| 10 min read
Naadam is a big not-to-be-missed event and showcase of 'The Three Manly Sports': wrestling, archery and horse racing. It originated many centuries ago as a test of daring, strength, courage, horsemanship and markmanship, all necessary for nomadic people and warriors. The largest celebration takes place in Ulaanbaatar.
Held annually on July 11-12, Naadam is to many Mongolians what Christmas is to us. It's the time of the year everyone looks forward to. The festival is celebrated all over the country, with variably larger or smaller festivals in the different towns and villages. People from everywhere converge in the city, dressed up in their finest attire to spend the day out in the sun with friends and family. The festival is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO.
The opening ceremony is kicked off by the placing of the Nine White Banners on Sükhbaatar Square.
Naadam is all about the sights and sounds, a colorful tribute to Mongolian history and traditions that can be traced back to those long-ago days of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The tradition of the Nine White Banners, for example, dates back to when Genghis Khan established the Great Mongolian State and initiated the Nine White Banners as symbols of ceremony. Each of these banners is made up of the tail hair of a thousand stallions from each of the provinces in the country. They represent the strength and pride of the state. Apparently, the banners are cleaned only with rainwater because ancient Mongolians used to pray to the sky and believed that water produced from the heavens was clean and pure. The banners are usually stored on the third floor of the Government House, but every year they are carried out to the Central stadium for Mongolia's National Naadam Festival.
The crowds followed the banners towards the National Sports Stadium - and so did we. It struck me how nicely everyone had dressed up. Women like to grab attention with their mile-high headgear of Mongolian bogqtas (hats) towering high atop their heads.
In the stadium everyone was getting ready for the big ceremony. The horsemen rode around the field in formation while a brass band played traditional music. In the middle of the field, the horsemen performed a rather funny ritual: they jumped off their horses and marched ahead with their legs stretched. Then, all off them left the field, except four who had set up facing each other and remained motionless until the end of the ceremony.
Everyone went silent now, as the President of Mongolia was about to give the opening speech. He went on for a while, but with my limited (read: unexistent) Mongolian, I'm not able to reproduce anything of what he had said.
Now things really started moving, as different groups came on stage to re-enact the history of Genghis Khan and the foundation of the Mongolian Empire. The fires were lit and men with traditional attires performed the Eagle dance, circling and holding their arms out like they were flying.
But then *drama drama* monstrous giants appeared who threathened the Mongolians. Luckily, the strong warriors managed to fight them off.
Just when it seemed peace had returned, an army of Roman soldiers came to the scene, and an intense battle between the two groups ensued. The well-orchestrated fights along with the exciting, rythmical music were truly impressive to look at. It was so electrifying to look at it could have been a scene from Game of Thrones.
The Mongolian warriors and Roman soldiers left the scene and another Eagle Dance was performed.
They also performed a circle dance holding up a piece of yellow cloth. The youngsters in orange clothing came back with colorful umbrellas. Statues on wheels of oxes, horses and other animals were pushed around the stadium. Finally, different groups of the Mongolian population did a tour around the green field: farmers, students, agents, street workers, sport teams...
At the end, a huge amount of colorful balloons was let up in the air. The brass band played its last song, and the real games could begin.
The country's best in wrestling receive the honor to fight in the first round at the Naadam Festival. 512-1024 wrestlers meet in a single-elimination tournament that lasts nine or ten rounds. Before the contest, the wrestler will perform an eagle dance to stretch his muscles and display his massive physique. As there are no weight classes, smaller wrestlers sometimes face opponents that are much bigger or heavier. And as there is no time limit in place, a game isn't over until one man ends up on his back. There is a lot at stake for the wrestlers, as the winner receives a large sum of money and he is crowned the arslan (Lion).
Sitting high up in the gallery, we could hardly distinguish the different fighters and without understanding the rules, the combats seemed to go on forever. After a while, the excitement wore off and the fights started to bore. Following Victoria's example I tried to sneak closer to the gallery where wrestlers were preparing or resting after the fight. They didn't seem to mind our presence, and let us take as many pictures as we wanted - as long as we stayed off the actual field (Yes, we tried...)
The wrestlers' costume consists of decorated boots, a small long-sleeved top with bare chest and an even smaller pair of briefs. The story goes that years ago, a woman disguised as a man constantly defeated the men. Woman were not allowed to the manly sports, and to prevent this from happening again, the open, over-the-shoulder tops were introduced. Like this, women would be immediately recognised.
Having had our share of wrestling, we left the stadium and went in search of food. All around, plenty of food stalls had been set up and crowds had gathered. Unfortunately for the vegetarian in our group, almost every dish contained meat. The most popular dish was the khuurshuur, a deep-fried meat pastry and a Mongolian speciality which is often drunk is airag, fermented mare's milk.
- We payed 50 USD per person for a ticket for the Naadam opening ceremony and the transport to and from the horse races the day after. Knowing the original ticket costs around 10USD, this is way too much, but as a foreigner it is hard to get hold of a ticket. You cannot buy them online, so you have to wait until you get to Ulaanbaatar yourself. By that time, all the tickets have been sold and the last ones available are in the hands of hostel owners who will sell them to their customers at overrated prices. So yes, it is a lot, but it is also an experience you should not miss out on...
- It can be very hot in Ulaanbaatar and getting back in after you've left the stadium to buy a drink can be a hassle. Bring some food and snacks to survive the ceremony.
- Take a good telephoto lens if you want to take close-up photos during the ceremony, as chances are you'll be sitting rather far away from the real action.
Have you got questions? Did you experience something similar? Did you notice a mistake? Please share!