Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wrestling with the Local Culture

I peered through the opening of the tent, intrigued and anxious. Outside, a tinny amplification of traditional Mongolian folk music reverberated across the small, festively decorated square that paled in comparison to the vast expanse of steppe around us. A number of young Mongolian girls in matching dress were dancing in unison in front of massed crowds from across the province. Obstructing my view from inside the tent were numerous large Mongolian men, wearing nothing but colored underpants, bolero-like tops tied on with string, and bizarre pointed hats. Even more bizarre, I was wearing the same attire, and couldn’t have looked more out of place. I was watching the opening ceremony of the famous Mongolian Naadam Festival, and I was watching it from the competitors’ tent. Naturally, I wondered how on earth I had ended up here.

Naadam is the highlight of every Mongolian’s year: everyone looks forward to it for half the year, and then reminisces about it for the other half. Ostensibly a local sports event but, more importantly, a time when all families reunite to celebrate, feast on prized marmot meat, and drink airag (fermented mare’s milk), Naadam can be best described as a cross between the Olympics and Christmas. Like much of Mongolian culture, the tradition has remained mostly unchanged for thousands of years, and one can easily imagine Genghis Khan riding to his local Naadam to compete in the wrestling competition, as I was about to do.

This was to be my final week in Mongolia, and was without doubt the highlight of my experience. I had been living for eight weeks in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s buzzing, cosmopolitan capital city, interning with the UB Post, the country’s largest English-language publication. In such a young city, both demographically and in terms of the spontaneous, unregulated nature of its society and economy, I was able to do whatever I liked as an intern, publishing more than a dozen stories which I chose, researched, conducted interviews for, and wrote from start to finish, as well as getting involved with editing and layout for the paper.

The family I lived with in Ulaanbaatar had now taken me along on their pilgrimage to stay with their parents in “The Countryside.” For Mongolians, “The Countryside” is everything outside Ulaanbaatar, more than half a million square miles of wilderness where more than half of Mongolians live in traditional ger dwellings—circular tents padded with sheep’s wool. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world, and one can easily drive for days and not see another soul. Every ger is nearly identical: the door points south and a stove in the center serves both heating and cooking purposes; a couple of thin mattresses, tiny stools, and a Buddhist shrine make up the rest of the average Mongolian’s furniture. All other belongings, from clothing to toiletries, are tucked under the latticed ropes that hold up the roof.

For me, living for a week in a ger was a stunning experience. Each morning I would wake up to a crisp breeze blowing into the ger through the gap in the roof by the chimney. I would wash myself with water from the well, in the middle of a grand landscape of mountains and grasslands, which was utterly empty from horizon to horizon except for our small accommodation and the family’s herd of about a thousand livestock, with their breath condensing into a massive cloud of steam in the cold morning air.

On the first night, we slaughtered a sheep, and our meals for the following days consisted of eating every conceivable part of that animal and very little else. Rural Mongolians live entirely off their livestock—eating meat and dairy products, and drinking vast quantities of ubiquitous Mongolian milk tea. I certainly experienced authentic Mongolian cuisine on this trip, although my sensitive Western stomach didn’t always accept the strict nomadic diet.

Naadam occurred halfway through my week-long trip. About a thousand Mongolians from a hundred-mile radius attended the local festival where I was (somewhat remarkably given its unmarked location in the middle of the steppe with no roads or other landmarks to identify it), arriving either by Jeep or by horseback. My wrestling debut would happen in front of a crowd of people who had never met a white person before. I had never wrestled in my life, but my host family insisted that, as a young, able-bodied man, I should participate. (I was told that this was a matter of custom, although judging by the number of other young men who chose to sit back and drink vodka with their friends, and the hysterical laughter that overcame my host family, I think this may have been a ruse.) Naturally, I lost the fight. My opponent had 20 years of experience and about a hundred pounds on me; I stayed on my feet for a matter of seconds before being expertly flipped onto my back.

My experiences in this individual wrestling competition in the middle of the vast countryside typify in a strange way what I learned about Mongolian culture. Mongolians are fiercely independent and unshakably proud of their history and their culture. As I limped back to the tent to get re-clothed, the entire community cheered (despite my rather pathetic effort). Beaming, I felt welcomed. In credit to the friendliness of these people with whom I could barely communicate, and in spite of the fact that, both geographically and culturally, I couldn’t have been further from Boston, I felt at home.

James Watkins ’16 is the outreach chair, an executive board member, and a regular contributor to the Harvard International Review. He spent the summer working at The UB Post with funding from the Jaromir Ledecky International Journalism Fellowship.

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