Mongolian Rebound

The vaunted Wrestlers Palace in central UB.

Dear Friends,

While in Mongolia, I began to feel unwell, which precipitated several visits to several Doctors both in Ulaanbaatar and back here in Irkutsk. I seem to periodically suffer from excessive fatigue. It comes and goes, and it remains unclear what the culprit is. We continue to investigate. So, a post I began early in April, is now just hitting the presses!

I have survived my latest trek into one of Asia’s most beautiful and fascinating countries, Mongolia. It is pleasant indeed to be back in Siberia, with my favorite Native and wife, Yulia the lovely. But before I entirely take my leave, I thought I would share a side of Mongolia which maybe you have not yet seen. The underbelly!

Belly up!

Hold me back!


Imagine twenty pairs of rippling/ample bellied Asian strong men in turned up toed boots, and blue or red speedos shoving, grasping, grappling, hoisting-suddenly-heaving their opponent over.  Like waves rolling onto a beach, the hubbub of spectating Mongols rises to a roar with each victory.

Ya, they wear pink. You got a problem with that? You wrestle them!

This is called Mongolian Boh, traditional Mongolian wrestling which is practiced in similar forms among all Mongolian peoples. From Inner Mongolia to Siberia, from Mongol ethnic groups in China to Central Asia to Kalmykia in Europe, this style of wrestling has been practiced for centuries. When in Ulaanbaatar, like a dusty moth to a glowing bulb, I am drawn to the Wrestler’s Palace, where most weekends starting in March, you can watch sweating titans go head to head, in two-man scrums, propelling each other to and fro about the ring like fighting buffalo bulls. But don’t be fooled! This is a sport of brains and strategy, not just brawn.

Heavy-duty face off. It's about to get rough up in here.

Bringing the thunder.

This is real wrestling, no hype. There is no jawing, no attacks with folding chairs, no explosions, just two serious athletes going head to head. In Mongolia, everyone knows the names of the top wrestlers of their region, and the nation. Champion wrestlers are afforded great respect and are highly honored by the people.

What's under that green 1970's turf like carpet? Cement.

To win a wrestler must compel his challenger to contact the ground with knee, elbow or upper body. There are no weight categories in Mongol Boh! Unevenly paired wrestlers must use strategy to defeat stronger or swifter wrestlers.

The winner will spring up into a traditional victor's dance, gracefully imitating an eagle in flight.

When a wrestler brings his adversary down he springs up, runs a few bow-legged steps, stops, and gracefully imitates a flying eagle. Then he returns to his conquered opponent who usually congratulates him, whereupon the referee crowns him with his hat, declaring him winner by calling out his name to the crowd. Our winner then runs to the flagpole in the ring, soars like an eagle around the pole, nodding to the flag before rumbling out of the ring until the next round.

Dance of a victor.

It is a thing of wonder.

Monkhbaiyir: Buryat Pianist

I met Monkhbaiyir, left, through my friend Zorigtkhuu, far right. Maral-Erdene in lavender, and Ganbaatar join us in a game of Phase 10 at a local java joint.

Tonight I received a great gift. Monkhbaiyir who I just met this evening told me he was a pianist and music teacher at a local school here in UB. (Ulan-Bator) I asked Monkhbaiyir if I could get an album of his music. Instead he said, “Come with me to my school right now, and I will play for you.” So, Zorigtkhuu who also teaches at the school, and I went with Monkhbaiyir to the top floor, turned on the lights to the music room, and thus started our impromptu concert.

Monkhbaiyir and his muse.

Monkhbaiyir’s Playlist:

  • Chopin’s Second Nocturne
  • Bach’s Preludio II
  • Mozart’s Eighth Sonata
  • Two of Monkhbaiyir’s pieces, one entitled “Thought”, the other untitled.
  • Zhantchannorov’s “I Want to Love You”
  • Khangal’s “Migrating Birds”

The last two names on the list are famous Mongolian composers. How marvelous it was to sit in reverie listening to the influence of the steppe on their musical compositions. You never know what priceless offering you may receive on the steppe. Monkhbaiyir’s gift leaves me speechless.

Happy Fifth Birthday David!

Yesterday was David's fifth happy birthday!

Happy Birthday David! Rita (David’s mom), Gillian, Luki, and I celebrated with David yesterday. It was a fun break from speech and language work. David is doing well and his speech after a week and a half or so is clearer, when he focuses on making the proper sounds.

Licking frosting from undercarriages!

Our menu was pizza, cake and ice-cream. Yes! David provided the evenings music, he has learned two cords on the guitar. Luki, David and I played a rousing, if confusing game of battleship. No ships were sunk. Robots and Spiderman apparel were unwrapped and greeted with proper childish excitement. Look out David! Here comes year number six!

A round of absolutely non-lethal battleship.

Banging out chords with a smile.

David Speaks

Gillian and David count together.

Here in Ulaanbaatar, one of my sister’s fellow English teachers is also a Speech therapist. When she found out I would be stuck in Mongolia until the end of March, she asked if I would do speech therapy with a four-year old Mongolian boy who was adopted a year and a half ago by an American doctor here. He had a cleft pallet, and has already had three surgeries to repair it. I thought that would be a fine thing to do, and so, David and I meet everyday! David is a very hard worker. We do speech drills intermingled with games to keep things lively. We practice making s, sh, g, k, t, and th sounds together. It is difficult, but David is a real trooper. He likes things orderly, so I always draw up a plan, which he can then cross out as we finish each part! Sometimes he gets stickers for his hard work. Picking stickers is serious business, David takes his time and studiously examines the stickers finding just the right one. David makes progress everyday. He is a blessing for me, giving me the opportunity to serve someone each day.

Four grrrrreen cattsss in the bag!

The fish game is our favorite! It helps properly form sounds.

The very serious business of sticker selection.

Oh Mongolia!

Munguu, myself and Tegshee

Mongolia is fabulous as far as countries go. Big open spaces, beautiful smiling people, cold, sun, wind, snow, stylish girls in big sunglasses, guys with edgy haircuts, country people in red, purple, green deels. (Traditional robes). The wrestlers palace beckoned and I heeded the call, witnessing Mongolian wrestlers grapple, and fly like eagles around the ring when they won a match.

One snowy night in Sukhbaatar Square, the central square of Ulaanbaatar, as I photographed Ogedei Khan, third son to Chingis, enthroned upon his bronze throne for perpetuity, a “Hey what’s up” brought me to pause, and turning I saw Munguu and Tegshee grinning at me. We chatted in the cold wind until it froze us out. We met two times in the following week and a half, culminating in a trip to the National Museum of Mongolia. After experiencing the wonders of Mongolian history, a truly fascinating subject, I gave them each a new testament. They were very pleased, and mentioned that some of their friends have recently become Christians.  I told them to read John, and I will answer their questions when I return. As we parted they informed me I am their “best foreign friend”. I really enjoyed meeting Munguu and Tegshee, it was a real pleasure to speak English with them as they were eager to learn.

And now, a brief language lesson. Ulaanbataar means “Red Hero”, supposedly a nod to Damdin Sukhbaatar, who expelled Chinese forces, and other foreign forces threatening Mongolia, and then got cozy with the Communists. So, Ulaan (or Ulan) means red. Baatar means hero. Sukh means axe, so Sukhbaatar = Axe hero. Tomorrow I will be travelling from “Red Hero” to “Red Gate” the meaning of our beloved Ulan-Ude! Hurrah!