Just a few weeks ago, Dave Clahan, owner of my home gym, Ralph Gracie Berkeley, posted on our team page that he was planning a BJJ team trip to Mongolia. After approximately 60 seconds of contemplation, I booked a flight to Ulaanbaatar. Another trip added to an already jam-packed month of travel.
Somewhat randomly, Ralph Gracie Berkeley is home to a large population of Mongolians, and over the years, I have had the great pleasure of getting to train with them. My small amount of exposure to Mongolian culture taught me that:
- Mongolians love meat. Also, fish and chicken are not real meat.
- Any small Mongolian child could throw my ass through a glass wall without so much as a blink of an eye.
I pack a suitcase of clothing that will turn me into a human burrito and hop on a bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, hike the Great Wall for 6 hours, rush straight to the Beijing airport, and board a plane to Ulaanbaatar.
Our first day in UB is jam packed with BJJ at Garuda MMA. I am overwhelmed with how nice and welcoming everyone is, while at the same time, being absolute monsters on the mat. It seems like every other person here is a judo or wrestling champion. It is some of the toughest training I have ever experienced, and we leave Garuda feeling like we just got run over by the Mongol Express Train bound for the physio’s office. It was freaking awesome and instilled in me so much respect for the community here. Mongolia is a (rapidly) developing nation, and as such, many people have to sacrifice a considerable amount to be able to train. Fighting is Mongolia’s national pastime, and it certainly feels like it as they try to run you into the ground.
Over the next 2 days, our head coach, Eduardo Fraga, and Dave Clahan hold 3 packed seminars in Ulaanbaatar. Whisked into a flurry of BJJ and tourist destinations, we are almost all delirious from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. I’m pretty sure that my blood was at least an 80% mixture of coffee and Red Bull at that point. People drive all the way from Russia to attend the seminars and competition. It’s a super cool mix of nationalities that all possess a high tolerance for vodka and violence, yet everyone is super friendly and stoked to be there.
We tour Sükhbaatar Square, visit temples, watch an awesome traditional Mongolian music performance, and enjoy the most traditional of Mongolian meals: good old Korean BBQ. It is here that I get my first taste of the notorious ayrag, a traditional Mongolian drink made from fermented mare’s milk, containing anywhere from 0.7 – 2.5% alcohol. It smells of sour milk and tastes of a putrid petting zoo. The Mongolians drink this stuff since childhood, and you’ll see it sold in the markets by the liter. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
The following morning is competition day. As is often the case in Asia, I have nobody to fight in my weight division, so they bump me up to the 70 kg weight bracket, nearly 20 kg above my walking weight. I volunteer as tribute. We arrive at the venue, and in true Mongolian fashion, they are serving what looks to be an entire cow in the tournament staff room. And yes, with ayrag. It’s time to bulk up.
The opening ceremonies for the tournament begin. There’s some break dancing, a singing guy running around in a costume, and all of a sudden, I am whisked on stage and find myself somehow standing next to the American flag, in some capacity representing the United States at a Jiu Jitsu competition in Mongolia. It’s one of those wtf moments in life where you just ask yourself, “How the hell did I end up here?”
Lo and behold, the first girl in my bracket doesn’t show up, so I go straight into my one and only match against a girl that we’ve been training with all week. She is super friendly, and I think we are both just happy to have a match. The referee waves us onto the mat, we slap hands, and I assume the deepest Asian squat position I have ever achieved in my entire life. I think it’s safe to assume that every single Mongolian in this place is a judo black belt. I am fucking pulling guard. I end up losing by 2 advantages in what was a fun (albeit frustrating) match. By the time we manage to leave the venue, I am exhausted. It’s time to hit the club!
Vodka is poured, and we cheers (or “Chinggis!”) to the end of a long day. I spend the majority of the night doing weird solo movement drills in the club that might be considered dancing in some alternate universe. Inebriated me decides that it is time to run home by myself, so I grab our Mongolian friend Bilgee (I’m so sorry if I butchered that spelling) to help hail me a taxi, which in Mongolia, is akin to random hitchhiking. Any random car on the road can be hailed, a price negotiated, and the driver will navigate you through the nondescript, clusterfuck streets of Ulaanbaatar. On our way out, some Mongolian guy grabs my ass, and before I can stupidly retaliate in any ill-advised manner, Bilgeeb pulls me into the elevator, and I manage to whisk myself home.
The next morning, I discover that immediately after I left, a fight broke out and some guy got stabbed in that exact same elevator I left in. Apparently that is an authentic Mongolian nightlife experience. I had luckily brought my personal shitshow home before the real shitshow began.
We then head to the countryside, which is the part of the trip that I have been looking forward to the most. About 40 minutes into our journey out of Ulaanbaatar, I spot some camels and a golden eagle hanging out on the side of the road. CAMELS. The bus stops. I excitedly run out of the bus (without a jacket) and bum rush the camels before stopping to think that maybe bum rushing a huge camel might not be the greatest idea. I also begin freezing to death. Some may say I am prone to rash decisions. I have no idea what they are talking about.
After our animal escapades, the team boards the Ralph Gracie Adventure Bus of Adventure, and we resume our journey towards the ger camp (gers are basically Mongolian yurts, traditional home of the nomadic people). All of a sudden, bottles of vodka are being broken out and chugged. CHINGGIS! A liter of ayrag suddenly appears. CHINGGIS! Team bonding at its finest.
