The holiday took on a more patriotic aura when it was chosen to celebrate the 1921 revolution that freed Mongolia from Chinese control. While Naadam has a Buddhist and Shamanist religious element to it, it has become more secularly celebrated since the 1930s, when Communist influences from the Soviet Union prevailed.
The three sports of Naadam are looked at below in more detail:
• Mongolian Wrestling
About 500 to 1,000 wrestlers will compete during Naadam, and there are some peculiarities to how Mongolians wrestle. There are nine to 10 rounds, but they are not timed. Instead, the loser of each round is he who first touches the ground with any body part other than his hands or feet. Wrestlers dress in traditional vests and shorts, and songs of encouragement are sung to each wrestler. Those in the winners brackets are successively labeled “elephants,” “lions,” and “giants.”
• Horse Racing
Mongolians do not race during Naadam in “short” mile or two sprints like in the West. Instead, they go on cross-country races of nine to 18 miles. There may be up to 1,000 horses in a race, hailing from every corner of Mongolia. Jockeys are young children who train for months, and the horses are fed on special preparatory diets. The crowds and the jockeys both break out in song as the race begins, and a song is sung to the last-place finisher to wish him luck next year.
• Archery Tournaments
Archers use Mongolian bows and dress in traditional archery garb. They shoot at small targets stacked three-high, each archer having four arrows and each team needing to gain 33 hits. The judge shouts “Hurray!” after each hit, and the winners are dubbed “National Marksman” and “National Markswoman.”
Some events tourists and locals may wish to attend in Mongolia during Naadam include:
- Attend the largest Naadam festival, the National Naadam, held in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. There are long introductory ceremonies where you will meet the horses, the jockeys, dancers, singers, and more. This event is especially focused on horseback riding. Also look for the symbolic transfer of Genghis Khan’s “nine horse tails” to the stadium where the National Naadam is held.
- Get some “shagai,” which are sheep or goat ankle bones used in numerous Mongolian games played during Naadam. These bones are the “original dice,” and are also used in fortune telling. There are tournaments where shagai games are played, and you will see them being tossed in the air, rolled on a stick, and shot at with arrows.
- Go on a tour of the Gobi Desert south of Ulaanbaatar. Trips can be taken on camel-back over the sand-duned steppes. You can visit oases and view the stark terrain. You can also visit Byanzag, where fossilised dinosaur bones and eggs are stuck in the side of sheer red cliffs. Eight of the 12 known predator dinosaur species have been found here.
Should you visit Mongolia, one of the best times to go is during the mid-summer Naadam celebrations. Besides the wrestling, horse racing, and bow-shooting contests, you can also explore Mongolian food, music, crafts, games, and culture in general. And, of course, the natural beauty of the country will also await you.