This time last year I kicked off an epic Trans-Mongolian train adventure with the 3-day Naadam Festival in Ulaan Bataar. Here’s my guide on what to expect during the festival and tips on how to make the most of it.
The Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s biggest event with a history that predates Genghis Khan. Originally a celebration of community and a way to showcase each clan’s talent, under the famed leader it became a way to train soldiers for battle. Today’s incarnation of the festival commemorates Mongolia’s independence from China, which took place on the 11th July 1912.
The full name of “eriin gurvan naadam” translates as the “three games of men” and refers to horse-riding, wrestling and archery. Though recently women have been allowed to compete in the archery and young girls in the horse-racing. It’s a particularly fun time to visit Mongolia with a host of events taking place and the chance to step back in time with centuries-old traditions.
The Opening Ceremony
Held in Ulaan Bataar’s National Sports Stadium, the festival begins with the colourful opening ceremony It’s hosted by the president of Mongolia and lasts a good three hours with a riotous display of horse-riding, historical re-enactments, athletic performances and dancing. Flags are waved, speeches are made, songs are sung and instruments played in anticipation of the three “manly” games that will be played.
From Chinggis Square in the centre of the city, Genghis Khan’s nine horse tails – representing the nine Mongol tribes – are paraded through the streets to the stadium where they are kept on display on a podium and guarded until the following day.
Once the opening ceremony has wrapped up, hundreds upon hundreds – if not thousands – of wrestlers dressed in traditional outfits take to the field to begin the first knock-out rounds. It’s organised chaos with so many men taking on one another and no time limit in place – a game isn’t over until one man ends up on his back.
Smaller wrestlers are paired against behemoths with no size category within the sport. The more cynical among us may see this as a way to save the favourites for the later rounds when it really starts to matter. Anyone who likes an underdog will find plenty to cheer for here! It’s not until the second day that you get to the more interesting rounds with previous champions and this year’s likely contenders tackling one another.
Elsewhere within the stadium is the archery contest where teams of 10 attempt to hit as many ‘surs‘ as possible with their four arrows. Lined up in a row of three levels, these individual woven or wooden cylinder-shaped objects need to be struck 33 times in order to continue in the competition and potentially win.
What makes the archery even more appealing for international spectators is the fact that men and women wear their national clothing, the deel – a long caftan-style garment made from a single piece of material, usually silk, in a range of colours. The frequent shouts of “uuhai” (“bull’s eye”) by the judge add to the jovial atmosphere.
The horse-racing is held outside of the city, approximately 30km away from Ulaan Bataar out on the open grasslands where courses range from 15 to 30 kilometres in length. Designed to test the skill and strength of the horses, the cross-country contest is divided across six categories determined by the age of the horses, ranging from two-year-olds to full-grown stallions.
Interestingly, the jockeys are young teenagers and adolescents aged between 5 and 13 years old with girls also able to participate. Jockeys start early in life with months of training before the event and prefer to ride saddle-less to be as quick as possible.
To compliment the roster of sports are various games played using shagai, the anklebone of a sheep or goat. These take place inside the stadium complex with benches around the area so spectators can sit back and watch as men flick bones at a target. With so many varieties of shagai game available, it can be a little difficult to work out exactly what’s going on so organise a guide to provide context on whatever you’re watching.
Day two of the official proceedings is when the finals take place. On the stadium field we’re down to the last few big boys and now it’s just one round at a time until the last man standing is crowned the arslan (lion). The top three horses in the final rounds of racing are presented with either a gold, silver or bronze medal and the winners of the archery contest are named ‘national marksman/woman’.
Mongolia’s president presents titles, medals and certificates to the winners and runners up during the course of the evening and the festival officially ends with the closing ceremony in which a ceremonial procession returns the state banners back to Chinggis Square where an impressive fireworks display is held.
All in all, the Naadam Festival was a unique experience, the perfect way to get to grips with Mongolia’s ancient traditions and a great way to start or end a train journey across Russia. If this has inspired you to plan a trip, here’s some extra tips:
Naadam Festival Tips
– It can get ridiculously hot in Ulaan Bataar at this time of year with temperatures reaching the mid 30s in centigrade. Most tourists are seated in the sheltered part of the stadium for the opening and closing ceremony but as the sun moves during the course of the day, it’s best to be prepared – take a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and keep hydrated.
– If you want to watch the horse-racing you’ll need to get a taxi from the stadium to the tented city of yurts called Hui Doolon Khutag where the event takes place. The traffic in Ulaan Bataar will be something of a nightmare during this holiday season so if you do opt to head out there for the afternoon, allow yourself plenty of time and avoid setting out at lunch when others will also be on the move. Public buses are another option but not for the faint-hearted with people packed in to the rafters. And take a scarf – it’s hot and dusty out on the open grasslands and you may want to keep your face covered.
– There’s plenty of food stalls within the stadium complex where you can try the traditional Mongolian dish of khuurshuur, a deep-fried meat pastry, and the national beverage of airag, fermented mare’s milk. If greasy meat and heavy carbs aren’t your thing, stock up on snacks in the supermarkets of Ulaan Bataar before you attend the festival.
– Take a good telephoto lens if you’re travelling with a DLSR or a good zoom point-and-shoot camera so you can take great close-up photos during the opening ceremony and of the wrestling games, after all, who doesn’t want pictures of grown men in oversized briefs and revealing open jackets?
– If you start to tire of the sports, head to Chinggis Square where a host of cultural events are held ranging from opera performances and throat singing contests to musical concerts and dance performances.