Travel

Friends from around the globe con­verge each year on a camp in the re­mote grass­lands of Mon­go­lia for a week of ex­otic ad­ven­ture and rev­elry that cul­mi­nates in a polo tour­na­ment. Kim Visud­haromn takes us in­side the Mut­ton Cup

Thailand Tatler - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy elise has­sey

Dur­ing an ex­otic ad­ven­ture in the wilds of Mon­go­lia with a group of friends from around the world, Kim Visud­haromn dis­cov­ers the unique ex­cite­ments of the Mut­ton Cup polo tour­na­ment

It’s a lit­tle past 10pm in the Orkhon Val­ley of cen­tral Mon­go­lia, barely an hour since the sun turned the clouds pink and or­ange as it be­gan to slip be­hind dis­tant moun­tains. Now the scenery is hardly dis­cernible, the air still, and all would be si­lent if it were not for the in­con­gru­ous thump­ing of bass, beats and… Bey­oncé. Drunk in Love blares from one of the gers hud­dled at the foot of a grassy hill. Used by day as the tack ger, its felt walls, usu­ally lined with sad­dles, reins and rid­ing hel­mets, tonight en­close per­haps the most eclec­tic party in the coun­try.

In­vestors, en­trepreneurs, fash­ion buy­ers and hote­liers lock arms in jiv­ing em­brace with no­madic herders, shamanic heal­ers and artisans, the former clad in gar­ishly coloured polo shirts, the lat­ter in deep jewel-hued dels, tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian jackets belted chicly at the hips. The gamey scent of goat from sup­per lingers as bowls of a tra­di­tional fer­mented horse milk in­tox­i­cant called airag is passed around the makeshift dance­floor. A mix of hip hop, top 40s and disco streams from a sin­gle un­wieldy speaker, which is even­tu­ally hoisted and car­ried out­side, with the throng of ine­bri­ated rev­ellers fol­low­ing like mice be­hind the Pied Piper to dance in the moon­light un­der the vast starry sky.

This scene is de­scribed in our itin­er­ary as The Fa­mous Bodog Party, and it’s just one of nu­mer­ous beau­ti­fully bizarre, how-on-earth-did-I-get-here mo­ments that we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced since ar­riv­ing at the Genghis Khan Rid­ing and Ad­ven­ture Camp for the Mut­ton Cup, a week-long ad­ven­ture on the un­tamed Mon­go­lian steppe that cul­mi­nates in a friendly polo tour­na­ment played by in­ter­na­tional and Mon­gol rid­ers.

Our days have been filled with out­doorsy di­ver­sions amid breath­tak­ing scenery that has fre­quently left us speech­less. We’ve gal­loped through wide open plains and up edel­weissstrewn hills on stocky, semi-wild horses, which are re­leased ev­ery evening and rounded up again by herds­men on mo­tor­bikes at dawn. We’ve pic­nicked on a moun­tain strewn with pre­car­i­ously stacked boul­ders, and we’ve kayaked down the Orkhon River past herds of horses and run­ning yaks, their skunk-like tails swoosh­ing in the wind. Wak­ing from our rit­u­al­is­tic post-lunch siesta, we’ve been greeted by goats and kids graz­ing, literally, at our doorstep.

The Mut­ton Cup was con­ceived over drinks on a win­ter evening in 2016 at the Shangri-la Ho­tel in Kath­mandu. Broth­ers Sang­jay and Rinchen Cho­e­gyal and their child­hood friend Jack Ed­wards de­cided they would turn their love of ad­ven­ture and fun into an an­nual event that would bring to­gether a di­verse range of friends from around the globe. They’d throw a week-long cel­e­bra­tion in the most un­likely of set­tings, full of ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­tiv­i­ties and a care­fully cho­sen cast of char­ac­ters. It would be a truly new ex­pe­ri­ence that could not be repli­cated any­where else in the world—and be­ing in­vite-only, one of the most ex­clu­sive.

“Our friend­ship group is truly in­ter­na­tional—the idea for the Mut­ton Cup was born through a long­ing to bring these amaz­ing peo­ple to­gether at a spec­tac­u­lar lo­ca­tion and to throw one hell of a party,” ex­plains Jack. “We like it when the peo­ple com­ing don’t al­ready all know each other, and they tend to be quite eclec­tic,” Rinchen adds. “That keeps things in­ter­est­ing.”