We arrive at what looks like an epic Mongolian war fortress ger camp, where we have lunch. Inside, there are traditional Mongolian costumes that we dress up in. Chaos ensues. We are fed a traditional Mongolian meal (except for the salad. From my understanding, anything green and leafy in Mongolia is a culinary modification made for tourist tastes.)
After lunch, we head for the enormous Chingghis Khan Equestrian Statue that the president built in the countryside. The vodka keeps on flowing. One of our team members asks if the abstract, undulating shape under the horse is a dick. Our tour guide, let’s call her Annie, graciously informs us that the shape is indeed, not a dick. In fact, she informs us that most things in the monumental structure are indeed, not a dick. Thanks for the info, Annie. You’re the best.
By nightfall, we reach our final destination of the ger camp, where we will be spending the next 2 nights. These are some nice Disney-fied gers with floor heating, and none of us are complaining, as the temperature drops. We enjoy a delicious dinner paired with more vodka. I slap Annie a few times for good measure. She likes it. We wake up the next morning as fresh as spring flowers. Chinggis.
The morning scene at the ger camp is stunning, replacing the urban sprawl of Ulaanbaatar with sprawling mountains. I spot a yak cart in the distance and decide to make that my office for the morning, as I get some work done. It can’t always be fun and games. Just 90% of the time.
Surprisingly, I have avoided the ear-splitting hangover that usually makes me want to shoot myself following a night of drinking. Instead, we shoot arrows, starting the day with some archery, followed by horseback riding across the countryside (probably my favorite activity throughout the entire trip). We also get to visit a traditional ger, inhabited by the horse owner’s family.
We return to Ulaanbaatar the following morning, all in dire need of showers. After a bit of rest, the guys throw me and their gym bags into the trunk of a taxi (midget problems), and we bump along to our last training session at Garuda. We roll our way through yet another fun Mongolian onslaught, and I get a nice claw to the neck from an unknown, well-manicured assailant. There is something about pushing myself past the point of exhaustion that makes me really emotional, and at the end of our training session, I am kind of tearing up at how much I appreciate the training here and how cool it is that I get to share this with my teammates. I’m super lame.
After dinner, we head out for my last night in Mongolia. We ride the Ralph Gracie Adventure Bus of Adventure to River Sounds, a lounge/club with almost an exclusively Mongolian clientele.
A number of increasingly handsy guys come up to me throughout the next hour, and I try to rhythmically navigate away from them.
“Men,” I sigh to myself.
It’s getting a bit confrontational. They lean in, grabbing my ass, boobs, and whatever else they can grab. I’m starting to think that it might not be a joke that I’ll get picked up and carried away by one of the creeper hoarde. My friends are getting increasingly aggravated, and I slowly grasp the gravity of the situation. With tensions rising, I decide to go sit down at our table in the corner to hide myself. I didn’t want anyone getting into a fight. Those don’t tend to end well for foreigners in local joints. Shortly thereafter, we decide to leave, and thank god nothing happened.
After a tense night, I wanted to end the trip on a good note. I wake up Baba by making it rain dolla dolla bills, and then ask Annie where I can eat a horse. I couldn’t leave Mongolia without biting into a horse. I mean, come on. That would be like walking through San Francisco without getting human feces on your shoe. We must strive for authenticity. Obligingly, she takes us to the Narantuul Black Market.
The market is a large outdoor bazaar, with all kinds of goods ranging from marmot skins to your typical black market Chinese knockoff products. We wander into a food court, and a guy at one of the stalls tells us that horse meat is not on their menu, but they can cook it for us. A little sketchy, but fuck it. You are what you eat, and today, I wanted to be a fucking horse.
Less than 5 minutes after ordering my last meal in Mongolia, a sizzling platter of horse meat (paired with fries) is whisked to our table. It is surprisingly fantastic, and I wish I had been eating more horse than lamb on this trip (not a huge lamb fan). Overall, I haven’t been extremely wowed by Mongolian cuisine, but really, give me any variety of dumplings, noodles, and meat, and you got yourself a happy fatty.
After lunch, I speed off to the airport. Another trip in the books. By the time I leave Mongolia, I feel like I’ve become Facebook friends with half of the country. Apparently that’s a cultural thing.
Every travel experience I embark on holds special meanings and lessons for me. Mongolia is a country that seems to be stuck in a limbo between holding onto tradition and aspiring to rapid development. Its people are in the process of bridging the gap between new and old, and the culture there is definitely something worth experiencing while it lasts. We were informed of the huge anti-Chinese sentiment there and presence of neo-Nazism, but I never encountered it directly. It’s clear that Ulaanbaatar is quickly modernizing, and the younger generation is leaning more towards globalization, as foreign investment rushes in. However, traditional Mongolian values still hold steadfast.
The BJJ community there is extremely welcoming, and they looked after us with great care. To them (and Annie!), I want to give a big thank you. Meeting all of you was a big highlight of this trip. This trip was also a special one because I got to travel with my Bay Area teammates, who I don’t get to see very often. They are the ones that have been with me through the majority of my jiu jitsu journey, and they have seen me grow up over the past few years. Experiencing a unique place like Mongolia with them was a memorable adventure that will be hard to replicate.
That being said, I was a bit exhausted from drowning in a sea of testosterone. It was time to head to Thailand for an epic Women’s BJJ camp. Until next time, Mongolia. Chinggis!
More shots from the trip: