Each year between 11th – 13th July, Mongolia celebrates its biggest festival of the calendar year. The Naadam Festival, known locally as ‘eriin gurvan naadam’ translates as ‘the three games of men’. Not surprisingly, it comprises of three sporting events: Archery, Wrestling and Horse Racing.
Naadam is the most-watched festival among Mongols, and is believed to have existed for centuries in one fashion or another. It is a wonderful combination of arts and sport, combining to provide a powerful expression of true Nomadic culture. It celebrates what defined civilisation in the Steppes centuries ago and more recently commemorates the 1921 Revolution when Mongolia declared itself independent of China.
The origin of the festival is closely related to the history and culture of Mongolia. The country is known for its plentiful military history and the army of former Emperor Genghis Khan was renowned for its strength and structure. Soldiers were split into groups of ten and led by a chosen man. The leader would choose his warriors based on their strength, movement and flexibility. These qualities were tested in sporting trials; wrestling, archery for hand-eye coordination and horse racing to test their bravery. Genghis Khan’s nine horse tails, which represent the nine tribes of the Mongols, are still transported from Chinggis Square to the Stadium to open festivities.
During the ruling of Qing Dynasty (between 17th – 20th centuries), Manchu leaders employed the rule that no monks could practice these traditional sports. They were trying to disrupt the unity of Mongolians by decreasing the number of participants in mass events like Naadam. Fortunately, Mongolians were able to to preserve their traditions by organising mini sporting events on various occasions such as at weddings and religious rituals.
After Mongolia’s declared independence, Naadam began taking place nationwide, honouring the victory of the ‘People’s Revolution.’ Since then, it has been widely celebrated as a 3-day national holiday. The festival is held predominantly in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar and is attended by the President, Prime Minister and Parliament speaker, as well as leading artists and performers.
As has already been established, the three main events held at Naadam have roots that go back centuries in Mongolia’s history and culture. The wrestling event sees men competing in a single-elimination tournament whereby they lose their match if any part of the body, besides hands and feet, touches the ground. Competitors wear zodogs (vests) and shuudag (shorts). Wrestling has been a part of Mongolian culture for over 7000 years, according to an ancient rock-carving dating back to the Bronze Age.
In the Archery event, both men and women are able to compete. They are placed into teams of ten and given four arrows each. Men stand 75m away from their target and women 65m. Mongolian archery is unique in the sense that surs are used as targets. Surs are small cylinders stacked on top of each other to create a small wall and the competitors have to try and knock a sur out of the wall with their arrows. The winners are given the titles of ‘national marksman’ and ‘national markswoman’.
The Horse Racing event is a marathon 15-30kms in distance, dependent on the age of the competitors. Participants in the riding events are all children between five and twelve, many of whom have been in the saddle since the age of one. As they race along the plains, thousands of spectators line the remote track to watch over 300 horses with children sitting confidently astride their small but sturdy Mongolian steed. It is claimed such equestrian skills won Genghis Khan an empire that stretched from the Sea of Japan all the way to Europe.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway is a vital transport link for tourism, connecting Mongolia with both China and Russia. Ulaan Baatar has been connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway since 1939 and for the last 15 years, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains has been running its own Trans-Mongolian Express tour. This eagerly anticipated departure takes place every July, incorporating the famous Naadam festival into the programme. Guests get to spend 3 nights in Ulaan Baatar during the festival period.
Our comprehensive touring programme includes a visit to Ulaan Baatar, visiting the Gandan Monastery, one of the most important Buddhist Monasteries in Mongolia, housing a community of over 500 monks. The full name, Gandantegchinlen, translates as ‘the great place of complete joy.’ At Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) see the central monument to Genghis Khan; undoubtedly the most feared and revered Mongol. There is also an opportunity to visit a traditional Ger and meet a nomadic family.
There is a rare opportunity to be among the few non-Mongolians to experience the spectacular, but little known festival and soak up the exciting atmosphere of this national holiday. Observe the astonishingly vibrant opening ceremony, consisting of local dancers, athletes, horse riders and musicians, before travelling just outside of Ulaan Baatar to watch the national horse race. There is also a chance to enjoy a performance of traditional Mongolian throat singing and contortionists.
For a fuller insight into Mongolia, why not experience our journey across Russia on board the Golden Eagle combined with a visit to the Mongolian national festival. This is a culturally rich, unique adventure to be a part of. For more information, click here.