ignorance of the rules. However, I’m not even sure that would have worked. Most likely the best tactic would have been to simply sit down and then retreat to my airag, thereby saving everyone the trouble.
The bus back to UB was filled with chatter, impromptu karaoke and yet more airag. It was a lovely day with lovely people. Little do they know however, that I have begun my training for next year—by then I should be able to kick like a mule.
(with thanks to Undram for the excellent photos)
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