The Magical and Amazing Naadam Festival in Mongolia

The Naadam Festival in Mongolia features extravagantly costumed parades, a ceremony of nine white-horse warriors carrying nine white banners, traditional dance and music as well as historical symbols

The Naadam Festival in Mongolia features extravagantly costumed parades, a ceremony of nine white-horse warriors carrying nine white banners, traditional dance and music as well as historical symbols

No one will want to miss the colourful and culture rich Naadam Festival in Mongolia taking place every year on 11-13th July.  

These are the 15 things you need to know about this very special Festival and why you can’t miss it:

1. There are three different types Naadam festivals. 

  • They are usually classified according to size.
  • The main, state festival takes place in Ulaanbaatar City and lasts 3 days. The other two are celebrated on a provincial (aimag) and county (soum) level.
  • The state Naadam Festival always takes place on 11-13th July.
  • Dates of the smaller Naadams are decided annually, often just a couple of weeks before the event. They may also change in the last moment.

2. It hosts one of the largest wrestling competition worldwide. 

  • In the main festival that takes place in Ulaanbaatar City, over 512 wrestlers compete with each other in the tournament and in case there is a special occasion or an important anniversary to celebrate, over 1024 wrestlers participate.

3. It is the country's largest celebration of the "three manly Sports." 

  • They include archery, wrestling and horse racing. Despite the name, women participate in archery and there are female jockeys, too.

4. A state-of-the-art opening of the Naadam Festival in Mongolia

  • It features extravagantly costumed parades and a ceremonial transfer nine white banners symbolizing peace and prosperity from the Parliament to the Naadam Stadium. There is a splendid dance and music performance involving many elements of Mongolian history and culture.

5. This festival hosts the youngest Jockeys in the world.

  • Children in Mongolia start practicing horse-riding from as young as 3 years. 
  • By the age of 8-9 many of them officially start to participate in horse races.
  • The horse racing comprises of horses galloping up to 30 km while testing their speed, stamina and strength.
  • In Mongolia horse race categories are based on the age of a horse not a jockey. Jockeys are selected for their low weight and ability to remain on the horse back.
  • Overwhelming majority of the jockeys racing during Naadam are children. Occasionally, some of them are as young as six. 
  • In Mongolia, it's the horse and not the jockey that wins the race.

6. Wrestling competition is one of the most astounding elements of the Naadam Festival in Mongolia.

  • There is no weight limit for the wrestlers participating in the wrestling matches in both the Junior and adult categories.
  • Wrestlers fight in pairs and the winner of each pair goes to the next round.
  • Mongolian wrestlers compete wearing a special unformed consisting of a tight, collarless, short-sleeved jacket of red or blue color, Small, tight-fitting briefs, and high leather boots.
  • Depending on the level of the competition, winners are given a rank. Ranks come with such colorful names as Falcon, Elephant, Lion, Hawk, Garuda, or simply Champion. 
  • The goal of each wrestling match is to force an opponent to touch the ground with his back, knee or elbow. Wrestlers are allowed to use a number of techniques called mekh.
  • Before and after each match, wrestlers perform the traditional “Eagle Dance” that refers to the flight of the mythical Garuda bird. It symbolizes power, bravery and invincibility. The wrestler that lost the game is obliged to pass passes under the arm his opponent as a sign of respect. 
  • Neither women nor children participate in the Naadam wrestling competition. It's a game reserved for adult men, although legends indicate that originally some women successfully competed against men. 

7. You get an opportunity of a lifetime to take your dream photos at the colourful and culture-rich festival that never happens anywhere else in the world.

  • Apart from admiring unusual sport competitions, on 10th July you also get to enjoy a parade of Mongolian citizens wearing traditional outfits.
  • There are plenty of traditional dishes to enjoy.
  • Numerous shopping bazaars display and sell Mongolian souvenirs, and art.

8. The Naadam Festival in Mongolia is rich in history that you get to learn as you indulge in understanding its origin.

  • It's unclear when exactly the first Naadam occurred but researchers assume that three main competitions - wrestling, horse riding, and archery - originated as military sports intended to provide strength, stamina and skills to the troops.
  • With time the military training evolved into a festival of skills that accompanied state and religious ceremonies.
  • During the Soviet Period a state Naadam was created and its dates (11-13th July) were set to commemorate the Mongolian Revolution of 1921, which de facto led to the creation of the Mongolian People's Republic. 

