Correction: China may have been easier to navigate than Mongolia. As I’ve already written, there is nothing easy about traveling through the world’s most sparsely populated country, but the past few days have been exceptionally littered with unforeseeable
speed bumps deadfall traps.
Premier among the frustrations has been the visa office which is simply a holdover from Communist rule, probably developed by the Soviets as an experimental torture technique that they abandoned for harshness, but the Mongolians seem to enjoy. To get one stamp you have to pull a butcher-like number which has at least 150-200 people already on line. Next, you have to ask someone who looks dead in the eyes from stress how to start the process. They tell you “not to worry, you’ll never get through the line” but that should you want some amusement you should start in that line where you have to buy a piece of paper for 1300tg then proceed to the next window where you buy a 500tg photocopy and then wash that all down with standing in a mob of angry people for 4-5 hours, or until the office closes. “Actually, never mind,” says your defeated foreigner an hour later, ” I think I lied to you. Looks like you chose the wrong number and took the wrong application.”
Despite the hell of the visa office and some general difficulties in the service industry, I find it tough to dislike Mongolians. They’re generally affable, exceedingly outgoing and always helpful. Though they could budge some on the pricing structure at the black market, but I like having conversations, no matter how broke, or translated. Though all this could be a result of their love for wrestling. Or maybe just the love from wrestlers?
I’m starting a two-day motorcycle ride to Tsetserleg (Arkhangai) tomorrow morning and it’s left me thinking about my level of safety and comfort on the road. Will I find a ger, or will I pitch a tent? Is the bike safe? Will I get solid directions? What the hell is going to go wrong?
I’ve had Turtogotkh at my side for the majority of my important meetings. He introduced me to Usukhbayar and several other high-ranking officials. When I lost the ability to communicate, he could easily step-in and smooth it out. But now he’s at wrestling camp in Erdenet where he’s training freestyle and rapping with old friends in his first language (no offense to his wonderful, English-speaking Citadel buddies). His absence has meant some frustration, but just as those frustrations were set to peak, set to boil over … Enter: Minga Batsuk.
Minga is a hyper-intelligent Mongolian wrestler who went to school with Turtogotkh at St. Benedicts in Newark, New Jersey. He then went on to win three national titles at St. Johns in Minnesota, where he also was awarded the 2011 NCAA Division III wrestler of the year. He’s back in Ulan Bator working for an American company and by all indications enjoys being home. Minga has been kind enough to write several notes for me to show random Mongolians in Tsetserleg in the hopes it’ll streamline my participation in several smaller Naadams. In addition to writing the notes, Minga also fielded phone calls from some of my other contacts as we simultaneously ran around downtown Ulan Bator in search of a GPS for tomorrow’s journey. He also called his father and found gas stations and checkpoints to hit along my 500km route. The guy is talented. The guy is my hero.
There have been other instances of this loyalty, much if it coming through the Mongolian wrestling community. Interviews have been a breeze to set-up and execute and to a wrestler they all test their English and try to teach me better pronunciation of my Mongolian (currently improving). Only some of the wrestlers know that I’m writing a book, most just see me wearing their boots and think I’m a little odd. I think the majority just see a guy who walks like them and quacks like them and take it as their responsibility to protect me and I willingly accept.
The Mongolians have made me feel at home, but I don’t think their protection is unique within the wrestling community. Just this week I closed my Kickstarter project with full-funding from 110 backers. I was flattered by the support and humbled by the commitment of my readers, family and friends, and as I checked the names of the backers it wasn’t surprising to see that much of that support came from my network of friends in the wrestling and jui-jitu communities. I just assume they could’t stand to see one of theirs get stranded and when I extended myself to try something bold, they made sure to be there protecting me at all costs.
Absolute, almost altruistic loyalty is just one of the themes I plan to explain on the site and in the book. I know it’s there, but why? What are the unique qualities of wrestling that produce this type of familial loyalty? As always my goal will be to show readers this phenomenon, develop a theory and find research that backs it up – that’s how I plan on protecting my wrestling community.
Be back online in a few days!