I remember musing that a wedding planner would think I’d lost my mind. Wrestling? You want wrestling at your wedding?! Her shock giving way to complete bewilderment and horror when I followed up with…..and by the way, we’ll want a horse race too.
I scanned the Kazakh celebration and grinned. The wrestlers were introducing themselves by strutting around the large ring performing a series of traditional choreographed moves. Raising their hands towards the sky a la Rocky, then squatting, bringing their arms down and out like wings on a plane, slowly turning so that they could be viewed by all the spectators.
The crowd cheered. The double wedding (two brothers and their brides) was in full swing.
When we arrived (a small, merry band of travel photographers led by Timothy Allen) the nuptials had already taken place. We filed out of our rugged Russian vans and found ourselves in a valley in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the snow-speckled mountains of the Tavan Bogd National Park in western Mongolia.
Except for a few gers where guests ate and relaxed, the entire gathering was outdoors. At the crest of a hill a 100 yards away, dozens of guests’ horses were grazing. Yes, there were some Land Cruisers and few old motorbikes, but the main mode of transportation in the Altai Mountains is the horse. It was if we’d been beamed back to the wild west circa the 1800’s.
The wedding party sat at the far end of the ring behind a table barely two feet off the ground, topped with food and bowls of fermented mare’s milk. A mix of casual and glam, the men wore suit jackets and dress shirts open at the neck, while their new wives wore frilly white gowns embellished with embroidery or lace. One bride wore a tall pointy hat with a train straight out of an old school fairy tale.
Overseeing the proceedings, a good-looking man wearing a pseudo tuxedo was the master of ceremonies. He would sing, then bring various friends and family up to toast the couple using a microphone and PA system loaded on the back of an old Russian flatbed truck.
Occasionally, someone would play an instrument, or couples would dance something resembling the box step. All the while, and this went on for a couple of hours, the newlyweds sat at the makeshift dais, patiently presiding over the merriment. And that included wrestling.
Agii Makhsum, our wonderful fixer and translator, a man with a grin so big that his eyes disappeared, said that no Kazakh would consider having a wedding—or large party for that matter—without wrestling. It’s the most important attribute of the culture’s historic “Three Manly Skills,” which also includes horsemanship and archery. It’s said that Genghis Khan made his warriors wrestle to keep in shape.
Many of the matches took place simultaneously. Three or four pairs of wrestlers would go at each other until one was flipped or tripped or muscled to the ground and their shoulder pinned to the dirt. Sometimes they’d begin forehead to forehead, grabbing each other in an uncomfortable embrace that was a akin to a simultaneous wedgy, both waiting for the other to make their move. Slowly the number of competitors dwindled until the last two squared off against each other in a final round.
For me, the matches weren’t the only thing that entertained, the wrestlers’ uniforms were a show unto themselves. On the bottom, a competitor sported a speedo-type turquoise brief called a shuudag. On top he wore a Shodog: a vest with sleeves that covers the upper and lower arms leaving the chest and shoulders free. (Legend has it that the original Shodog covered the chest but a feisty female wrestler bound her breasts and competed with the men, won the competition and embarrassed everyone involved. From that day on the Shodog has been open in front so that no one would ever be fooled again.)
On their feet, the men wore a pair of Gutal: fancy almost knee-high boots made from beautifully tooled leather with a curved, upturned toe. When not in the midst of a competition, they donned a round cap with a point that looked like the top half of an unopened champagne bottle.
A few of the wrestlers were lean, lanky fellows, but most were big beefy men with stomachs suggesting they swallowed a basketball. For better or worse, their uniforms seemed to be one size fits all.
The wrestlers competed for a motorbike (first prize), a horse (second prize) and a yak (third prize), paid for, like the wedding itself, by the father of the grooms. After the winners were announced it was time for photographs, and everyone wanted to be a part of the action. The Kazakhs LOVED having their photographs taken and more often than not they’d stop us and ask for a photo.
Next up: The races!