9. The Naadam Festival in Mongolia can be touristy.

  • This is usually the height of the tourist season in Mongolia.
  • Majority of the local residents takes then holidays and leave Ulaanbaatar to celebrate Naadam in the countryside rather than attending the festival at the Stadium.
  • This leaves the space at the Stadium to be filled by visitors, many of whom are tourists.
  • Smaller Naadam Festivals outside of Ulaanbaatar see less foreign tourists but also more difficult to arrange.

10. The cost of a ticket - Naadam Festival in Mongolia

  • Booking Naadam Festival ticket online is impossible. 
  • There is a very limited number of tickets that are divided between government officials, travel companies, and private citizens.
  • The tickets are sold a week before the Naadam and people individuals stand in long queues to get them. There is no guarantee, you will get your ticket even if you wait 6-7 hours.
  • The best way to get a Naadam Festival ticket is to book it through a travel agency or a guest house as they can purchase tickets in advance.
  • A ticket would roughly cost you $25. But be prepared that because the tickets are so sparse that the companies may refuse selling them to you if you aren't purchasing a whole tour. Alternatively, you may be charge a high extra service fee. 
  • The price usually includes entrance to the National Stadium to see the opening and closing ceremonies plus the first rounds of wrestling and archery competitions.
  • Once the initial ceremonies are finished you can enter all sites without the tickets. Competitions will still be taking place but won't be as spectacular. 
  • The horse racing takes place outside of Ulaanbaatar in a valley called Khui Doloon Khutag. It's best to hire a driver from a guesthouse or a tour company if you wish to watch. 
  • Usually there is also a shuttle bus and a train to horse races fields. The train leaves from Ulaanbaatar Train Station and the bus usually leaves either from the Naadam Stadium or Misheel Expo.

12. Shagai or ankle bone shooting competition

  • There is another, less known competition that takes place at the Naadam festival. Shagai refers to the astragalus of the ankle of a sheep or goat.
  • Shagai are used for numerous games. Depending on the game, the anklebones may be tossed like dice, flicked like marbles, shot with your fingers like an arrow, or collected according to the roll of a die.
  • Often, the side on which a tossed piece lands (horse, sheep, camel, or goat) has a meaning in gathering the points.
  • In English language, shagai is translated as "ankle bones." Playing with shagai, when the bones are used to hit a target in a distance, is called ankle bone shooting. The competition takes place in a separate pavilion. It's highly popular among the Mongolians, but few foreigners know about it happening and visit the site.  

13. Archery is a precise and exact skill that is perfected. 

  • Originally, Mongolian warriors trained their archery skills to the level that they could turn in the saddles and shoot arrows back towards their enemies, while galloping at full pace.
  • Today, the Naadam archery competition is one of the three may games, followed closely by archery fans from all over Mongolia.
  • Archery is the only Naadam sport that is regulated in terms of gender and age. Women and children compete in their own categories. 
  • When a contestant hits a target judges chorally sing the word Uukhai while rising their hands to sign hitting the target.

14. Numerous competitions and cultural events starts several days before the beginning of the main Naadam. 

  • In Ulaanbaatar, archery competitions begin as early as 8th or 9th July. They are usually only eliminations but if you want to avoid Naadam crowds, they will provide you with a much more intimate experince.
  • A couple of weeks before the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar begins, a schedule of all events is published in public media. Often it has an English translation that allows you to follow the timing of the events.
  • On 10th July on Sukhbaatar Square a large parade takes place. During the parade Mongolians from all over the country present themselves in their traditional cloths called deel. It's a spectacular event that gives many opportunities to take amazing photographs.

15. Accommodation for the Naadam Festival in Mongolia

  • If travelling independently, make arrangements as early as possible.
  • Remember July is usually very busy for tourists, and the accommodation price is escalated as demand rises.
  • You could book one of the  larger tourist Ger camps, with a shower / toilet facility, a bar and simple furniture.
  • There are also guest houses and you can opt for a small family-owned ger. If you decide to go for a home-stay, you are unlikely to have shower access). Instead, however, your accommodation will be more intimate and provide a greater insight into the traditional way of life of the nomadic Mongolian.
  • Make sure to confirm whether you will be sharing the ger with any other traveller, particularly if you aren't booking a trip with a tour company.

Finally if you are lucky enough to visit the Naadam Festival in Mongolia try to find out as much as you can about the rules governing each sport, as learning the finer points can also make it more enjoyable to attend.

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