travel diary: naadam

Arguably the biggest holiday of the year, Naadam celebrated the three “manly” sports – horseback riding, archery, and wrestling.   “Manly” isn’t the most accurate term, as the riders are usually kids under the age of 15, and archery has categories for men, women, and children.  The wrestlers are pretty much big burly men, though.

Every aimag center and soum center celebrates Naadam in mid-July, as well as a big celebration in Ulaanbaatar. Depending on who you talk to, either Naadam is better in the countryside or in UB.  I, for one, prefer it in the countryside, simply because it’s a smaller, more personal experience.

In the aimag center, the whole aimag turns out for the celebration, which stretches over 2-3 days.  We saw Naadam in Moron, the capital of Hovsgol aimag.   The first day involved a parade, in which just about everyone who lives in Moron participated (as far as I could tell, which leaves me to wonder who was in the audience).  After the parade, we watched the wrestlers come out and salute the spirit banners, before they began their matches. The wrestlers pair up and compete, and as each one loses, he bows out, narrowing the field greatly.

Then we wandered over to watch archery, where woman and children shoot from the same distance, and men from further back.  Despite its popularity, archery always seemed relegated to a small area to the side or back of the stadium.

Naadam is pretty serious here in Mongolia – in each aimag and soum center, we saw a Naadam stadium.  Even in remote areas, small soums gathered to hold a regional Naadam, and people often go to more than one, stretching the holiday out over a week or so, sometimes.  On our camel trek to the middle of nowhere, we crested a hill and was told that this was the area they held their local horse races.

Speaking of horses, the race is probably the crowning jewel of Naadam in the countryside.  Over two days, juvenile jockeys race their horses several kilometers in several age classes (age of the horse), often riding bareback.  In recent years, there has been some concern about child safety (it is not unheard of for the jockeys to fall off), so an age limit was set.  In the official aimag and soum center Naadam, there are also ambulances and other official cars preceding and following the horses.  At the finish line, spectators are often roped off, for safety.

We watched two horse races in Moron, both of which were fascinating.  But the real treat came as we drove to Lake Hovsgol, and learned not only that Hatgal was celebrating its local Naadam, but that the current race was about to pass through the entrance of the park, imminently.  So we parked our vehicle and pulled out our cameras and settled in for the wait.  In half an hour or so, we heard the thundering of hooves, and watched as cars turned the corner and came into view (official cars fly the Mongolian and aimag flags).  Directly behind them came the lead horse, and we realized quickly that we were directly in the path of the race.  Moving aside as the riders swept past us, we snapped hundreds of pictures, and then all cars parked in the vicinity packed up and took off after the race.  Our driver, who conveniently had experience with local car races, careened around trees and divots so that we could take video of the horses running along side of us.

The finish line was just outside the town, where a makeshift stadium had been set up, and the wrestling had already started.  At this point, the rain arrived, so we huddled into a ger and partook of Naadam’s official food – khuushuur.  After a few minutes of watching wrestling and archery, we proceeded on our way, happy to have gotten two uniquely exciting perspectives on this holiday.

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1 Response to “travel diary: naadam”


  1. 1 Angelina April 24, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Thats so cool!


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