Frequently Asked Questions: Naadam Festival

Frequently Asked Questions: Naadam Festival

MIR Tour Manager Michel Behar loves the colorful traditions and fiercely competitive games of the 800-year-old Naadam Festival, celebrated every July in Mongolia. The festival celebrates the strength and prowess of ancient warriors in the times of Genghis Khan and continues to challenge contemporary Mongolian athletes. The three tests: wrestling, archery, and horse racing.

Here are top questions Michel gets asked about the Naadam Festival:

Michel Behar's love for engaging travelers in art, history and architecture spans continents <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Michel Behar’s love for engaging travelers in art, history and architecture spans continents
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Where does the term “Naadam” come from?

Michel: “Naadam” means “games” in Mongolian. The country’s strongest men are chosen to participate in Mongolian wrestling and horse racing, while women join them in archery. These three skills were once critical to nomadic warriors in Genghis Khan’s army. These days, it’s simply fun to watch. Just as the games were instrumental in tribal cohesion centuries ago, so today they bring together young and old from all parts of the country.

Naadam was first spiritually rooted in Shamanism and Buddhism, which shifted under Communism. These days, the Naadam Festival has nationalist rather than spiritual overtones, commemorating the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself free from the Republic of China.

Young and old take part in Naadam's ancient games in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia <br />Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Young and old take part in Naadam’s ancient games in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

How does Genghis Khan fit into all this?

Michel: In the early 1200s, Genghis Khan and his “Golden Horde” conquered more land than anyone in history. It’s an area that today extends to Russia, China, and the Persian Gulf. To do all this conquering, Genghis Khan needed his warriors to be strong, skilled, and have stamina. He created the so-called “three games of men” to test them and keep them on their toes – Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery.

Military ride horses at Naadam Festival in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Military riders at Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

What do you see at the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbataar?

Michel: It’s the biggest festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course they’re going to go all out. It takes place over three days. I like the first day best: it’s broadcast live with the President of Mongolia at the opening ceremonies. Like at the Olympic Games, you see a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors or in beaded robes and headdresses, along with athletes, soldiers, monks, pop singers and rock bands and even parachutists dropping in on the games. The costume details are amazing, especially those with an eagle theme. You’ll see archers with the same type of bow that Genghis Khan’s armies used, made of birch, fish glue, and deer sinew. 

Traditional costumes explode in colors at Mongolia's Naadam Festival opening ceremonies. Photo credit: Ana Filonov.

Traditional costumes at Mongolia’s Naadam Festival opening ceremonies
Photo credit: Ana Filonov

What are the games like?

Michel: With wrestling, there’s no age or weight limit. It’s by far the most popular activity. The clothes are pretty skimpy, too. There’s a reason for that: the open-chest vest (zodog) makes it clear the man is a man, and not a woman disguised as a male wrestler. Horse races are 15-30 kilometers long, and these days it’s children ages 5-13 who are chosen to be jockeys. It’s good luck to touch the sweat of the five winning horses.

Finally, in men and women’s archery, 10-member teams get four arrows each to hit 33 targets, or surs. The winners are named “national marksman” and “national markswoman.”

Wrestling, Mongolian-style at the Naadam Festival in UlaanBaatar. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen.

Wrestling, Mongolian-style at the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Horsemanship is a Mongolian tradition and skill handed down from generation to generation. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen.

Horsemanship is a Mongolian tradition and skill handed down from generation to generation
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Girls are allowed to participate in archery competition at the Naadam Festival in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen.

Girls join the archery competition at the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Is Ulaanbaatar the only city that celebrates Naadam?

Michel: No. Ulaanbaatar has the biggest festival, but it’s also celebrated in other more remote places within Mongolia and in countries where Mongolians live, like parts of Russia. In all, there are about 35,000 wrestlers, 40,000 horse riders, and 15,000 archers who compete throughout the country.

Country Naadam festivalPhoto: Andrew Barron

Grannies at a country Naadam festival in remote Mongolia
Photo: Andrew Barron

Why is the Naadam Festival so special to you?

Michel: What does Naadam mean to me personally? I love this festival with its cheering crowds, still so lively and popular after so many years. I love the opening ceremonies, with the President, pop singers, and parachutists in attendance. I love the lively atmosphere as we cheer on participants in archery and wrestling, with locals searching for their favorite jockeys through binoculars in the horse-racing competition. Where else can you find an 800-year-old tradition where the entire population participates and celebrates?

Traditional hats are the fashion rage at Naadam Festival in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen.

Traditional hats are a fashion hit at the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

More Information about Naadam

See more photos and read more details about travel to Mongolia and Naadam in these articles:

Places to Go, People to See in Mongolia: 7 Favorites
The time to visit is now; huge reserves of gold, copper and coal have created deep global interest in what can be found under Mongolia’s endless grasslands.

A Year of Celebrations: Holidays, Festivals and Special Events to Add to Your Travel Calendar
Here are a few ideas for how to add a celebration or festival to your own calendar, and add some revelry to your next trip.

Mongolia’s Naadam Festival: Why Go?
Mongolia’s annual Naadam Festival in July is the country’s favorite festival, showcasing Mongolia’s best in wrestling, horse racing and archery.

Mongolia: There’s Nothing like Naadam
Choose to attend either the primary festival in Ulaanbaatar with its elaborate pageantry and the excited crush of the crowds, or a more intimate and laid-back local Naadam, where you can get up close to the action and perhaps meet some of the competitors.

Naadam Festival: Opening Ceremonies
Mongolia’s athletically inclined Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar has its own “wow” factor as well, and it’s priceless. 

Mongolia’s UlaanBaatar, Beyond Naadam
UlaanBaatar is also known as the “heart of Mongolia” in politics, culture, and business, an important commercial center between Beijing and St. Petersburg, strategically located along the Trans-Siberian Railway. 

Spiritual & National Roots of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival
MIR’s Tour Manager Michel Behar can’t remember how many times he’s been to Mongolia’s ancient Naadam Festival. But what he does know is that this is no ordinary celebration of colorful costumes and fanfare. Naadam’s complex history reflects its many facets, spiritually and nationally. 

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone about all our Naadam options at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your travels today.

Horsemanship is a Mongolian tradition and skill handed down from generation to generation
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

 

Travel to the Naadam Festival with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of experience handcrafting tours to Mongolia. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

 

Two Ways to Celebrate Naadam: Go Big or Go Local

You can choose to attend either:

 

 

Top photo credit: Helge Pedersen

PUBLISHED: February 10, 2014

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