Why a Kazakh Wedding in Mongolia is so Much More Fun

I remember musing that an American 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.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

The double wedding party as I saw them upon arrival. Two brothers and their new Kazakh brides. The ceremony had just concluded and the festivities were about to begin.

I scanned the 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 low, bringing their arms down and out like wings on a plane, turning slowly so that they could be viewed by all of the spectators.

The crowd cheered. The double Kazakh 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 hopped 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.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

A wrestler entering the ring for the first time will go through a series of traditional poses to introduce himself to the crowd.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

The wedding’s Master of Ceremonies. This is not a usual practice in Kazakh weddings but the father of the grooms who paid for the wedding was wealthy and the festivities were more lavish than usual

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 by horse. It felt as 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.

Three Wrestlers: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia -

Three wrestlers that had already competed wearing their traditional uniforms

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.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

The wedding party sits on a makeshift dais at the end of the ring partly formed by guests and an old Russian flatbed truck where the AV equipment was stashed. They will drink fermented mare’s milk which is one of many Kazakh traditions.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia -Sportnoy-Mongolia2016

Older women and Kazakh girls relax in a ger during the wedding.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia -Sportnoy-Mongolia2016

Boiled sheep and goat are classic dishes in Kazakh cuisine served to guests during a Kazakh wedding. Here. remnants, including a sheep’s skull, are removed from one of the gers

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.)

Wrestlers: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Mid match, two wrestlers fight. Notice on top of the hill where some of the guest horses are tied and grazing.

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.

Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

The winning wrestlers. You can see the horse and motorbike, (right side of frame) two of the prizes awarded during the competition.

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.

Kids and horses: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Kids and their horses waiting on a hill for the first race to start.

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.

Men on horses: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in MongoliaThe 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.

Men racing horses: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

The moment a man’s horse breaks stride it is disqualified

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.

Little boy on a horse and father: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

A five year-old boy in his first race. Kazakhs can be reserved in photos but I wasn’t sure if their expressions were due to tradition or to the fact that minutes later this little kid would be racing at a flat out run for over 18 km.

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.

Riders on horses walking across a valley:Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Wedding guests heading to the finish line. The man in front is leading a horse for his child to ride after the race. Together they’ll lead the race horse home.

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.

Men waiting for the horse races:Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Men waiting at the top of the lookout for the first sign of the child racers to appear

Man receiving prize for winning race: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

At the mountain lookout, one of the grooms awards a rider from the first race a prize of a carpet

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.

Long view of horse race: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

A first look at the young competitors. ( I took this with a 400 mm lens from the top of the lookout). Notice the boy who cheated is much farther ahead than the other children. The second horse, not impeded by a rider, followed closely behind

Kids horse racing: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Parents seeing their children arrive at the finish line rushed down the hill to greet them

Kids racing : Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Kicking their horses in a mad attempt to move their exhausted horses to the front of the line

Kids racing horses: Scenes from a Kazakh wedding in Mongolia

Some of the kids as they rode to the finish line all red-faced, sweaty and exhausted.

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.

Men and children ride away from the camera in the altai mountains of Mongolia

The festivities over, a family rides away after a race

I jumped out of the van that first day and couldn’t believe that a Kazakh 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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Did you know that Mongolian weddings include wrestling matches and horse races- And that's not all. Check out this post for the deets.




Categories: Adventure, Asia, Mongolia

148 replies »

  1. This is great! I am stunned to discover how different their weddings are. I would have never imagined wrestlers at a wedding! The pictures are also great! I love how you captured emotion and scenery at the same time! -Rose24

  2. This is an interesting one!! Have been to Kazakstan this spring and totally can imagine this happening (well, if you go farther than Astana and Almaty). Mongolia is an awesome choice for location, or was in a Kazakh minority in Mongolia? And you captured perfectly emotions and people at the wedding!

  3. Though this wedding seems very strange i like this sincere smile in that children’ eyes.And must admit that photos are really nice. At least sitting at home i can feel that freedom. Thanks for posting this))

  4. It’s so interesting to know about such traditions and practices.. I completely enjoyed reading your post and especially the photographs.. I feel like visiting and witnessing a marriage there too..

  5. And here I was, thinking that some of the gipsy weddings that I saw in my life were the apogee of extravaganza. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

      • I’ve only seen rich gypsy weddings. There aren’t two exactly identical opulence-wise. The bride and the groom might have a golden throne to sit on during the party, there are always a lot of luxury cars: Lambos, S-Klasse Merc’s etc. They are usually rocking some heavy gold jewelry, bride’s dress is fitted with diamonds. Then there is some famous gypsy singer (the music is totally different, but it’s pretty much hip-hop values and message) and people are throwing money at him. If there isn’t money throwing involved, then he announces the value of the gift for the young couple received from each person on the mic, the richest guy wins kind of thing.

    • You’ll have a wonderful time. If you haven’t already planned your trip, I highly recommend Agii Makhsum and his company Kobesh travel. (I have no financial relationship with him btw), I was just very impressed on the access he was able to get us, his staff and the overall experience. I loved that our group was the only western faces we saw the entire 2 weeks except for two Norwegian climbers. Nat Geo and the BBC use him as well. 🙂

  6. neverovatna kultura

    On Wed, Aug 31, 2016 at 6:37 PM, The Insatiable Traveler wrote:

    > Susan Portnoy posted: “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 s” >

  7. Brilliant images Susan, I think you’ve really captured the spirit of the people/place and highlighted the uniqueness of a fascinating culture. Ridiculous though the Mongolian wrestlers appear, I still don’t think I’d like to get on the wrong side of one…..they look pretty tough to me.

  8. Incredible, it has been a few years since I was in Mongolia, but I am always intrigued by the culture. I did not get to attend a wedding but wow this brings back memories. Did you have a chance to try Marmot? I am not sure how legal it is to hunt but my host family sure loved it!

  9. Thank you for this fascinating insight into the traditions of a culture I’ve not personally experienced and it’s so wonderfully, beautifully illustrated by your photographs too. It’s so interesting to compare the approach to the big life events – birth, marriage, death – across different countries and their cultures, considering which elements are more universal (albeit with local tweaks) and which are unique.

    • Hi Laura!!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It’s true, there is so much that’s universal but it’s most fun when you get to see aspects of cultures that are completely different than your own. 🙂

    • I’m glad you felt that way. Sometimes I don’t know if I am too close to a story and whether or not it translates to the reader. Glad you felt like you could imagine it. 🙂

  10. Beautiful post, Susan 🙂

    My colleague has recently travelled in Mongolia and we got a glimpse of this beautiful country and a really interesting way of life…

    The images here are awesome and thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    • What’s fascinating is that in Mongolia, for the Kazakhs at least, this is the norm. It’s what I love about travel. So many interesting customs waiting to be witnessed and learned.

  11. This is both fascinating and amazing. That scenery is drop-dead gorgeous. And the pomp of the wrestling matches, the horse race, the Western-style veil on the bride (or am I mistaken?).

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