As for the eye­brow-rais­ing name of the event it­self ? “In the West, mut­ton refers to old sheep meat, but in the East, where we all grew up, it’s typ­i­cally goat,” ex­plains Rinchen. The tour­na­ment’s name takes in­spi­ra­tion from the cel­e­bra­tory meal served at the end of the tour­na­ment, the afore­men­tioned bodog din­ner— dis­em­bow­elled goat cooked from the in­side out by hot stones sewn into the cav­ity of the car­cass. Charm­ing. “It’s a funny, jokey word, isn’t it?” Rinchen laughs. “Any­way, we like the un­pre­ten­tious rus­tic­ness of it; it’s true to the ex­pe­ri­ence of life on the steppe. Plus, bodog is a style of cook­ing with great cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance in Mon­go­lia, said to have been first prac­tised by Genghis Khan him­self.”

The trio hosted their first Mut­ton Cup in 2017, invit­ing 25 of their friends along for the wild ride. They booked out the en­tire Genghis Khan Rid­ing and Ad­ven­ture Camp, the very place where they’d learned to play polo in their teens (the camp be­gan life as the Genghis Khan Polo Club in 1996). They have re­turned sep­a­rately and to­gether many times since, each form­ing their own spe­cial bonds with the camp and its team. “Our fam­i­lies have been close to the founder of the polo club, Christo­pher Gier­cke, for many years,” says Jack.

Re­calls Sang­jay, who was taught to play polo by an exIn­dian cav­alry colonel in Mon­go­lia, “I first vis­ited the camp in 2009 when I came to watch Rinchen com­plete an over­land race from Lon­don to Ulaan­baatar in a Skoda. I wasn’t re­ally ex­pect­ing it, but the im­me­di­ate hum­bling na­ture of the Mon­go­lian steppe is hard to de­scribe with­out de­scend­ing into su­perla­tives and emo­tions. And since we hosted the first Mut­ton Cup last year, the event will now be the first en­try on my cal­en­dar.”

A Mut­ton Cup takes a few months to or­gan­ise, with tasks divvied up and un­der­taken by the boys along with their reg­u­lar jobs (Sang­jay as the gen­eral man­ager of Bangkok ar­chi­tect Bill Bens­ley’s lat­est Cam­bo­dian re­sort, Shinta Mani

Wild; Rinchen as an Asian eq­uity in­vest­ment an­a­lyst in Hong Kong; and Jack as manag­ing di­rec­tor of the Tiger Tops group, a sa­fari lodge busi­ness in Nepal).

The camp only ex­ists dur­ing the sum­mer months, af­ter which it is dis­man­tled and stored for the long win­ter. “It re­ally em­braces the no­madic tra­di­tions of the lo­ca­tion in that sense,” Rinchen says. “There are no per­ma­nent struc­tures and the big felt gers are stored dur­ing the win­ter, leav­ing no trace on the pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment. In the win­ter the an­i­mals, horses in­cluded, are taken by no­madic herders up into the moun­tains where they are rel­a­tively pro­tected from the el­e­ments, giv­ing them the best chance for sur­vival. Come spring, the horses are re­cap­tured and trained for rid­ing dur­ing the sum­mer.”

The camp also gives no­madic chil­dren from all over Mon­go­lia the chance to take part in its Young Rid­ers of the World ini­tia­tive, a free sum­mer pro­gramme of train­ing in sports, in­clud­ing but not limited to polo, and lessons in English and art. Young play­ers with prom­ise are em­pow­ered to pur­sue the sports fur­ther, both do­mes­ti­cally and abroad; in­deed, the Mon­gol rid­ers who played in the Mut­ton Cup got their start play­ing at Young Rid­ers of the World and have trav­elled to ride and work in var­i­ous places around the world. All of them re­cently re­turned from a sea­son of polo in New Zealand and were par­tic­i­pants in the All Asia Cup in Thai­land a few months ago.

To say that Sang­jay, Rinchen and Jack look for­ward to the Mut­ton Cup would be an un­der­state­ment. They take their fun se­ri­ously, hav­ing drawn up a com­pre­hen­sive yet spon­ta­neous itin­er­ary that in­tro­duces and im­merses their guests in the life­style, rites and rit­u­als of one of the world’s last re­main­ing no­madic cul­tures. There were horse races, archery tour­na­ments and wrestling matches against Mon­gol champs. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, the camp’s pi­anist, Odgerel Sampil­norov, en­thralled us with her beau­ti­ful play­ing of Bach, Chopin and Beethoven. Then Beethoven would turn to Tiny Dancer as we gath­ered around the baby grand to belt out glam rock tunes. Mon­gol mu­si­cians, throat singers and con­tor­tion­ists per­formed prior to our “black tie” din­ner, which kicked off with a for­aged net­tle soup, sim­mered and served from a large caul­dron by camp chef Ming­mar Sherpa. Then came trays of Mon­go­lian meat-and-potato pasties that we ate with our hands, not a fussy din­ner fork in sight. Though speak­ing of fussy sil­ver­ware, the sim­ple tum­blers from which we drank our wine and wa­ter, while pos­sess­ing the unas­sum­ing look of beer pong cups, were in fact crafted from the finest Nepalese sil­ver. These pre­cious cups ac­com­pa­nied us on all our rides, care­fully packed in the ruck­sack of a herds­man and dis­trib­uted dur­ing our wa­ter breaks, then col­lected and counted back into the ruck­sack each time.

