Suburbia in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar is like no other. Bleak Russian-style apartment blocks give way to a patchwork of modern, red brick, matchbox-like houses.
Tidy lines of vivid crimson, azure and jade roofs contrast starkly against the chalky curves of Mongolian traditional gers. Intermingling, they compete for space tucked away behind wooden and rusty tin fences splashed with painted symbols.
Driving out of the city, I captured a few images from the window of our moving van.
When in Mongolia someone told me an old tale about a woman who disguised as a man, competed in the wrestling competitions, thrashed all the male competitors and became the champion, disgracing them all. Since then the tight vest or Zodog purposefully exposes the chest avoiding another impostor repeating this shameful event.
Traditional Mongolian wrestling competitions are all male and are full of ancient rituals. There are no separate weight classes and no time limits and the wrestler whose knee or elbow touches the ground loses the match.
After the opening ceremony for Nadaam the wrestling contests began.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Wrestlers psyching themselves up while waiting to compete.
Before and after each match the wrestlers perform the Eagle Dance or Devekh, a ritual symbolizing power and invincibility.
Several fights occur at the same time.
Judges and assistants watch the competitors.
Also check out my blog post on Nadaam horse racing on the steppe.
Nadaam or the “Three Manly Games” is the most important festival of the year in Mongolia and is held throughout the country during the national holiday from 11-13 July. Its roots lie in Mongolian warrior traditions and includes competitions in wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The National Sports Stadium in the capital Ulaanbaatar holds the biggest celebrations and opens with an extravagant ceremony of horsemen, athletes, musicians, dancers and the military. Then the contests begin.
My brother Mike planned his wedding in Mongolia to coincide with Nadaam, giving guests visiting from other countries the chance to see this unique festival too.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Officials in the stadium dressed in the national costume. This robe-like garment called a deel is daily wear for many people in the city and out on the steppe.
Old woman in national costume arrived before the crowds.
Beautiful costumes everywhere.
The President of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, gave a speech during the ceremony which broadcasted to everyone on the big screen.
Spectators sheltering from the harsh sun under umbrellas.
Archers gallop on horseback.
Archery display. Both men and women compete in Mongolian archery and wear traditional costumes.
A multitude of film crew and photographers record the event.
Horsemen show their skill galloping into the stadium in a cloud of dust.
Synchronized military display.
Parachutists landed in the stadium closely missing dancers. It was mayhem.
A full stadium.
Horseman carrying the Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
One of the stops on our wedding party city tour was the Sukhbaatar Square named after Damdin Sukhbaatar who led the Mongolians to independence from the Chinese in the 1921 revolution.
Walking across Sukhbaatar Square. My older brother Matt is on the left.
Here Mike and Anna came face to face with the immense bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan (pronounced Chinggis Han in Mongolia and known as Genghis Khaan in the West) commanding a view of the square from the top of the steps of Government House.
Chinggis Khan united many of the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia, founded the Mongol Empire and conquered most of Eurasia in the 1100 and 1200s. Nowadays this Mongol warlord is a source of great national pride. They have written songs about him, named hotels, restaurants and the international airport after him and his image appears everywhere from money to vodka and beer bottles.
English friends Kerry, Mark and Andy and my older brother Matt with Chinggis Khaan peering out between their heads.
Entrance to Choijin Lama Temple Museum.
After the two ceremonies we had a photo shoot in the Wedding Palace then piled into the cars to go just around the corner to a temple for more photos.
Wedding Palace Photo Shoot
With Anna’s parents.
Anna’s sister Boroo and her daughters.
After the official service we all followed the bride and groom out to another room for the traditional ceremony. This part was totally unexpected.
Traditional Mongolian Ceremony
Listening to the toast. Of course the foreigners in the group didn’t understand anything except for Mike who is learning Mongolian. At 11.00 am it was a bit early to down shots of vodka, especially cups of it. Culturally it’s considered polite to accept the cup then take a sip or just a sniff of it before passing it back to the host.
The musician played the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle during the entire length of the ceremony. This is one of the most important traditional musical instruments of the country. The strings are made from horse-tail hair and the top of the neck is carved into the shape of a horse’s head. Empty vodka cups litter the trays on the table in front of him.
When we entered the Wedding Palace I had no idea that there would be two ceremonies. Firstly the official tying of the knot, plush western registry office style, then a traditional Mongolian ceremony.
Official Wedding Service
Listening to their vows in Mongolian which Anna translated to Mike. A few words directed at Mike were in English but the lady’s accent was so thick it was hard to recognize she was speaking English. I understood only a few words from the ceremony.
The bride’s family and friends stood on one side of the room and the groom’s on the other. As there were so few of us on Mike’s side, some of Anna’s family and friends stood with us. Not many could make the long trip from England and Las Vegas to Mongolia. Matt my older brother and best man stands on the far right.
Anna has two wedding rings. On her left hand is the western style ring and on her right hand a traditional Mongolian ring. Her parents presented both of them with rings on the morning of their wedding. Anna’s has the female symbol and Mike’s the male symbol.
Cirque du Soleil’s mind-blowing show “O” at Bellagio in Las Vegas set the stage for their romance. Once ignited there was no dousing it. An Englishman and a Mongolian. A fire artist and a contortionist.
Now that would’ve aroused my interest under any circumstances but this was my brother getting hitched. Location Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. There’s no way in the world I would’ve missed that wedding.
The following posts are a photo documentary of the day.
The Bride’s Family Apartment – The Morning Before the Wedding
We arrived to collect the bride, Anna. Her parents greeted us with traditional Mongolian milk tea and breakfast while her sisters helped her get ready in the next room. Mike my younger brother is the groom (right) and Matt my older brother is the best man (left).
The bride appears and Anna’s father offers the groom Mongolian milk tea according to tradition. During formal occasions food, tea or vodka is given and received with the right hand extended and the left hand supporting the right elbow. Also they roll down the sleeves first to show respect.
Outside The Wedding Palace
A photo shoot outside the Wedding Palace while waiting for their allotted time. Each couple has half an hour for the ceremony so punctuality is crucial. That day the traffic was worse than usual and we thought we weren’t going to arrive on time but there were still a few minutes spare to take photos.
Mongolian registration plate on the wedding car. The red symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere including on the Mongolian flag. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.