In the grip of the Gobi

Stephen Phelan receives a traditional welcome of fermented mare's milk and vodka — followed by an invitation to wrestle.

Mongolian men are born to wrestle. Genetically, they are predisposed to bulkiness. Historically, they are descended from the fearsome warrior hordes of Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kublai. Culturally, they still prize physical strength as a masculine virtue, along with exceptional horsemanship.

My own people, the Irish, are also said to like a fight and a good ride, but I've always been more the bookish type.

I made sure to read up on the country before taking a nine-day jeep tour of the Gobi Desert with my girlfriend. I know that wrestling is both an ancient folk art and a modern national sport. But how does this information help me when a huge Mongol horseman challenges me to a tussle? Answer: it does not. The horseman's name is Ganbaa, and he is the patriarch of an extended nomad family in the central desert.

As it happens, Ganbaa is married to the sister of our expedition driver, a relatively small and skinny man called Oggie (whose full name is Otogonerdene). Oggie seems to be related to almost everyone we have encountered since leaving Ulan Bator. He has also been, let's say, loosey-goosey when it comes to our itinerary.

On the first day, he took us off-course to meet his wife, son, and mother in his dusty home town of Dundgo. Oggie's son wanted to wrestle me too, but he was only four years old and I thought I could take him. Oggie's elderly mother was visibly moved to see us rolling on the ground.

"I feel like you are also my son," she told me, according to our guide and translator, a young woman named Chimgee. On the second day, we diverted again, to water Oggie's cousin's camels. They were tied to wooden posts beside a well in the middle of nowhere.

Oggie dropped a bucket down again and again, filling and refilling their trough. The camels crowded around, snorting up the water. They couldn't get enough. Oggie let me have a go. It was hard work; the bucket was heavy. Now I'm thinking Oggie must be stronger than he looks.

It's the afternoon of the third day. After stopping to see the pink-and-white-striped cliffs at Tsagaan Suvarga and the goldmines of Altkaigt; we meet Oggie's nomad sister and her children. They are drawing from another well in a featureless place known as Shine Us, which apparently means "new water". They invite us to their camp for something called Zunaganii-Baya, an annual ritual in which the year's spring foals will be separated from the mares. This is not on our itinerary either, but that's no reason not to go.

We watch herders pull the mares from their young. The mares freak out, bucking and trying to run, but the men hold them tight with ropes, digging in their heels as they are dragged across the desert floor. The half-grown foals aren't happy either, screaming for their mothers and breaking into crazy sideways gallops.

The herders' young sons jump on the backs of these small, powerful animals and hold on for as long as they can. Some of the boys are no older than 10. All fall off. Not one of them cries. The adults laugh. Afterwards, we cram into one of their group's two "gers" - rounded, wood-framed native tents, more solid than the standard Asian yurt.

A sheep has been slaughtered and cooked for the occasion and the chopped pieces are passed around in a silver bowl, along with a knife for cutting meat from the bone. As the male guest, it comes to me first. My girlfriend, though no less welcome, is not subject to the same intensity of hospitality. She is not required to drink endless cups of airag - mare's milk fermented until lightly alcoholic - and chasers of vodka. She is not obliged to sing a song from her home country (I howl through a drunk and sentimental rendition of U2's Van Diemen's Land).

And she is not offered a fight by a man who looks as though he could pull the head off a yak. Chimgee translates Ganbaa's challenge. She tells me it's a good thing, a sure sign of respect and acceptance.

Everyone smiles at me expectantly in the hot haze of the ger's central fireplace.

"OK," I say. In the morning, we will wrestle. But when we go to bed outside that night, under thick wool blankets and a spray of stars, I almost forget about this wrestling invitation. With my ear to the desert I can hear the Earth turning. The camels make a lowing, lulling sound at the edge of the camp. The dogs bark at the moon. The silvery air smells of animals. It's the deepest sleep of my life. Then the sun rises right beside me, exploding in my face.

The herders are already up. They are cheering and forming a circle. Ganbaa insists I drink a wake-up shot of vodka. He suggests that I warm up by wrestling one of his sons. He asks Chimgee to explain the rules. "If you knock him down, you win," she says. The boy is about 15.

The boy grabs me by the shoulders, hooks a leg around my hip and hurls me into the dirt. Ganbaa rubs his chin. He thinks I should try a younger opponent, a boy of no more than 12. His hands are small but his grip is ferocious. As far as I know he's been wrangling foals for years. He's a bit nervous though, perhaps because he's never met a foreigner, never mind tried to fight one, and my weight advantage is enough to bring him down. I feel no remorse at humiliating this little guy. It is all I can do to stop myself ululating in triumph.

I tell myself it doesn't matter what happens next as Ganbaa steps into the circle and lowers himself into a professional-looking combat crouch. Win or lose, I am already satisfied that the Gobi Desert is wondrous to the eye and stirring to the blood. It's not necessary to wrestle a Mongolian to feel some physical response to this place and its people. While Ganbaa throws me around and grinds me into the dust, I am thinking of the grasslands and the sand dunes, and all the diversions to come.


Getting there

The Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, is easily accessible by train from Beijing, and it's a major stop for most services on Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian rail routes. Various companies in Ulan Bator offer trips to the Gobi Desert. We took a nine-day Great Of Gobi jeep tour with Manlai's Budget Tours. Prices begin at $US495 ($482) a person, based on a full jeep and sharing the inclusive food and fuel costs — rates increase for smaller group sizes.

Manlai himself is an avuncular fellow who hires reliable and knowledgeable guides and drivers. Most itineraries, including ours, will take in the highlights of the Gobi — the sand dunes at Khongoryn Els, the national park at Yoliin Am, overnight stays with nomads — but weather conditions can change, and even organised tours make room for the unplanned and unexpected offers.

Try to be as flexible as the locals — it makes for a more exciting and rewarding experience.

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