Naadam, ”game” in Mongolian, is the most important traditional event of Mongolia. The games are organized from the 11th to the 13th of July to celebrate the anniversary of the Mongolian revolution of 1921. Naadam is also called sometimes ”Eriin Gurvan Naadam”, ”the three virile sports”, in reference to the three major contests that are held on that occasion : Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. From now on, women are allowed to take part in archery, and girls in horse races. Wrestle remains reserved for men. Another popular activity is the knucklebones, played with sheep’s tarsus bones, the shagai. Knucklebones serve for game as well as for divination.
In 2010, Naadam was inscribed on the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity List.
Naadam in Ulan Bator
Many Naadams are held on the whole country, but the most important one occurs in the capital Ulan-Bator during National Day from the 11th to the 13th of July.
The first day of Naadam begins at 9 with a cheerful ceremony that is held on Genghis Khan Square. Hundreds of uniformed soldiers play music with copper instruments. They parade around the square and around the house of Parliament, then walk towards the stadium, where the opening ceremony is held.
The opening ceremony generally begins at 11. It’s a great show including a procession of soldiers, lamas, and athletes. Then there is a traditional show with dancers, musicians and singers. The president delivers a speech and wishes a happy Naadam to the Mongolian people.
Then, still inside the stadium, will be held during two days the wrestling trials. In the rows of the stadium, you can attend the archery and the knucklebones trials.
What is probably most interesting for travellers is the atmosphere around the stadium : Mongolians wear their nicest and most elegant clothes and come to eat the speciality of Naadam : khuushuur ! Naadam could not be considered as total for a Mongolian if he didn’t eat the delicious fried donut with meat. Whereas quite little people can attend the trials inside the stadium, a lot of people come to the several stalls around the stadium to eat or to drink airag (fermented mare’s milk).
For the horse races, you will have to go on Khui Doloon Khudag site, 50 kilometres (31,07 miles) from the centre of Ulan Bator. Forget to see each one of the three activity in only one day, it’s not possible, just dedicate the first day to the stadium and the second day to the races. A lot of people come to see the arrival of the horses and there’s always a crush. Don’t expect taking good pictures, but rather just living the popular fervour around the horses.
Very few seats are available on the terraces near the finishing line : about 400 seats for more than 10.000 requests, and they’re reserved for the Mongolian elite and rich foreigners. So don’t expect sitting, but rather fighting to go as close as possible from the horses !
On the second day, around 7 PM o’clock (this depends on the end of the wrestling trials), is held the closing ceremony.
Naadam in the countryside
Many travellers would rather attend Naadams in the countryside. They’re generally held a few days before the great Naadam of Ulan Bator. The program of Naadams in the countryside varies each year and is known only a few weeks before the beginning of the festivities. Nevertheless, they’re usually held on the 10th and 11th of July in the capitals of province, on the 9th and 10th of July in the average cities (Kharkhorin for example), and between the 6th and the 9th of July in the smallest villages. Moreover, games can be organized on many occasions (anniversary of a village for example), and it’s not unusual to come across Naadams during summer. Quality and number of sportive activities are certainly poorer than the ones in the capital, but you will be closer to the athletes and will have the chance to experiment Naadam in a friendly atmosphere. You will even have the possibility to take part in the wrestling trials if you want to.
Naadam is the most popular festival of Mongolia. It’s supposed to have been existing for centuries. Naadam finds its origins in the old military activities, when being able to ride a horse, to shoot arrows, and to wrestle were essential skills for warriors. Men used to confront each other to determine the best of them. These trials were useful, notably to form the soldiers for the battles. Later, they were organized on many occasions, such as weddings or religious meetings. Nowadays, Naadam officially celebrates the revolution of 1921 and independence of Mongolia, but also the advent of a new country. The first years, Naadam was organized at the same time of minor religious celebrations, until secularization in the 1930’s. The three virile sports are named “danshug” games, and are the occasion of a great celebration for the new nation, where all the nobility meet to celebrate Javzandamba Khutugtu, the new head of state. The nine tails of yaks of Genghis Khan that represent the nine Mongolian tribes are still brought with solemnity from Genghis Khan Square to the stadium for the opening ceremony.
512 to 1024 wrestlers confront each other in a tournament with direct elimination that has nine or ten rounds. There is no weight class, which makes the first rounds funny for non-informed spectators. Globally, we can say that the more the wrestlers are big and tall, the more chances to win they have. A wrestler wins when his adversary touches the floor with any other part of his body than feet or hands. There is no time limit and some fights may last many hours (which is much less funny). The wrestlers who already have the biggest number of titles have the privilege of choosing their adversary.
