Mongolia’s Naadam Festival – What To Expect 2016

Mongolia’s Parliamentary Elections – Your Guide
June 29, 2016
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July 20, 2016

So. If you’re interested in Mongolia then you have probably heard of Naadam – Eriin Gurvan Naadam – The Three Manly Games.  I’ve been living and working in Mongolia for the past 11 years and what still surprises me is when international visitors consider Naadam a ‘tourist event.’ It’s not.  

A transfer tattoo of the Mongolian flag
Image by our guest Barry Meadow

What also surprises me is that people just see Naadam as the Three Manly Games. Naad means games and yes, Naadam highlights the ‘three manly games’ of wrestling,  archery and horse racing.  But, Naadam is so much more than wrestlers, horse racing and archery.

An archer at the Naadam Festival
Participants of the Soyolon (5 year old horse) Naadam race, Mongolia
The participants of the 5th round of wrestling at the Naadam Festival, Mongolia
All three images by our guest Egon Filter

It is  a Mongolian national celebration designed for Mongolians.  

Naadam is a favoured public holiday, one of Mongolia’s top sporting events, a celebration of culture and tradition and pride, and a vibrant festival. It is a celebration of first-class sportsmanship, ordinary people taking pride in their country  and century’s old tradition melded together.  It is also a time when Mongolians celebrate who they are, how proud they are to be Mongolian, their heritage and the qualities that produced the warrior nation of Genghis Khan. 

Naadam is Mongolia’s version of the Olympic Games and as an example of how highly the winners are regarded,  the winners of the 2014 wrestling competition won between them a Toyota Land Cruiser 200, a Lexus 570, a four-bedroom apartment, a three-bedroom apartment and 15 million and 10 million tugrik in prize money from the government (not including prize money from the Naadam sponsors).

So. Now that that’s cleared up just what can you expect.

Countrywide Naadam

This national event is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11th and 12th (with horse racing taking place in the week leading up to the event). The dates are the anniversary of the 1921 Revolution led by the Mongolian revolutionary Sukhbaatar that brought independence from the Manchurians (Qing Dynasty).  

Then, each aimag (province) also holds its own Naadam with each aimag deciding on their own festival dates. Often, the dates of these provincial celebrations are announced roughly one month in advance only.   Each province is split into districts and so most of the districts will also hold a Naadam. Naadam celebrations are also held by small communties – as an example, herders coming together to honour the community ovoo (sacred stone shrine). Naadam is a holiday and a celebration and so most communities decide an auspicious day from the Mongolian Lunar Calendar. These smaller community events are typically only advertised by word of mouth within the local community.

 Khatgal Naadam, Khovsgol 2014

Mongolian flag and banner at the Khatgal Naadam, Khovsgo
Both images by our guest Frank Jones 

Local Naadam wrestling event in the southern Gobi. Bayandalai, Omnogobi Aimag
Image by our guest Egon Filter
Lining up for the start of a horse race at the Bulgan Naadam in northern Mongolia.
Image by our guest Mick Egan

 Opening Ceremony

It’s not just the National Ulaanbaatar Naadam that holds an opening ceremony – no matter the size, each Naadam will have an ‘opening’ of some kind. 

For the Ulaanbaatar Naadam, did you know that each year the Opening Ceremony is designed by a leading Mongolian artist? Based on a different theme? 

In 2016, N. Naranbaatar (the director of the National Academic Drama Theatre) is the artistic creator. In a recent interview he was asked about his plan for the opening ceremony:

‘Mongolia has a great and rich history. Spending a lot of money doesn’t necessarily mean the festival will be amazing. Since our economy is in a slump, we have no other choice but to limit our budget and be resourceful. Our ancestors had great tradition, customs that we should still follow and value today. In the old days, Mongolians valued water like one’s eyes, they never washed their head in the river, and never wasted any water. So this year’s Naadam will take visitors through four historical eras of Mongolia – starting from the Hunnu era, the Great Chinggis Khaan era, Bogd Khaan era and through to the People’s Revolution era. The main idea of this year’s Naadam Festival is try to give people “what will we do without water, and how important water is to our lives”. Let’s stop here because it is no fun to reveal everything before the festival.’

Opening ceremony at the Bulgan Naadam.
Image by our guest Mick Egan
Ceremony of the State Banner of Mongolia - Chinggis (Sukhbaatar) Square
Image by our guest James Goober
Image by our guest James Godber
Mongolian Khuurshuur Festival

If you’re vegetarian then you won’t appreciate khuurshuur. However, Mongolia’s ubiquitous mutton pancakes are the food of Naadam (along with khorkhog – Mongolian barbecue).  Held for the past few years, the Mongolian Khuurshuur Festival is held to  promote this most Mongolian of all Mongolian national food.

