Why Mongolia’s Naadam Festival Should be on Your Bucket List

When I first read about the Naadam Festival in Mongolia a few years ago, I was fascinated by it, and added it to my bucket list. The annual sporting event takes place on July 11-13 and can be termed the ancient Olympics of Asia. The festival is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO. It measures courage, strength, daring, horsemanship and marksmanship of the nomadic people and warriors.

THE SCENE

Though the games take place over only three days, the entire country is on holiday for almost a week. Festivities start with a parade of uniformed guards, attended by the president and VIP’s at the Genghis Khan square. The same afternoon, there is a traditional costume parade and musical concert.

Fair Food at the Festival/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Fair Food at the Festival/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos

On day one, nine horse tails, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, are transported from Sukhbaatar Square to the Stadium to open the Naadam festivities. At these opening and closing ceremonies, there are impressive parades of mounted cavalry, athletes and monks. Kids perform drills and thousands of people gather to watch.

Opening Ceremony at the Stadium in UB/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Opening Ceremony at the Stadium in UB/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos

Outside at the stadium it looks like a fair. There are shops selling trinkets and food stalls as far as you can see. Mares milk, horse meat, candy floss, meat kebabs…and most importantly, the traditional Naadam treat, Khuushuur, are enjoyed by fans.

THE SPORTS

Mongolia has three national sports that come from the warrior history of Mongolia, known as Danshig games. At the Naadam festival, you can also see men gathered in a tent playing ankle bone shooting. Crowds cheer on as players carefully strategize with their fingers and shoot shagai or sheep anklebones into a wooden cupboard that acts like a target.

WRESTLING
The first noticeable thing about the wrestlers are their costumes – bright red and blue underwear and a top that looks like a reverse bra with sleeves. It is believed this is designed such that women cannot disguise themselves and participate (it actually happened once which led to the design of the current uniform).
Wrestling match / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Wrestling match / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
When the wrestlers enter the field, they do an eagle dance, flapping their arms like an eagle, then they crouch down and slap their thighs on the front and back. It’s to show their strength and power. The goal of this sport is to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body between the knees and the shoulders. There are no rules – you can even tug on his underwear!  The winner of a match also does a victory eagle dance at the end of the match, which lasts 9-10 rounds.
HORCERACING
Children in Mongolia start riding horses as young as 4 years old and the competitors in the Naadam horserace are only 6-12 years of age. They have to ride 10-30 kilometers (depending on the age of the horses) in the countryside. As many as 1000 horses compete in the competition all over the country. The kids ride solo, on dirt fields, at high speeds. It is a true test of skill and endurance starting at a young age!
Twins Races/ / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Twins Races/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
There is also a fun matching competition, where identical horses and riders go in sync. The crowds decide the best in class by clapping and cheering. The winners receive a medal, money, and sometimes dinner (live goat).
ARCHERY
Contestants use compound bows made with sinew, wood, horn and bamboo, and strung with bull tendon. Men shoot 40 arrows made from willow branches and griffin vulture feathers from a distance of 75 meters, and women deliver 20 arrows from 60 meters at a target.
Archery Competition/ / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Archery Competition/ / photo by Sucheta Rawal
In accordance with ancient custom, several men stand on either side of the target singing a folk song to cheer the contestants and then use hand signals to indicate the results.
WHERE TO WATCH 
It is not easy to watch the entire festival as it is spread around different venues. Tickets to the main event at the stadium in Ulaanbaatar sell out months in advance. Here you can watch the opening and closing ceremonies, parades and wrestling. It can get hot and crowded while sitting out in the sun all day.
Archery competition takes place at a separate venue located near the stadium, but for horse racing you need to go to the countryside (1-2 hours drive). Families gather at the start and end points of the race, making a day long picnic out of it. Here they eat, drink, shop, play, fly kites, and watch the race on a big screen in the lawn.
Another option to watch all the events at the same venue is by going to one of the privately held Naadam festivities, such as the one at Mongol Nomadic Tourist Camp, or the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Desert. Voyage Unique Mongolie tours organize transportation, lodging and visits to all of the Naadam activities, as well as sightseeing all over Mongolia.