Naadam Festival…A Must See in Mongolia

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If going to Mongolia, attending a naadam festival is a must.  Each village and city holds a naadam, many of which coincide with Mongolia’s Independence Day on July 11th and 12th.  We were blessed to see a countryside naadam a few days ago in Tsenkher, and now we were getting to visit another in Tsetserleg a few hours from camp. 

It is my understanding, that the country naadams are friendlier and more photogenic than the city naadams. The one in Ulaanbaatar is more like a large sporting event with lots of traffic and screeching loud speakers. But I digress.

Tsetserleg Naadam

We hurriedly loaded several vans at 7:45am to get to Tsetserleg in time to watch the first horse race.  In typical Mongolian fashion, the vans raced each other across the steppe, and arrived later than the scheduled event! 

Therefore, we had time to kill, as the opening ceremony and wrestling events in the arena didn’t begin until 10am.  While most of the group followed Carroll to Fairfield for a real cup of coffee and internet service, I wandered around the fairgrounds with Ingrid and Anna.

Carnival Events at Naadam

While the featured events, horse racing, wrestling, and archery are far different from any events at a fair in the United States, the activities taking place outside the arena, very much mimicked what would be seen at a state fair though in a more rural fashion. 

Balloon popping dart games could be found in multiple locations.  Locals threw the darts from behind a line scratched in the dirt.  Many crowded around the basketball hoop, a very popular sport in Mongolia.  There was also face painting and a game similar to spill the milk that required the player to knock cans off the shelf with a ball. Little kids could even enjoy a few carnival rides.

Vendors at Naadam

Vendors lined up around the arena to sell their wares which included toys, clothes, nice leather belts, and several knock offs including Calvin Klain, Addidos, Pamu, and Nikei.  Food stands sold khuushuur, mutton pancakes, which is a favorite treat among Mongolians along with Cokes with curly straws.  We actually had khuushuur for lunch though the meat stuffed, pita bread was purchased from a nearby local restaurant rather than a food stand.

kiddo in knock off Nike shirt at Naadam
MKEI – Nike

Spectators at Naadam

Many of the spectators dressed in their “Sunday best” (this was far different than a fair in the USA).  Ladies donned all white, hats, fancy dresses and high heal shoes.  Men generally wore jeans, a nice shirt, and hat.  Many came on their horses.  Families posed in front of the giant billboard sign that featured winning wrestlers from the previous year for their portrait.

Wrestling at Naadam

Inside the arena, wrestlers waited to compete.  Wearing their wrestling suit (bikini bottoms and an open-chested jacket) beneath their deels, they rested in the shade of the stands with the spectators until they were introduced.  Legend has it this open-chested design came to be after an Amazonian female thrashed her male competitors.  To prevent such embarrassment in the future, the open-chested jacket would expose any female competitors!

wrestlers waiting to compete at naadam

The Introduction

Upon introduction, the large, heavy men strutted onto the grassy infield to their hat holder.  After completing the eagle dance around their hat holder, the six wrestlers in the first round joined each other as they waved their arms like birds and strode around the Mongolian flag.  Next they returned to their hat holder to whom they handed off their Janjin Malgai (colorful, pointy hat) in preparation for their competition!

wrestler and hat holder at Naadam

The Match

Soon the single-elimination, wrestling tournament began.  Three matches were held at once.  To win the match, the wrestler had to cause a body part his opponent other than his hands or feet touch the ground.  The wrestlers could grab the belly rope, stick their leg out to trip one another, or somehow tackle their opponent to the ground, but kicking and punching were not allowed.

wrestlers at Naadam

Without weight classes, sometimes little guys got paired against monsters. When the little guys somehow pulled off the miraculous, the crowd erupted with loud cheers. Some matches lasted a minute, while others longer.  If the wrestlers appeared to be in a stale mate, the judges would place the wrestlers in certain positions, providing the leading wrestler “the upper hand”.

The Victory Dance

Once the winner knocked his opponent to the ground and the loser picked himself up, the winner walked beneath the loser’s arm and then pranced around the flagpole with his arms waving in a victory dance. The once almost vacant arena, was now packed with spectators most of whom had abandoned the shade of the stands and circled the wrestlers in the sunny infield.  It was quite the spectacle!

The Second Horse Race at Naadam

As horse racing and wrestling are the most popular, at the smaller naadams, many times the archery competition is not held.  The schedule of events posted on a giant banner inside the arena didn’t mention archery, so I didn’t think it was taking place.  Anna, however, noticed the archery competition outside the arena.  As many times as I circled the stadium, I can’t believe I missed this.  Admittedly, I was a little bummed!

Oh well, we were all fortunate to see the second horse race of the day.  Six to thirteen-year old children (mostly boys but some girls) galloped four-year horses over a 17km track across the steppe.  Through certain connections, we were able to load one “chase car” that followed the horses across the countryside.  There was only room for a few guests and Page was one who opted for this route.  I chose to go directly to the finish line as I found from our chase the other day, it was very hard to snap a photo as we bounced up and down.

spectators at naadam horse race

The Finish Line at Naadam

The hot, dusty day took a toll on the sweaty horses and dirt covered riders.  They were tuckered out as they reached the finish line.  A bay horse came in first with a very strong lead.  As each of the top five riders crossed the finish line, the judges rode with the jockeys to a holding pen where spectators flock to comb the sweat off the winning horse as it is considered lucky! 

winner at naadam
horse racer at naadam

I had hoped to capture this moment, but I mistakenly remained with the group at the finish line too long.  Regardless, it was quite fun to watch the crowd and see the kid jockeys, some in “body armor” and others in capes and tennis shoes approach the finish line with priceless expressions.

Afterward, we wandered through the parking lot and behind the scenes to get the local feel of the jockeys with their parents and siblings. I really liked the horse races.

Lapis Sky Ger Camp

While I expected to remain at the festival all day, storms were threatening, so I took the early van back to Lapis Sky Ger Camp at 3:30pm.  I’m so glad I did, as the later vans were considerably delayed by missing drivers and heavy rain just as we were the first day of our trip across the steppe!

The Ankle Bone Game

I, on the other hand, got to enjoy some quiet time at camp and then learn the ankle bone game.  Nomin and Boynaa taught me, Ingrid and Kate how to play a variety of shagai games.  One game was similar to the “Magic 8-Ball” for those old enough to remember this Matel toy developed in the 1950’s used for fortune-telling.  Instead of shaking the eight ball, we rolled ankle bones with four distinct sides representing horse, sheep, goat and camel.  Our fortunes depended on how they landed.

Game two

The next game, and the most common, is called moir uraldulakh or horse race.  Several ankle bones are lined up as a track.  Additional ankle bones are rolled and depending on the roll, we got to move our piece forward to the finish line.  A roll of four of the same (like four camels), earned four spaces.  A roll of four different animals earned one space.  A space was earned for each horse rolled as well.

Game Three

I found this game to be somewhat mindless over time, so we learned one more, which was fun. The first player led with rolling the ankle bones and picked up all the horses.  Then the player would flick like sided ankle bones into one another, sort of like marbles.  If a goat hit a goat, then the player got to pick the pieces up.  If it missed or hit another ankle bone, the turn was over. 

The goal was to end up with all the ankle bones.  The game included additional rules where players could run out of ankle bones and get back into the game, but the versions changed depending on the teacher, and its slightly too complicated to explain!  Anyway, it was a fun game to learn before our late dinner.  ETB

can you tell which is the horse, camel, goat, and sheep?

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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