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Naadam Festival: An Authentic Mongolian Experience

Following the Footsteps of Genghis Khan – Mongolia Day 4: Experiencing the Naadam Festival first hand and seeing the Opening Ceremony, Wrestling, Archery, and Shagai. Also stopping by the National Museum and ending the day with clubbing and fireworks in Sukhbaatar Square.

Naadam Festival

Today we were going to witness the famed Naadam Festival, listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

We requested tickets from the owner of the hostel who got her hands on some extra ones (10,000 turgik ~$6 a ticket). Another cold shower, toast and coffee and we were off!

We started in Sukhbaatar Square where the ceremony begins. The Honor Guards carried nine white banners made of yak tails, which are symbols of the Mongolian tribes, to the stadium. They led the march with the Mongolian UN Peacekeeping soldiers and other armed forces following.

We went with the crowds towards the stadium which was a 30 minute walk.

The area surrounding the National Sports Stadium was extremely crowded with mostly food stands and small restaurant set-ups. We stopped for lunch and indulged on a massive lamb skewer and fried dumpling before going inside.

Our seats were quite centered in the stadium offering an excellent view over the whole opening ceremony. The stands were packed with cheering crowds of patriotic countrymen and small groups of tourists. Food vendors walked through the stands offering hot dogs, burgers and refreshments.

Naadam Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony was grand with hundreds of dancers and flag bearers running and dancing in sync to traditional songs. It started with the Honor Guard riding in and placing the Mongol Banners in the center of the field. Then President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj arrived and announcing the opening of the games. We stood as the national anthem was played.

Then more Mongolian music was played on traditional instruments like the stringed Morin khuur while the dancers performed. A Mongolian celebrity showcased the county’s flag as he galloped around the stadium. Riders flipped, stood, ran-with, and hopped across the field on their galloping horses. Then all the athletes of the games slowly made their way onto the field and formed a large circle. There were wrestlers, archers, and even some young horse racers circling the stadium.

After the show surprisingly, most of the crowd left as the wrestling matches started.

Mongolian Wrestling

We stuck around for another hour or so to watch this very particular sport which was more interesting for its cultural aspects than the actual wrestling. This competition holds the Guinness Books of World Records title for the largest wrestling competition in the world and dates back to the times of Genghis Khan. They have an interesting ranking system with the ultimate goal of winning the National Championship 5 times to attain the title of Undefeatable Giant of the Nation which is held for life!

We also found that there were no weight classes or age brackets meaning you could see a skinny kid wrestling a giant three times his size. Needless to say, those matches don’t last very long, though an evenly matched bout could last hours as there are no time limits.

The wrestlers perform a dance when entering the field and seem to get an approval from one of the judges before starting. After one wrestler is forced to the ground, the match is over and the losing wrestler goes under the arm of the winning one and is eliminated from the competition. The winner then dances around the Mongol Banners with his arms flapping like a flying falcon.

We left the stadium and walked a direct route back to the city square. The path, lined with carnival games and horse riding, went through a construction site and over a railroad track.

Passing the National Museum we decided to go in. As it was national day, it was incredibly crowded and really hot inside. With a strict no picture policy, we made our way through the collection of Mongolian artifacts quite quickly.

For lunch we stopped in a nearby restaurant which of course had no English menu, so we randomly pointed at the Mongolian script. What we received was a delicious meat and vegetable soup and a milky dumpling porridge.

Only after did we discover that the archery competition was in an adjacent field right next to the National Stadium! After a ten minute breather, we walked ALL the way back to the stadium. Getting through the crowds was a hassle but we eventually found the competition.

Archery

The archery range was housed in a much smaller stadium with the viewing stands behind the archers. Instead of a traditional target, the archers aim for “surs”, stacks of cylinders with the target painted red. The men fire from 75 meters and the women from 65.

It whole process looked very casual with people firing at any time and families or friends of the athletes walking around near the field.

We watched the amazing precision of some of the archers including some very elderly athletes. In the stands, we bumped into some friends from yesterday.

Next stop was the knuckle-flinging competition.

Shagai

Groups were huddled in the center of the arena, chanting and methodically moving together. The whole scene looked more like a religious ceremony than a competition.

Players sat with a wooden board and flicked a piece of knuckle with their middle finger at a target quite a distance away.

We browsed the souvenir shops before heading back via a bridge giving us a panoramic view of the city. Everyone was celebrating with games and activities in the main square.

With checked to make sure our tour was ready for tomorrow and finally relaxed for a bit, before the big party we heard about.

Around 9 p.m. we went to Sukhbaatar Square and could not believe what we saw.

National Day Rave in Sukhbaatar

I would like to say that it was a family fun party, but really the celebration was an all out rave in the same spot that the President was inaugurated just a day before. The DJ was spinning beats, while Genghis was spinning in his grave. The huge crowd consisted of mostly families awkwardly trying to dance to the music. Little kids seemed to be enjoying it the most. Making their way through the mass of bodies were people selling glow-sticks and other party favors. A TV film crew was also present interviewing audience members and even paused to film us dancing.

DJs played in between live performances followed by an impressive laser light-show. They projected Mongolian images onto the National Palace as the lasers made intricate designs. This got more and more intense until the computer running the software started slowing down as it couldn’t handle the high graphics demand and culminated with a spectacular fireworks show.

I couldn’t believe that we were clubbing in such a seemingly off-limits area. The atmosphere was one of celebration and patriotism. What an incredible experience!

After the excitement, we made our way to bed, set the alarm and almost immediately fell asleep. It was an intense and tiring day.

David De Clercq

About David De Clercq

Founder and writer at World-Adventurer.com, David is on a mission to travel to every country in the world and has less than 10 countries left! He loves new adventures, unique cultures, historic landmarks, and luxurious hotels. Follow along as David shares a journey of a lifetime!