The wrestlers wear an open jacket fitting tightly, the ”zodog”, and mini shorts, ”shuudag”. The ensemble is generally blue our red, but can also be pink or green, and the two elements can be mismatched. Only men are allowed to compete. Besides, the open jacket has been imposed because a woman had pretended to be a man and had taken part in the trials (and she had brought down all her adversaries !). With this open jacket, women can’t hide anymore and can’t take part in the trials anymore.
Each wrestler comes with a personal supporter called zasuul. The zasuul sings the winner’s praises after the 3rd, the 5th and the 7th rounds.
- The winners of the 5th round win the title of nachin, falcon.
- The winners of the 6th round win the title of khartsaga, sparrowhawk.
- The winners of the 7th round win the title of zaan, elephant.
- The winners of the 8th round win the title of garid, Garuda.
- The final winner is called arslan, lion.
- The wrestlers winning two times the title of arslan are called avraga, titans, giants.
Occidental horse races are pure sprints on small distances. In Mongolia, horse races rather look like stamina cross-country trials on distances from 10 to 26 kilometres (6,2 – 16 miles) according to how old the horses are and to the season (in spring, the races are shorter than in summer).
- 2-years old horses, called daaga, run between 10 and 12 kilometres (6,2 – 7,5 miles).
- 3-years old horses, called shudlen, run between 12 and 14 kilometres (7,5 – 8,7 miles).
- 4-years old horses, called khyazaalan, run between 17 and 18 kilometres (10,6 – 11,2 miles).
- 5-years old horses, called soyolon, run between 22 and 24 kilometres (13,7 – 15 miles). It’s the most important race.
- More than 5-years old horses, called ikh nas, run between 25 and 26 kilometres (15,5 – 16,2 miles).
- Stallions, azarga, run between 22 and 24 kilometres (13,7 – 15 miles).
On the occasion of the great races of Naadam, in Ulan Bator, we can count until 1000 horses that come from all Mongolian provinces. Racehorses follow a special diet.
Jockeys are children (boys or girls) from 5 to 13 years old who had been training for months. Even if the jockey plays an important part, the main goal of the race is to test the ability and stamina of the horse. Besides, some horses sometimes pass the finishing line without their jockey, and they are not disqualified for all that.
The races go off in the middle of the steppe, so there is no track. This sometimes gives rise to cheating ; some “spectators” sometimes try to slow down the rival horses. Sometimes, horses exhausted by the race die on the racecourse.
Before the races begin, the public sings traditional songs and the jockeys sing in praise of Giingo, the God of the racehorses, for their horse to be braver.
The prizes are awarded to horses and jockeys.
The first five horses in each category win the title of airgiin tav ; bronze, silver and gold medals reward the first three.
The winning jockey is awarded the title of tumnii ekh, meaning “the first of the people”.
- The last horse, daaga, is called bayan khodood, “full stomach”. People sing a song for the bayan khodood, to wish it a good luck and wish it to be the winner the following year.
At the end of each race, the spectators rush towards the five winning horses in order to collect the horses’ sweat and spread it over their forehead, because it’s supposed to bring luck. The crowd admires the winning horses and talk about them with a great respect. The winning breeder is delighted because his fortune is guaranteed : the price of his horses shoots up. Some traditional poems that praise the qualities of horsemen and breeders are read. The five winning jockeys must drink a glass of airag, and then the drink is poured onto the jockeys’ heads and the horses’ croup.
The archery contest is open to men and women. To take part in the contest, you need a team composed of ten archers. Each archer has four arrows and each team must reach at least 33 times the target, ”sur”. Men shoot the arrow from 75 metres (246 feet), while women shoot from 65 metres (213 feet). The archers wear the national cloth, deel, during the contest. They all wear a leather armband that covers their arm until the elbow, so that the sleeve of the deel does not bother them when they’re aiming. The bows are made of several alternated rows of animal horn, bark and wood. Arrows are generally made of willow tree wood, with vulture’s (or other bird of prey) feather.
The Mongolian archery is unique in the world because there is not only one target, but several. Small weaved or wooden cylinders serve as targets. They’re placed one on the other to form a 20-centimetres (7,87 inches) high and 1,5-metre (5 feet) wide wall. Reaching a target brings one point, but reaching a target that is placed in the centre brings more. When the archer reaches the target, the judge says ”uukhai”, which means “hurrah”, and puts his hands up to show the quality of the shoot. After each shoot, the targets must be replaced in order to prepare the wall for the next try. The winners of the contest receive the honorary basis of Mergen, “archer of the nation”.