Such are the small touches of un­der­stated lux­ury that make the camp so charm­ingly dif­fer­ent from … any­where, re­ally. Nearly ev­ery item, in­clud­ing the gers them­selves, has been sourced or pro­duced lo­cally. The vel­vet-leather-mar­ble look of most five-star ac­com­mo­da­tion is es­chewed for hand­made wooden fur­ni­ture, each piece adorned with de­light­ful de­cals painted by the camp’s res­i­dent artist, Golden Buckle. Hot soaks are taken in tall lac­quered-wood baths im­ported from Ja­pan, and a layer cake of cash­mere blan­kets tops our beds (the Gier­cke fam­ily pro­duces some of the world’s finest cash­mere us­ing lo­cally sourced ma­te­rial, sup­ply­ing a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional lux­ury houses). There are zero com­forts of the dig­i­tal kind, of course—no elec­tric­ity, no in­ter­net, no news, no prob­lem. Af­ter all, there are far more in­ter­est­ing things to do than scroll through In­sta­gram. Like, for ex­am­ple, at­tend­ing a Naadam, or tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian fes­ti­val.

On our last day of the Mut­ton Cup, chil­dren from all over the val­ley gather for a horse race, one of the three sports that make up the games of a Naadam (the oth­ers be­ing wrestling and archery). More than 70 boys and girls aged from five to 12 sit proudly, many bare­back, on their fam­i­lies’ horses, par­ents calm­ing the more rest­less stal­lions. The chil­dren seem un­fazed, pulling as­sertively on the reins. “Mon­gol chil­dren are ex­pected to be able to sit and stay on a horse by age three,” ex­plains camp man­ager D’Artag­nan Gier­cke, the sec­ond of Christo­pher Gier­cke’s three chil­dren. “At age five, they’re ex­pected to race.”

And race they do, gal­lop­ing against the wind, squat­ting, stand­ing, whip­ping their horses with spindly sticks. We tail them closely in a car driven by Shiva, the ven­er­a­ble camp shaman and bone-set­ter, as he sings along to a spir­ited an­them on the ra­dio. I look over at my travel com­pan­ion, Ploy Bhin­saeng, who has tears stream­ing down her face.

Hours later, as we try on out­fits for the bodog party, Ploy ex­plains why the race moved her. “As a horse rider, I’m so im­pressed by how gutsy these kids are; there was no hold­ing back,” she says. “They’re just lit­tle kids, some haven’t even been to school, but they know how to ride be­cause that’s how they help pro­vide for their fam­ily.” As the only woman on Thai­land’s na­tional polo team, Ploy is par­tic­u­larly fond of the fear­less fe­male rid­ers. “Those lit­tle girls with their pretty plaited hair, they’re so spicy and sassy over­tak­ing the boys. I love it! It gave me goose­bumps be­cause it made me think of Doda.”

Doda Moto, who works at the camp, is the daugh­ter of a fa­mous race­horse trainer, Moto, whose horses con­sis­tently place in the top five of the an­nual na­tional Naadam Fes­ti­val. Doda her­self is a highly ac­com­plished rider, hav­ing won nu­mer­ous races. “In their ger, they have more medals than cup­boards for clothes,” says Ploy. “I had heard of Doda when she came to Thai­land for a polo tour­na­ment. Christo­pher Gier­cke was al­ways talk­ing about her. I feel so lucky to have fi­nally met her, to have spent time with her and her fam­ily.”

Ev­ery morn­ing, while the rest of us were sleep­ing off the pre­vi­ous night’s rev­elry, Ploy would wake at sun­rise to herd the horses with Moto or milk mares with Doda and her mother. The two young women would later train to­gether, and even­tu­ally played along­side each other in the Mut­ton Cup tour­na­ment on an all-girls team cheek­ily named Chicks with Sticks.

“Doda wanted to know what the ‘real’ out­side polo world was like: play­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally, learn­ing from ex­pe­ri­enced men­tors and so on. But I think I was the one who has been taught a thing or two about life,” says Ploy. “I grew up in pony camps and dres­sage com­pe­ti­tions; Doda and her friends, they learned in the wild, in the land of horses they call home. Horses are in­trin­sic to their ecosys­tem, rid­ing runs in their blood. They’re what’s real. They’re the real deal.”

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