The festival’s organizer will select two food stands at the Central Stadium (where all events take place) with the most unique khuushuur, two with the most delicious khuushur, and the two cleanest pavilions, and award each winner one million MNT and the opportunity to participate in a trade fair that will be held later in the summer. 
* Remember the average monthly income for a ‘typical’ Mongolian family is 849,500. However, roughly 14.4% of all families have a monthly income of only MNT 300,000). 
Shagain Kharvaa – Ankle Bone Shooting
National ankle bone shooting competition, Naadam Festival, 2015
Image by our guest James Godber

Although not ‘officially’ one of the Three Manly Sports,  it is a nationwide sport and there is a Mongolian Federation of Knucklebone Shooting. It might not get the same glory but 

Male teams of 6-8 members (typically one or two have to be younger) flick domino-like tablets on a smooth wooden surface towards a target of sheep knuckle-bones, aiming to knock them into a target zone. Typically each team will have one or two younger members and there is a team leader as well). Each shooter possesses their own adjusted shooting tools including stools and wear uniforms  embossed with distinguished characteristics depending on their rank and merits. 

Look at the team structure and you should see one or two younger members – this is a traditional method of apprenticeship training – the passing of knowledge from master to apprentices and is part of the philosophy of the shagain kharvaa sport in Mongolia.

As you’ll be able to see, it’s all about accuracy. Members of each team communicate via traditional shooting melodies their opinions to the shooters developed and expanded in each Mongolian provinces and regions.

‘Aduuchiin Naadam’ – Horse Trainer’s Naadam

Held on July 13th at the Khui Doloon Khudag racing area (roughly 40km outside of UB), this event is held for the benefit of the horse owners and trainers who have not been able to watch the Ulaanbaatar stadium events. 

Events include mixed-breed horse races – professional observers focus on the mixed breed races as they want to pick good horses for future races and trading. There is also a wrestling competition, an ambling trotting competition (which is actually taken very seriously and more exciting than it sounds) and a cultural show. 
Finishing line of a Naadam horse race, Mongolia
Image by our guest Volker Mueller

It’s free for all members of the public and it draws a large number of Mongolian families – there are  far more Mongolian spectators than foreigners- creating a vibrant holiday atmosphere. 

Sukhbaatar Square Cultural Performances

Over the holiday period (Naadam is a five-day public holiday), free concerts are hosted in central Sukhbaatar (Chinggis) Square.  They showcase the depth of Mongolian culture.

There’s the Deeltei Mongol Festival showcasing traditional Mongolian dress with the  aim to encourage young Mongolian people to take pride in their national culture, and to celebrate the richness of the historic and contemporary fashion of  Mongolia’s traditional dress.

There’s also a live outdoor performance of ‘Uchirtai Girvan Tolgoi’  – a Mongolian opera titled Three Dramatic Characters.  There’s free live music by one of Mongolia’s top rock groups  – Kharanga finished off with a spectacular firework display (trust me, it is spectacular).  There’s an open air International Festival of  Morin Khuur (Horse Head Fiddle) and to finish off with there’s the International Ulaanbaatar Swing Night Festival which is one of the best live performances I have ever experienced. 

At the opening ceremony of the 2015 National Naadam Festival
Image by our guest James Godber
As you can hopefully see, Naadam is so much more than you probably expect it to be.  The most important thing to remember is to experience Naadam from a Mongolian perspective.
You can search my blog for more details on the rules of Mongolian archery, wrestling and a description of the horse racing events. For now though, I’ll leave you with part of the Naadam opening speech made by Mongolia’s President (Tsakhia Elbegdorj) in 2015:

‘The national Naadam, the tradition of our statehood, historical and cultural wonder, and delight of the people of Mongolia begins with pride and vigour. 

I wish the wrestlers be strong, the cheer of horse riders be clear, the horse racing astonishing, archers be sharp and our people be peaceful. From this rostrum, I declare the supreme festivity of the Mongol people, the Naadam, open. Have a great Naadam festivity. May my Mongolia dwell eternally.’

If you’re interested in experiencing Mongolia’s Naadam or one of the other annual festivals, why not have  quick look at the Mongolia Festivals page on my EL website. I’m always happy to answer questions so do get in touch. 

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Written by Jess - the founder of Eternal Landscapes - there's no spam, no sharing your details and no random offers. It It goes out once or twice a month. Hopefully enough to be of interest but not too much to annoy.