Journalist Peter Geoghegan wrestled with modernity on his Journey of a Lifetime to Mongolia this summer. Ahead of his documentary broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 15 September, 11am, he writes about the geographical questions that inspired his journey.
Picture the scene: The crowd cheers and whistles sound as a wrestler in leather boots and small, tight-fitting briefs enters the packed arena in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. A hush descends as the wrestler locks arms with his opponent. Both dream of one day winning the ultimate accolade in their sport – ‘Undefeatable Giant of the Nation’. If they do, they will become a ‘giant’ for life in a country where almost every young boy dreams of becoming a celebrated wrestler.
This is the ‘Naadam’, Mongolia’s largest wrestling competition, held annually in mid-July. In the weeks before the games, the best wrestlers and lower ranked prospects attend training camps in the countryside to train and prepare for the contest.
Thanks to the Society’s Journey of a Lifetime Award, I spent this summer in Mongolia at a camp for wrestlers competing at the Naadam. Living among the wrestlers in ‘ger’ tents, I experienced their way of life - and learn to wrestle. From there I travelled on to the Naadam festival to watch the wrestlers in action. The resulting programme, Wrestling with Modernity in Mongolia, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September.
This is a journey into Mongolian wrestling, but it is also a journey through the country’s past, present and future. Wrestling has been part of life in Mongolia for centuries - but life in Mongolia is changing quickly. The nomadic way of life, in which so many Mongolian wrestlers were raised, is changing. Many herders have abandoned the steppes, pushed by changes in climate that have seen increasingly bitter winters and pulled by the lure of the city.
Mongolia is a modern day El Dorado. The country sits atop some of the world’s largest mineral resources, worth trillions of dollars. A few years ago Ulaanbaatar was a sleepy backwater – not anymore. Today skyscrapers and coffee shops dot its busy streets. Multinational corporations now sponsor star wrestlers, while amateurs often combine day jobs in the mines with training and competition.