Summer in Mongolia: The Festival of Naadam
Text and photos Neil McGowan
The history of the Mongolian Buddhist festival of Naadam is as ancient as Chinggiskhan himself. Chinggis (whom we call Genghis Khan, the first “g” ought to be soft) was elected as great khan of the Mongols at his great kuriltai (gathering of clans) in around 1197 A.D. Like any Mongolian gathering worthy of the name, the kuriltai was marked by feasting, drinking, and the traditional Mongolian “manly sports” (in Mongolian, eerin gurvan naadam). Then, as now, the three principal sports that fascinated the crowd were wrestling, archery, and, above all, horsemanship.
The social reasons for Naadam may not be immediately obvious to those who attend the summer festival. Mongolia’s blistering summers, when temperatures regularly hit 35 degrees Celsius and higher, are balanced by Siberianstyle winters. Heavy snowfall makes most of the country inaccessible, and even today only a handful of main highways are regularly cleared. Much of the country’s tiny population (around 2.5 million spread across an area three times the size of Germany) live in extended families on nomadic farmsteads. The nearest neighbors might be 2-3 hours’ ride on horseback and the nearest town a day’s journey. So after a long winter of isolation, the social gatherings of summer are serious business! It’s a time when rural communities meet for barter and trade, when girls might seek a husband and boys might look for a wife. And potential husbands in search of brides want to display their sporting prowess. In parallel with all of this — although officially banned during the period of Communist rule — there is a series of elaborate Buddhist ritual dances called Tsam in which huge masks of deities are worn.
When my friend the trade attaché at the Mongolian Embassy in London returned home to Ulaanbaatar, he gave a little speech: “I must return to Mongolia. My son is seven, and he cannot ride a horse. I feel shame.” Even today, horsemanship remains an essential skill for any Mongolian, even those who live in Ulaanbaatar’s many Soviet-style high-rise apartment buildings.
Prior to the arrival of the telegraph, Mongolia had no cities in the modern sense; Mongols are traditionally nomadic warriors, and cities aren’t part of their culture. The royal court and its entourage sensibly moved around the country in search of fresh pastures for their animals. Urga (now Ulaanbaatar, spelled “Ulan Bator” in the Soviet era) was the court’s traditional winter stronghold, where it would pitch its yurt tents (called gers in Mongolian) around the Gandan Monastery. The modern city of Ulaanbaatar, situated on the site of ancient Urga, was essentially built by the USSR as a “gift ” to a newly-independent Mongolia, which had freed itself of Chinese control in 1924 with the assistance of the Red Army. Don’t expect to find Angkor Wat — most of Ulaanbaatar is closer to Novosibirsk in architecture, but it’s a product of Mongolia’s tempestuous history. In the heart of the Soviet housing blocks are the ancient temples of the Gandan and Choijin monasteries.
Everyone knows that the schedule issued by the Naadam Committee won’t be adhered to; it’s more a perfunctory expression of the committee’s idea of how the festival should go. That said, there is at least one event that starts on time: the grand opening, presided over by the president of Mongolia. Television anchors struggle to cover the gaping holes in the live transmission, as when the presidential car gets stuck in gridlock on the way to the horseracing events, but nothing can spoil the good humor of a population bent on having the best possible time. Supplies of Arkhi and Chinggiskhan vodka have been cleared out of shops in eager anticipation. Despite the best eff orts of the PR committee to turn Naadam into the Asian Games, the horse-trainers, wrestlers, and archers are determined to keep it as a mixture of county fair and rodeo. It’s cheerfully uncommercialized, and access to the horseracing is open to anyone who can scrounge a ride in a car or moped to the racetrack.
Mongolian wrestling is vaguely similar to sumo, and the intricacies of technique are savored by an audience of devotees happy to watch the bouts all afternoon and for the following two days of the festival. As proof that it’s a purely sporting clash with no ill will, each pair of heavyweight wrestlers makes a short balletic dance in honor of the sacred garuda (a large bird of Buddhist mythology) before pummelling each other to the ground. The rounds are quite short, and wrestlers get one chance only — a single mistake and you’re not only prone on the ground but out of contention. With prizes running to luxury cars and even an apartment, competition is intense, and the crowd loves every moment.
Those less fascinated by grappling flesh might prefer to wander over to the archery contest. The traditional Mongolian bow is slowly giving way to the composite fiberglass model, but the shooting remains traditional: aiming to hit small pegs in the ground some distance away. If all this sounds rather like hard work, you might prefer the more leisurely business of flicking wooden tokens at each other, a sport in itself that’s set up in the pavilion next door.
But it’s the sport of kings, horseracing, that attracts the biggest crowds, and the races continue for three days. And even this isn’t enough for the horse-trainers. Once the official event (which they class as too commercialized) is over, they run their own “trainer’s Naadam” two days later. The biggest race event of the festival is with young boy riders, but this is no kids’ race. The boys are chosen because they’re the lightest and fastest, and the times they record oft en beat those of the adult jockeys. There’s a special song sung for the boy who comes in last. The lyrics explain that it’s not his fault, the trainer was an idiot and overfed the horse, the horse was exhausted from overtraining, and next year this boy is going to ride like the wind and come in first.
GOING TO NAADAM
Naadam takes place every year from July 11 to 13. It’s the biggest festival in Mongolia, and all government organizations (including embassies abroad) close down. Hotel accommodation is in short supply, so book early. The best combination of quality and location is the 4-star Bayangol Hotel (www.bayangolhotel.mn), whose two high-rise blocks are located just 200 meters from Suukhebaatar Square, the heart of Ulaanbaatar. In addition to great in-house dining (there’s an Indian restaurant in block B that serves stupendous curries), the hotel has the best of the city’s dining and entertainment located adjacent, including the German microbrewery restaurant Khan-Brau across the road, and the charmingly low-key nightclub River Sounds a few blocks down the street.
Ulaanbaatar is one of the most poorly served world capitals for air transport, but Muscovites have the best choice: There are flights on Aerofl ot from Sheremetyevo (on old Soviet jets) and on MIAT Mongolian Airlines (on new Boeings). Surface travel fans can take a six-day rail journey from Moscow Yaroslavsky Station. Visas (compulsory) are issued in 2-3 working days by the Mongolian consulate in Moscow; no travel bookings are strictly needed, but they seem to help. To gain admission to the Naadam Opening Ceremony, you should pre-book a ticket with a tour operator as nothing will be available on the day.