Each year in July, the masses of Mongolia gather in the capital, Ulan Bator, to take part in the Naadam celebrations. The Naadam Celebrations have been going on since the 13th century at least. The celebration has taken many forms and commemorated different things, nowadays commemorating Mongolia’s independence over China in 1921. What it has always celebrated, however, is traditional Mongolian culture.
Naadam is built around what the Mongolians call the ‘three games of men’, which are wrestling, horse racing and archery. Nomads from all over the country gather and participate or watch the games. Although the games are described as being “of men”, women can now participate in two out of three games: horse racing and archery.
It is the biggest celebration of Mongolia
Mongolians hold nothing back for Naadam. The city of Ulan Bator gets overcrowded with excited people ready to watch the opening ceremony, which involves mass dances and singing. Parades are organized to bring Genghis Khan’s 9 horse tails, representing the 9 tribes of Mongolia, to the stadium. These parades are one of a kind, with horse riders, monks and dancers escorting each tail.
If you visit Mongolia during Naadam, you are sure to experience a little of all parts of Mongolia, as people from all over the country come to spectate the game. It is probably the best time to walk around and meet people from all tribes and walks of life. They gather here to eat, sing and drink merrily while they play a game of shagai, the ancestor of dice games, using sheep ankle bones.
See thousands of wrestlers wrestling in a field
When it comes to wrestling, Mongolians aren’t kidding. All wrestlers converge on the field. The most famous wrestlers get to walk around and pick their opponents. Wrestlers are escorted by an encourager which sings their praise as they accumulate victories, going from one fight to another.
The game is simple: Without any time limit, each wrestler attempts to make their opponent touch the ground with any part of their body that isn’t their feet or their hands.
Wrestlers who win over 7 rounds start earning titles such as elephant, lion and giants.
Seeing all these men fighting on one field is, truly, a sight to behold and a living testimony to the might of what once was the Mongolian Empire.
See child jockeys race on horses at breakneck speed
During Naadam, horse races are blown out of proportion. Imagine hundreds of horses – actually close to a thousand – racing down a field of 15 kilometres as fast as they can. The emphasis here is put on the skills of the horses, rather than the rider. The riders are kids, from 5 to 13 years old, chosen as they won’t be much of a burden to the horse. Before each race starts, the whole audience sings a song to send the riders off. Truly a sight to behold.
Watch some of the most badass sharpshooters in the world
The last game, archery, involves the notorious Mongolian composite bow. This weapon was instrumental to Genghis Khan’s conquest of the west and the art of bow marksmanship still is revered and practiced all around the country.
Contrary to what you might think at first, this competition is actually a team competition. 10 archers are in one team and each of them is given four arrows and has to knock down as many cylindrical targets, piled on top of each other, as they can.
Each archer is dressed in a traditional costume as they shoot arrows over a distance of 75m (men) or 65m (women).
For most Mongolians, Naadam just wouldn’t be complete if they didn’t eat khuushuur and drink airag during the festival.
Khuushuur is a fried meat pie – think pizza-pocket meets grassland nomads. It also reminded us of cheburek (Russian meat pie) and is an instant crowd-pleaser. Airag, though, might leave you a bit doubtful. Fermented mare-milk doesn’t sound that appetizing to most non-Mongolians but, when in Rome…
If you are around for Naadam, don’t be surprised if nomads invite you to their ger to try these delicacies. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bond with people who are living a life completely different to most of us!
We hope this has convinced you to come and see Naadam for yourself! This year, YPT will run its first tour to the festival and the National Parks surrounding Ulan Bator! It is definitely something you don’t want to miss!