What is the Naadam Festival?
Naadam is a traditional festival that takes place throughout Mongolia in July, culminating with the big Naadam festival of the capital, Ulaanbaatar (in 2019, Naadam in UB took place from 11 to 14 of July). Naadam is a kind of competition in which athletes (mostly men) compete in the three national sports. Actually, Naadam is the short version for ‘Eriin Gurvan Naadam’ which literally translates as the ‘three games of men’. Each village has its own version of Naadam, that usually take place in the weekends that precede the big Naadam of Ulaanbaatar. The reason why Naadam takes place in the villages before the capital is straightforward: it is a way to select the best athletes, who will participate in the big Naadam of the capital.
The History of the Games
The Festival began in the 17th century, during the Qing dynasty, as a way to train the troops of the Empire. Nowadays, the Festival celebrates both the Mongolian State Flag Day and the 1921 Revolution (when Mongolia declared its independence from China).
Which are the Games celebrated at Naadam Festival?
Though the ‘games of men’ were considered to be three (Wrestling, Horse Racing and Archery), a fourth one has commonly been added to the list: Knuckle-Bone Shooting. Sounds exotic? Wait until you read about it below! These are the four sports that you are likely to see during Naadam, everywhere throughout the country.
Wrestling is one of the skills that Genghis Khan encouraged his soldiers to have, obviously. Therefore, wrestling has been a popular activity for a very long time in Mongolia. In UB, the wrestling takes place in the National Sports Stadium (with a capacity for 12,500 spectators). As the public sits quite away from the action, it really is better to attend the Naadam of smaller villages for a closer experience. However, in UB there will be the best athletes, selected at national level. Watching how 115 kg athletes try to put their opponents to the ground (in Mongolian wrestling, it is enough to make the adversary touch with his upper part, knee or elbow in the ground to win) can go deep on one’s emotions…
Horse racing is another popular sport during Naadam. Again, the best riders are selected throughout Naadam in smaller villages, and come to Ulaanbaatar (or 40 kilometres away from the capital) for the final races. We were told that there are at least 500 horses running in the most important races (we couldn’t confirm this info, although it did seem like there were many horses!). Expect to sit for at least two hours of a long wait – the horses and jockeys pass the vet control in front of the spectators, then throttle for around 25 kilometres to the starting point of the race and only then the race starts. In about two hours they will pass in front of the gallery, where spectators have been waiting and vibrate with the arrival of the first horses. Now, what was surprising for us was to see that not even half of the horses and jockeys had arrived, and most of the public was already abandoning the gallery… The best jockeys need to be light (so that they don’t become a burden to the horse, therefore they are all very young riders. Some of them looked like they had just recently started walking… if you know what we mean.
Due to Mongolian’s nomadism, archery has been present in Mongol’s lifestyle for many centuries, first as a means to hunt and only later as a weapon during battles. Archery is part of the Mongolian culture and for that reason, all the athletes in today’s archery competitions wear traditional costumes and use traditional arrows and bows, made of birch wood. The arrows are usually between 90 and 100 centimetres in length and weigh between 40 g (for women) and 75 g (for men). This competition is impressive by the number of archers taking part in it. After the first shots, we did have the feeling that we could move on to another thing…
Now, this was our favourite! That men were able to shoot so precisely with such a tiny piece and hit a target row of sheep knuckle-bones, to knock them into a target zone from a distance of 5 to 6 metres impressed us a lot. The men playing (four competitors at a time) have many different techniques to remain concentrated, and one of them, which adds a lot to the atmosphere, is that the colleagues of the same team will echo the traditional knuckle-bone shooting melodies, that work like a kind of mantra song. Beautiful!
Traditionally these are games of men, but what about women?
Women have started participating in the archery and we have also seen many girls in the horse-racing games, but not in Mongolian wrestling yet. But considering the importance of women in Mongolian society, it wouldn’t surprise us if very soon this would happen, as well.
> Location of the horse races
We struggled a bit to find the exact location of the horse races, so here it is a map witht e right location. The event takes place around 40 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar.
If you are interested in Mongolia, check our other articles:
- Mongolian Child Monks
- 20 Reasons to Visit Mongolia
- Mongolian Buddhism
- The Amazing Gobi Desert (short video)