Travel writing

2000 miles of water: crossing the Atlantic by catamaran

What Do Greek Olives Taste Like? Revelations in the Peloponnese

Breaking the Rules of the Maah Daah Hey: How to not mountain bike the Badlands

Searching for Squash in Mongolia….
(originally posted at on 9/21/10)

My legs hurt. My butt hurt. And other parts of me were so sore, I winced whenever I sat down. Too many hours of squash? It felt like it. . . . but, no, it was too many hours of my big American butt in a small Mongolian saddle. I had ridden for hours to see the thousands of years old ‘deer stones’—Mongolia’s version of Stonehenge—and now I was paying for it.

As some of you know, I recently traveled to Mongolia to pick up my mother who has been serving in the Peace Corps for two years. In fact, I started typing this from the Peace Corps office in Ulaanbaatar or UB, the capital of Mongolia. But what does a country almost half-way around the world from New York have to do with squash? Well, besides squash butt and horse riding butt feeling uncomfortably similar, more than one would think.

First, though, here’s a little background on Mongolia. Some people describe it as the size of Alaska, with the population of Minneapolis, which is in the three million range. But who besides an Alaskan really has any idea how big that state is? So try this: consider the distance from New York to Denver, then from Albany to Miami. That’s roughly the width and height. Pretty big, huh? And nary a squash court in sight. Not that I covered every kilometer. But you can stand in most parts of Mongolia and see for nearly a hundred miles in every direction, so I did see quite a lot.

Some people have asked me what season it is right now in Mongolia—I guess thinking that it’s in the southern hemisphere. Nope. Although I can empathize; two years ago I was hard pressed myself to give Mongolia’s exact location. But I can tell you now that it’s west and north of parts of China, south of Siberia, and just east of Kazakhstan (which shares its language with far west Mongolia, but is separated by slivers of China and Russia). Many adventurous travelers take the Trans-Siberian Railway, whose trans-Mongolian route runs from Moscow, through Mongolia, and on to Beijing. Conveniently, for my not so great math brain, it’s twelve hours ahead of NYC, at least during our daylight savings time, so I just had to remember that Mom’s dinnertime was my getting up time.

My mother was a 3x a week squash player before she took off for Mongolia. She came to love Mongolia so much that she says she really didn’t miss anything too terribly back here in the States (hey, what about me, mom?). But when reminded of the three sparkling white singles courts and the only doubles court on Boston’s northshore waiting for her in the brand new YMCA near her home, she admitted to some excitement. Mother, like daughter, likes a good sweat, and she hadn’t done much of that in the -30 F degree temps that are common in the Mongolian winter. Her frontier-style house was heated only by a small wood-burning stove. Ever had to thaw ice for your morning coffee?

Coincidentally, while her Y at home was being built, an extensive renovation was being made to a local sports arena in her Mongolian neighborhood. It was round, painted a Pepto Bismal pink, topped with a royal blue roof, and echoed the shape of the traditional Mongolian single-roomed house, the ger (rhymes with hair), which is easy to pack up and take with you when your goats run out of grass. The wrestling palace, as it is called, is not so portable. It could’ve easily housed a few dozen squash courts from the size of it. Instead, it will feature one wrestling ring. Wrestling is the national sport, followed by horse racing and archery. All three are celebrated during Naadam, their big countrywide festival in July. They look forward to it as much as New York City squash players look forward to the Grand Open. Possibly more. But let’s be glad we get to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Mongolian wrestlers show off a bit more of their physique in a costume that makes a woman’s bikini look demure. Legend has it, in fact, that the costume was created after a woman womped all the guys. So to ensure their not being womped again, they created a chest-baring vest and speedo-sized knickers so that one’s, um, gender-specific parts were a bit more obvious. After that, I guess women decided it wasn’t worth it. But if it had been squash, I’m sure they would’ve found a way around it.

I did ask a few people if they knew of any squash courts in Mongolia, but besides the fact that my Mongolian consists of only a few non-squash specific phrases (“Have you slept well?”) and my standard English explanation ‘it’s kind of like racquetball, only better’ was met with blank stares, I didn’t get very far. The only racquet sport that did ring a bell was table tennis, which makes sense for Mongolians because it’s movable (it’s a nomadic culture, remember) and can be played in whatever you’re wearing. Even your wrestling duds.