Everyone congregated near the reception on a slope overlooking the valley. A race was about to begin, one of two we’d see that day. The rules were simple: competitors had to ride their horses in a large circle (two or three football fields in circumference) at a fast four-beat trot or what’s called an ambling pace. If a horse broke its gait it would be disqualified. It sounds easy but the horses wanted to run and were very strong willed. They pulled against the reigns, fighting with their riders who would grab hold and lean back as far as they could, trying to keep them under control. The man who was able to complete the laps without his horse breaking was the winner.
The second race was the last event of the wedding, and I tried to wrap my head around what I was about to see. It would showcase two, three, four and five-year old horses and they’d be ridden by children as young as five years old.
Having grown up in a country renowned for its helicopter parenting and where children are practically bubble wrapped, the thought of a five year-old riding a horse at a flat-out run over 18 km, across terrain mangled by the elements, stunned me.
Now the Kazakhs are extraordinary horse people, and their primitive way of life demands that kids have more responsibility at a young age. They grow up much faster than what we’re used to in the United States. And the children are amazing riders. But every year, according to Agii, a few kids are killed. It’s just the way it is. Thankfully, during the four races that I saw during my trip, even though a couple of kids fell off, no one was seriously injured.
To watch the second race, the wedding moved to the finish line on a a mountain lookout where we’d be able to see the kids coming from miles away. We hopped into our van while the Kazakhs jumped on their horses, Land Cruisers and motorbikes, forming a slow moving caravan.
The weather was unpredictable. It was sunny and hot one minute, dark and chilly the next. By the time the second race was underway, massive storm clouds had rolled in and the sky opened up. Sheets of horizontal rain caught us as we made our way to the end of the course. We were dry in the van but my heart went out to all the Kazakhs caught in the soggy onslaught. And I couldn’t imagine how the kids racing at top speed were managing.
At the lookout, the crowd was anxiously awaiting the first sign of the young riders. From our vantage point we could see clearly to the horizon and men armed with antique Russian monoculars scanned the countryside.
Suddenly there was a lot of chatter and finger-pointing. In the distance a line of ant-sized specs were moving towards us. As they got closer I started to make out bodies and legs along with the flowing manes of the speeding horses. The riders swung their whips and wildly kicked their mounts as they neared the home stretch. A boy led the pack by a significant distance, a second horse, sans rider, was close behind. As soon as the crowd realized a child was down, two Land Cruisers took off to find who’d fallen.
As the riders neared the finish line, the crowd rushed towards them. The winner crossed the line and as soon as he did his parents pulled him off the horse, grabbed the reins and quickly moved the duo out of the way of the approaching racers.
One after another the kids, red-faced, sweaty and exhausted, galloped into the arms of their relatives. The fervor of the moment was so palpable you’d have thought we were at the Kentucky Derby.
Then it happened: Scandal!
The boy who’d won the race had cheated. He started the race in the middle of the course at the behest of his parents and his horse was stripped of his 1st place win. (In Kazakh races it’s the horse that wins not the rider.) The third place horse was made the winner, the horse without his rider was given second, and the fourth place horse became third. The Kazakhs were all a buzz. No one could believe that a family would be so brazen, or so stupid. How could they possibly have believed no one would find out? The family was dishonored.
The next day we were invited to another wedding. It was smaller (only one couple) and, comparatively, less fancy but it was just as festive and many of the guests were the same. Everyone seemed in fine form ready to celebrate anew and they welcomed us with open arms. Even the boy who fell off his horse the day before was raring to go and made it to the finish line without a hitch.
I’d never had the good fortune to attend a wedding in a foreign country before and it was a wonderful experience. It was genuine and surprising and gave me insight into the Kazakh culture that I will remember more deeply than any book that I could read or documentaries I might binge on. That’s the wonder of travel.
I jumped out of the van that first day and couldn’t believe that a wedding would include a horse race let alone wrestling, and I left feeling as if a celebration was missing out without them.
I thought back to my daydream with the mortified imaginary wedding planner and chuckled.
She’d just have to get over it.
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For more stories and photos from my trip to Mongolia click HERE.