THE BLOG
08/02/2012 07:32 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012

Track Records: Ankle Bone Shooting And Wrestling At Mongolia's Naadam

Starting the day with a bottle of Kazakhstani brandy has never been a habit of mine.

I can think of several good reasons not to do it, but none of them came to mind when I got back to my compartment after getting up to go to the bathroom at 5:45 a.m. to find that the party was already in swing. I painfully glugged down several shots of the stuff, feeling decidedly ropey by the time we arrived in Ulaanbaatar.

But that's when I realised how excited my cabin-mates were about arriving in the Mongolian capital. One of them had been on tenterhooks the whole way, not resting for more than about five minutes at a time the whole way from Irkutsk.

And now that I'm leaving Mongolia, I think I know why. As soon as I arrived in the capital I felt lighter and more relaxed.

After the grit of Siberia, it was a refreshing change to be smiled at in shops and cafes and even on the street.

Bob from the Golden Gobi, my base in Ulaanbaatar, came to collect me which was a very welcome change. The Golden Gobi's a very popular hostel and there's always a slightly chaotic bustle about the place, but it's in a perfect spot right in the middle of everything and the family that runs it are all lovely and very helpful. It's just off Peace Avenue, where most of the touristy action is. You can walk to Sukhe Bator Square which is probably the best point to get grounded and the most impressive sight in the city.

On the way you pass some of the famous tourist landmarks, which are worth a drop in especially Café Amsterdam.

I went there and had a beer on the terrace on my first evening and as the sunlight faded and the lights of the city took over, it suddenly hit me that I was back in Asia.

The chaotic streets, the bustling pavements, the smells, the vibrations of the place feel very Asian and much more relaxed and comforting than Siberia. Not that you could call Ulaanbaatar a dyed-in-the-wool Asian city. You can feel the Russian presence even though Mongolians are fiercely proud of their independence.

In a way Ulaanbaatar feels like it falls between two stools, at least it did at first.
Mongolia is wedged between two giants for centuries, both of which have held the country in their grip over the years.

First it rid itself of Chinese control, then its own communist party opened the door for the USSR and all the grimness and totalitarianism that came with it.

As a result Ulaanbaatar is a ragbag of Chinese, American, European and Russian influences.
English is spoken all over the place, and many of the restaurants and cafes don't even have any signs in Mongolian. Maybe because I was there during Naadam, the biggest festival of the year which feels like Christmas and New Year rolled into one, but it felt like a very cosmopolitan place.

I heard every major European language being spoken and there were travellers from all over the world everywhere you looked. On the surface it's hard to see where the Mongolian identity is to be found. But it is there, locked up in the people rather than the buildings or the city streets.

Despite the immense pressure from both sides and the historical attempts by both its neighbours to subvert it, Mongolians on the whole maintain a happy, peaceful, caring character.

Not that there isn't a darker side of course. There's no escaping the fact that Mongolia is a very poor country that's had to do what it can to get by.

Peace Avenue is nice, yes, as are many of the big streets, but it didn't take me much ambling around in my own aimless way to find the stark apartment blocks and housing estates that make up half of the city.

There is a lot of petty crime in the city, especially during Naadam - a couple of people I spent the first evening of the festival with actually caught people with their hands in their back pockets while I was standing with them on a busy street corner.

And a couple of girls I spoke to told me that an ugly type of harassment and intimidation towards women is depressingly common.

In reality it's a complex web of all of these things, but the general atmosphere is warm and inviting and most people have a kindness and relaxed attitude that pulls you in.

Naadam is the big one in Mongolia, and most of the action takes place out at the National Sports Stadium, outside of the city centre.

You can buy tickets for the opening ceremony from most of the hostels, but be wary of being ripped off. Inside the stadium it's like a mini Olympics just for Mongolia, a celebration of the three main sports: horse riding, wrestling and archery.

There's also a big following for the more fringe event, chicken ankle bone shooting, which you have to see to believe.

It's a fantastic atmosphere that gradually builds to a crescendo over the three days. If you can't get into the stadium don't worry - the square is the big hub of activity in the city itself.

All day the games are shown on big screens in front of the national parliament building and there's a fairground atmosphere of games, food and gift stands.

On the first evening there's live concert in the square and a firework display at eleven. Just make sure you're keeping an eye on who's standing behind and perhaps a hand in each back pocket as you gaze upwards.

It was tough leaving Ulaanbaatar after such a short but sweet spell in the city. It's got its rough side, and you will find far more 'Asian' cities elsewhere, but it's got something about it you can't quite define.

Perhaps because the true spirit of Mongolian people is roaming free out on the vast plains and wild landscapes of the countryside elsewhere.

You leave Ulaanbaatar and within a couple of hours you see it, the view I have right now as I write. The endless openness either side of the train, where herds of cattle and stocky wild horses graze. Where eagles soar over the mountains and cross paths with the train on their way down to the plains, and clusters of nomadic herders occasionally pass close by the window of your train.

I'm still travelling on my ticket from Real Russia, and it's a strange thought that a little booklet in an office in Moscow has brought from the Russian capital, through the forests of Siberia and now the wild plains of Mongolia.

All I've seen for miles and miles has been mind-meltingly beautiful nature in the brilliant morning sun.

I've got an urge to squeeze through the tiny window in the toilet, leap down from the moving train and run off into the mountains, it is that blissful. But now I'm heading for China, Beijing, and not even wild horses could stop me from getting there.