But the pressing question on all of your minds, I’m sure, is: will squash ever be played in Mongolia? It certainly has the room for it. Scads. And the climate (ever felt minus thirty?) to make indoor activity preferable much of the year. Perhaps a new ball could be introduced: the double white dot. But are Mongolians suited to squash? Riding along on the bony back of my Mongolian mare, gazing into the vast oceanic emptiness of achingly gorgeous countryside, I thought about this…
…and came up with some reasons why they might be. Although please excuse my considerable generalizing.

Spontaneity: Squash players often play last minute (well, I do). Mongolians do everything last minute. They’d be great for a pick-up game.

Sociability: Squash players are a friendly sort. We like to hang out and have a beer. Mongolians like their airag (fermented mare’s milk). They pass around a large bowl of it, from which everyone drinks. Someone invariably starts singing. I’m sure we’d have a great time together after the game.

Strong glutes: Squash players have them from squatting over the ball. Mongolians have them from squatting over most everything else, including food, fire, flat tires, and the hole in the ‘jorlong’—the place where you go when you’ve had too much airag. Getting down low comes naturally to Mongolians.

Quick reflexes: Squash players have them from chasing balls. Mongolians have them from chasing sheep, goats, and horses. Not to mention dodging the crazy traffic in UB.

Good balance: Squash players need it to hit a good shot. Mongolians need it to ride horses, rope livestock, and—if you’re female—stay standing on your stilettos as you navigate unpaved roads. Truly, Mongolian women must be the most well-balanced people on the planet; if they could play squash in high heels, they’d probably move faster than you or I in court shoes.

Competitiveness: Squash players compete on a daily basis, on leagues, in tournaments. I’ve never met a squash player who didn’t like to compete at some level. Mongolians love their wrestling matches and horse-races. Genghis Khan may have been the greatest competitor of all time—and given all the children he sired (hundreds!), many Mongolians are related to him; competition is in the their blood.

So getting squash going in Mongolia seems a no brainer. Although as I trotted along through some of the most stunning landscape I’d ever seen, and feeling like an extra in an old timey western, I began to have second thoughts. From what I’ve gleaned, Mongolia seems to be teetering on the knife edge between the technological and big business world of the 21st century and a nomadic, live-off-the-land lifestyle that hasn’t changed much in hundreds if not thousands of years. Keep your head at a certain angle and some streets in Ulaanbaatar don’t look that different than, say, Canal Street, or some of the more hodge-podgy parts of NYC. Cheap Chinese goods for sale, restaurants of various nationalities, billboards advertising cigarettes to cell phones, SUVs threatening to run you over at every corner. We learned that the exceedingly insane traffic in UB is in part due to many Mongolians moving to the city, buying cars, and becoming taxi drivers. Raise your hand and nearly every other car will pull over to give you a ride. Sounds great until you notice the old woman with a cane moving faster than your taxi.

Take that taxi a few miles into the country, however, and you’ll see that time is also moving slower. If Genghis Khan were to drop in on a herder family in the hoodo (countryside), I think he’d feel quite at home, especially if they were to offer his favorite drink, a bowl of airag. While in the Gobi, my family was offered that same refreshment by a weathered yet handsome gentleman squatting before us in his deel—the traditional robe-like garment worn by both men and women, but looks particularly dashing on men. Looking on were two men and three women, one of which was nursing a newborn infant. The young woman sat on the only large piece of furniture in the round-roomed ger, a single bed. Next to it was a large pile of bedding. And it began to dawn on me, all of these people lived in this ger.

Before we left, our host showed us a number of medals and pointed out the door at his herd of horses. He mounted one as we were driving away and loped along side for a while before turning and riding, literally, into the sunset. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so romantic. Will this man ever encounter a squash ball? I have to say, I hope not.

If you’d like to see what the world looked like before squash…and most man-made wonders of the modern world, both good and bad, get thee to Mongolia pronto. Just before sunrise, and a few hours prior to my memorable horseback ride, I hiked up the rocks behind our camp. I sat on a cliff overlooking a valley that seemingly went on forever and watched as the light changed from the soft blues of pre-dawn to the rosy sharpness of morning. In a space that could’ve easily fit many Manhattans, only a few gers were visible, like mini-marshmallows floating far away. Two dusty tire-tracks left our camp and soon disappeared. Otherwise, there was no evidence of civilization. For a moment there, listening to the reverberating echo of silence, I actually forgot about squash. And that, I think, was not a bad thing.


1 Response to Travel writing

  1. It appears that there now IS squash in Mongolia, at least in the capital Ulaanbaatar.
    Skytel Building, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
    More info. on their FB page:

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