11-12 July 2023
I visit during July when Mongolia hosts the biggest celebration of the year – Naadam or “three manly games.” Likened to Mongolia’s version of the Olympics, the festival takes place every summer all over Mongolia. Most important sporting events include archery, horse riding and wrestling but rousing games of Ankle Bone Shooting also are played. It is a time of oral traditions and songs (some throat singing), performing arts, national cuisine, craftsmanship, bright colors and traditional clothing honoring the nomadic way of life.
It’s a cacophony of noise and people, like a huge state fair on steroids. UNESCO has recognized Naadam on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Becoming an annual event by 1639, a form of Naadam has been celebrated since the 13th century. The dance festival is said to be dedicated to the High Saint Zanabazar. Zanabazar (1635-1723) was the first high saint of Mongolia who was instrumental in popularizing Buddhism in Mongolia.
During the Communist era, Naadam became associated with the military and the Mongolian Revolution of 1921. Mongolian People’s Army paraded in Sükhbaatar Square directly below our hotel. Today, celebrations commemorate the 1921 Revolution and a second dedication is to Mongolia’s independence from the Chinese dynasty.
Danshig Naadam, the biggest festival, takes place in Ulaanbaatar. We have the wonderful opportunity to watch events. Hundreds of soldiers in bright uniforms play brass instruments, and Mongolians dressed as Chinggis-like warrior parade around the square before marching to the stadium with the traditional nine white banners with nine white horsed warriors for the beginning of competitions. This tradition was first initiated by Chinggis Khan and the banners are made from tails of white horses.
The elaborate 2-hour opening ceremony featured dancers, musicians, athletes and mounted cavalry and lots of flags. There are highlights among highlights with so much going on it is hard to pick a favorite event. However, by far the best part is the Mongol riders and their horses racing full speed around the oval track. They are in full warrior armor with bow and arrows, battle axes, lances, long spears, daggers, long knives, and swords. I understand now how the charging, screaming sight would scare hell out of their enemies. Girls were also riders and thrilled in showing their skill in riding.
Competitions consist of wrestling where at least 512 (or 1024) men meet in 9-10 round man-on-man matches. Untimed, wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet or hands. The wrestler with the greatest fame, the lions and titans, have the privilege to choose his opponent. Wrestlers wear two-piece costumes consisting of a tight shoulder vest and shorts. I’m told a bare breast is required as a woman won the competition many years ago, humiliating her opponent and this is the men’s way to ban women. I’m thinking there are women who may eventually challenge this.
Unlike our Kentucky Derby, horse racing in Mongolia is more a cross-country event of between 10-30 miles, depending on the age of the horse. Up to 1000 horses from around the country participate. Children from ages 5-13 are the jockeys! The horse’s skill and stamina is truly tested. One realizes, though they wear some sort of helmet, jockeys, both boys and girls, ride bareback! And they are riding over the uneven steppes. There are serious injuries and lost horses.
We watched the most prestigious race of about 150 five-year-old horses as they left in mass for the mountains accompanied by several cars. The horses and riders may easily trot out to their starting line about 20 km away, but once they turn and hear the word, then all hell breaks loose as they race back to where they began 20km away. It is a full out race to the finish line. Supposedly, these small horses can run full speed for over 35km. The track cars are speeding to keep up and bouncing more than the jockeys. It took about 60 minutes racing at speeds of close to 40km an hour for the first horses to cross the finish line.
Dust billows and Ken can see the cars and horses as they come into sight. Crowds go crazy. It seems dangerous and it is, for both horse and rider. One idea less horses races past perhaps in 75th place. At the finish line, even with barricade and police ever 20 ft. It becomes a melee of celebration and happiness. Like others, we did not try to touch the dirt at the finish line or wipe the sweat from the winning horse. This is like Secretariat winning the Triple Crown maybe for the third consecutive year!
Only the first 5 winning horses of each race category are awarded prizes. The winning jockey is the “tumny ekh” or leader of ten thousand while the last horse crossing the finish line is called “vayan khodood” or full stomach. This references a title, not the destiny of the horse.
After the race, we are invited to “a very wealthy man’s” ger for refreshments. Seating at a long tab,e we are served Ayrag, the traditional Mongolian fermented mare’s milk drink. Huge Bowles of it when perhaps a big sip is more than enough. Then comes the salads, meats, cheeses, dumplings, chocolates and more. We learn there is much to celebrate as his horse won the 4-year-old race with his 11-year-old jockey. Didn’t meet the jockey but the horse tiredly posed for photos. We were told the horse, as is Mongolian tradition, had no name.
I've been through the desert on a horse with no name….
The archery competition involves both men and women (though not against each other and with slightly different rules) and played by teams of ten. Each archer has four arrows and must hit the targets, for men some 246 ft distant (women 213 ft). Each target or sur consists of small woven or wooden cylinder placed on top of each other forming a three-high wall, which is approximately 8 inches high by 5 feet wide. Knocking a surout of the wall with an arrow counts as a hit, though knocking a sur out of the center will bring a competitor more points. The team must hit 33 sur with four arrows. It’s pretty impressive considering most of us cannot clearly see 246 feet away.
There are warnings to be heeded during Naadam. At least a quarter of the country seems to come to Ulaanbaatar’s festival. Streets are packed. And attending the opening ceremonies in the nearby stadium borders on insanity. Stadium seating is narrow, tight and access limited. I am reminded of crushing, deadly crowds. Arrive early for your seats and stay late for crowds to leave. Outside the stadium is not a lot better. If this is not your cup of tea, I suggest going to one of the many regional contests or watching it all on tv.
However, my rule is one cannot have too many flags nor too much pageantry, honors and glory. Naadam festivities has it all in spades.