Celebrating Naadam in Ulaanbaatar

We witnessed the frenzy of the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar after returning from the Gobi in mid-July. Naadam refers to the “three manly sports” of wrestling, horse racing and archery, and is organized every summer in towns and villages across the country.

For us, Naadam started with a speech by the president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj followed by the opening ceremony, a colourful spectacle recounting the history of Mongolia. There was Genghis Khan and his army, the king Bogd Khan, shamans, Mongolia’s first astronaut, the current military, a parade of doctors, school kids, parachute-jumpers, Mickey Mouse and singers on camels – as well as a range of other likely and unlikely characters. Even with limited history knowledge it was possible to follow the main themes and we got some assistance by an old man sitting next to us. As has been the case during most of this trip, he happily chatted on in Mongolian while we smiled, nodded and repeated words and names we recognized. It was a remarkable and well-choreographed show and one of our top Mongolian experiences.

Then, off to the races, which meant tracking down the right bus for the 40 km drive out west of UB. Easier said than done as neither the youngsters walking around with t-shirts marked tourist information or the police seemed to know what we were talking about – and that’s not only down to sloppy horse race mimicking skills on our part. Anyway, one long bus ride later we got there on time to secure a front-line spot at the finish line. As the horses approached, the shoving increased and Christophe took quite a few elbows in the back. You need to keep your feet firmly on the ground if you want to beat a gang of Naadam-high Mongolians going for the best place. That became even more clear when we left the races and joined a massive group of people running for the bus, all aiming to be first in (while simultaneously paying the driver). There was a lot of laughing and some people left the scuffle just as they reached the doors – only there for the fun, I suppose.

We watched the 18 km (or 25 km, I never figured that out) race of the 6-year-old horses. The age of the jockeys was more astonishing, however, as these were kids of 5-13 years old. They all wore helmets, but only a few used saddles. We counted at least three horses coming in without jockeys. No idea what happened to the kids in those cases, but hopefully there was someone there to help.

Day two meant wrestling, which we first watched in an almost empty stadium. The point is to make the other guy fall down and, quite frankly, we found it a bit slow. After lunching on the Naadam classic khuushuur (fried meat pancakes) we watched some archery at a much smaller stadium next to the wrestling arena. Men and women compete in separate classes and the aim is to score as many points as possible by toppling small rolls on the other end of the field. Impeccably-dressed journalists ran around interviewing well-performing archers and Christophe got his 15 minutes (or seconds?) of fame on Mongolian state television when explaining how much fun a tourist can have in the country. Later the same day, the serious wrestlers took over at the big stadium and the crowd increased, along with the heat. We gave up sometime after 5 PM, but the winner defeated his last opponent much later that evening.

But there’s a lot more to Naadam than the official competitions. We got four nights of free cultural events at the Genghis square, including Mongolian opera, dance, modern rock and traditional music, complete with throat singing (which is really impressive). The atmosphere was laid back and fun, and it was interesting to watch people dressed up for the occasion, drinking their fermented mare’s milk (and in some cases clearly a lot of vodka) and having fun.

Naadam – three practical points

Tickets: You don’t need a ticket to watch the horse races, archery or, of course, people partying in the streets, but if you want to see the opening ceremony and the wrestling organized in the Naadam Stadium you will have to pay. Just how much varies on what kind of ticket you buy and where you buy it. For foreigners, we heard quotes from 25 to 100 dollars per person. There are (more expensive) designated tickets for tourists and (less expensive) tickets for locals, but people will stock up on local tickets in order to sell them at a higher price. I’m not sure how legal this practice is, but it sure looked very tolerated in and around the stadium and we were approached by several scalpers. Ask your guesthouse if they can organize a ticket for your or if they know someone who can. Alternatively, head to the stadium and see what you can find there.

Bus to the horse races: We paid 1,000 tögrögs per person for a standard ticket to Hui Doloon Khutag on one of the public busses leaving near the stadium. Count on up to two hours getting there and another two to get back as everybody else will be heading in the same direction, causing very congested traffic. Count on a crowded bus as well.

Crowds and safety: We had been told that UB would be horribly crowded during Naadam and that last-minute guesthouse reservations would be impossible. That was only part right. The opening ceremony and the way to and from the horse races on the first day were indeed very crowded, but on day two you had no trouble finding a seat. There was also plenty of space available on the central square during all the evening shows. Guesthouses did fill up on the two nights before and after day one, but a lot of the tourists seemed to take off afterwards, skipping day two. We heard the usual warnings about pickpockets and drunken violence, but did not experience any issues.

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