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Where Manly Sports Meet Mesmerising Music

It helps to understand the sheer scale of the conquest. No Roman Emperor, no British monarch ever controlled more of the planet than the Mongols. The grand sweep of the Khans took them west into Europe, east into China and south to Java - the largest contiguous land empire in world history. As the text books tell us, Tenggeri, the sky god of the Mongols, gave Genghis Khan the mission of bringing the rest of the world under one sword. He damn near succeeded.

Mongolia no longer has aspirations to bring the world’s citizenry under its control, though it is determined to entice as many of them as possible to its sumptuous realm, where the Central Asian steppe, taiga forests, blue lakes, the Altai mountains and the Gobi Desert meet in a high landlock plateau between Russian Siberia and northern China’s plains.

Of the mighty array of attractions there is none more potent than Naadam, one of the most dramatic and exhilarating events of its kind in the world. A summer festival believed to have existed in some fashion for centuries, it is a Grand Final of sorts, a summit playoff of horseracing, archery and wrestling events (the ‘Three Manly Sports’) staged during the year throughout a country the size of Alaska peopled by only two and a half million.

But more importantly it is an affirmation of the Mongolian spirit. To witness ranks of riders surging into the central stadium of Ulaanbaatar on the same compact, sprightly horses that the great Genghis rode into
battle – surrounded by athletes, monks, dancers, soldiers, musicians and nomad herders – is to glimpse the grandeur of a civilisation that shaped the world as we now know it. Then to see horses race, at ferocious pace, in their hundreds through vast valleys, while tens of thousands cheer them on; and to observe rotund but almost balletic wrestlers trounce an opponent and then prance across an arena in a traditional victor’s Eagle Dance, is to be enveloped in a culture of extraordinary strength.

Though fiercely proud of their rich heritage, modern Mongolians are neither hostile nor warlike; an hospitable warmth is at the heart of their collective character. And while some visitors venture into seemingly untouched terrain where a GPS co-ordinate is more useful than an address, they first pass through a city of shopping malls, supermarkets, yellow cabs and mini-skirts. Unexpected contrasts pile one atop the other. A Lenin statue a block from a swish fashion catwalk, a 4WD sharing a road with a yak cart, a plush western hotel a short drive from a ger (traditional round felt dwellings) camp.

Nowhere are these contrasts more intriguing and more rewarding than in Mongolia’s startling wealth of music and performance arts. There is a spectrum of sound that can scarce be believed. At one end the grand and sweeping classical orchestras, sustained in showpiece style by the Soviets over decades but thoroughly Mongolian in their use of local compositions, and traditional performers playing the Horse Head fiddle and other Mongol-designed lute, wind and percussion instruments. At the other end a range of powerful rock bands of long standing – Jargalsaikhan, Chinggis Khan, The Hurd and Haranga – whose CDs are stacked in Tokyo-type record shops alongside the offerings of hip hop, rap, dance and new age entities such as Saraa, Funksta, Gennie, Urna, Hulan and, famed for the anthemic Born In UB, Masta Flow. And straddling them both - acclaimed and ethereal Mongolian Throat Singers such as Booyoo, who somehow simultaneously bring forth from their voicebox both high and low notes in spell-binding manner.

There is so much pouring out of this long locked-away country that it is hard to keep up with it all. Those who come expecting to be confronted by the past in a nation that has just celebrated its 800th birthday are
soon caught up in the present, with promise of the future. Jasper Becker may have titled his essential book on Mongolia The Lost Country but what strikes visitors now is a real sense of making up for years lost. Not only those who make their way there – an easier exercise than may be imagined, with relatively brief air links from Seoul and Beijing – but those who seek out at home groundbreaking and award- winning Mongolian films like The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog.

All carried on under, it would seem, the watchful eye of Genghis Khan, the relentless warrior who fathered over a thousand children and struck fear into more hearts than any leader before or since. The very mention of his name was forbidden by Russian overlords but today it and the accompanying image is absolutely everywhere in Mongolia – from towering statues to vodka bottles, hillsides to t-shirts, airports to cultural spectaculars. Leaving you in absolutely no doubt as to where you are and who was there before you.

Glenn A. Baker