The Naadam Festival Mongolia, is a one of a kind festival! As one of the most traditional and widely popular festivals in Mongolia this is an extravaganza you have to be a part of! It is a true expression of the nomadic culture and traditions which perfectly marries together sports with art!
Otherwise known as “the three games of men” or “Eriin gurvan naadam,” sports range from Mongolian Wrestling (Probably the manliest thing you will ever see!) to Archery and Horse racing. In terms of arts expect to see performances, which entail a variety singing, dancing and talented musicians.
When is Naadam Festival?
This year (2019) the naadam festival is 11-15 July 2019. Other years it’s usually a similar date around in mid July (the 11th). This three day summer spectacular takes full advantage of the great weather!
With many people locals and visitors using it as a great excuse to head out into the countryside for camping and gathering as a community. As one of the biggest events in the Mongolian Calendar, the event officially ran to celebrate the Mongolian independence and revolution.
The Naadam Festival is most popular and the largest in Ulaanbaatar, and has even been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In addition, the Ulaanbaatar has been a popular spot for prominent figures from U.S Vice President Joe Biden to U.N Secretary General Ban Kii Moon.
However, the Naadam festival is also Celebrated in many of the smaller districts of Mongolia with each organising their own Naadam festival. So which ever Naadam festival you attend, one thing is certain…it will be an experience that you will never forget!
In the word of the infamous Genghis Khan
“It’s not how many breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.”
Things to See at Naadam Festival
This is probably the manliest event you will ever see, in your life! These strong men battle against each other in a tough game. Other wise known as
Bökh which means “durability” , the loser in a Mongolian wrestling bout is decided by the Mongolian who touches the ground with anything other than their feet. They can use you throws, or trips and even lifts to cause their opponent to fall. However, striking, strangling and submissions are not allowed.
The rules vary slightly by region, for example grabbing your opponents leg is illegal in the inner Mongolian version but not so in the others. Another variation is the time limit with the inner Mongolian version having a time limit while the other versions do not.
These tough Mongolians are given proud titles such as lion, titan and elephant if they win a certain stage. However, it isn’t easy to win a stage with no weight classes you could see a scrawny small guy pitted against a large stocky wrestler! This is crazy to watch and I actually felt a little bad for the smaller guy.
Such “unfair” match up can sometimes cause disputes between hosts and visiting wrestlers whereas the hosts and Naadam officials tend to tailor the competition to benefits there favourites!
During the opening of the Naadam festival, you will get caught up in the wonderful atmosphere of colorful parades with marching soldiers, professional athletes and even monks!
Outside the stadium in Ulaanbaatar, there will be a variety of other games with musicians and a great market esque atmosphere.
Archery at Naadam Festival:
Archery has been an Ancient warfare practice, which stems back to a time before Genghis khan. Watch in awe at the skilful mastery as the participants use the mongol bow to fire the arrows in a competitive event open to both men and women.
How is Mongolian Archery Scored?
There are two types of archery target shooting, the ‘Khana’ and ‘Khasaa.’ In the first, the archer first fires 20 arrows at the Khana target (which is four meters in length and around 50cm high.
Then the archer will shoot 20 arrows at the Khasaa target, which contains multiple cylinders. Then the Mongolian Scorer states the result of each shot in a melody: “overshoot , wide, bounce or fall short.”
Due to the precision required to be an archer it is known to require self discipline and a high level of mental and physical training.
According to a Chinese historian (Sima Qian) who was describing the Hun people which letter became the Mongolians.
“Infants could ride on a sheep, draw a bow and shoot at small birds and rats. As they grew up, they would shoot foxes and hares and these are what they used to eat. Their warriors were powerful archers, and all were armoured cavalrymen”
Thus you can see that to the highly skilled Mongolian, shooting a bow with precision even while riding is a part of their culture and tradition. source.
Horse racing at Naadam Festival:
This is not your standard horse racing event, with young jockeys from as young as 5 years old hop on their horse and get riding in a variety of races which go from 15 up to a whopping 30 kilometres!
Worlds Longest Horse race (Mongol Derby)
One of the most fascinating events is the worlds longest horse race or Mongol derby as the locals call it. There are various horse racing events in Mongolia throughout the year, however the most exciting definitely happen during the Naadam festival.
As stated previously the jockeys for the horse races can start as young as five years old with most between the ages of 5-13 for the events! Although young, the jockeys are generally experienced (as much as you can be at five years old!) and go through an intense training period months before the Naadam festival horse races.
Apart from riding and training with the horses, the young jockeys are also responsible for caring for the horse and have a special song called “giingo” which is used to raise their spirits.
For Naadam festival, the horses are divided up into difference categories based on their ages. With two year old horses racing for 10-12km (6-7.5 miles), stallions racing for 23km (14.5miles) and seven year old horses racing for 25-30km!
The horse and jockeys coming in the first five places are rewarded with prestigious titles such as “tymnii eh” which means, the leader of ten thousand! For those who perform great in consecutive races, they are giving honors like “leading trainer” or “national famous trainer”.
The Mongolian horses used a unique breed, with a stubby like appearance and robust physical attributes.
For more on Mongolian Horses and horse riding in Mongolia check out, this great article: 5 Reasons to try Horse Riding in Mongolia!
Singing, Dancing and Cultural Performances:
A variety of colorful and flamboyant cultural performances provide a feat of wonder for your eyes. As you watch everything from parades to cultural dancing troops and unique musical performances.
A few other great cultural events also happen at a similar time of year in July, especially in Ulaanbaatar. Such events include one of the greatest Mongolian operas, ( “Uchirtai Gurvan Tolgoi-Three Dramatic Character”) which is held open air theatre at the Ulaanbaatar central square on the 10th July. Many other great cultural events run at a similar time of the year between 10-15th July .
Other great Mongolian cultural events include:
– Hospitable Ulaanbaatar Program (10-15 July)
– Mongolian Traditional Costume festival – Deeltei Mongol
– Ceremony of Nine Banners.
– “Night of Ulaanbaatar” – 11th July.
– Mongolian Dance Festival including modern and traditional dance show (12 Jul)
– Morin Khuur- Horse-headed Fiddle Festival (13 Jul)
– Ulaanbaatar Swing Night- Jaaz show (14 Jul), the open air shows will be held in Sukhbaatar Square
Best places to see the Naadam Festival?
Mongolias capital city hosts the largest Naadam Festival in the whole of Mongolia at the National sports stadium. Usually starting at the 11th July, the Ulaanbaatar event is the most popular Naadam festival and features a full extravaganza of events including the “three games of Men”. Archery, Wrestling and Horse riding including a host of other ceremonies mentioned earlier. For tickets to this years event check out the official website.
Being in the Capital city, this festival is also the easiest to get too with a main International airport.
The only downside is it may be too much for you if you don’t like crowds, pick pockets are out in force and hotels book up quick! So read to check out a few other spots.
If you want less hustle & bustle with a more intimate celebration then head down to Murun. Located in the Khuvsgul region in northern Mongolia. Expect a scaled down version of the Ulaanbaatar Extravaganza, but with a great “up close and personal vibe” bringing you even closer to the action!
Whereas the Ulaanbaatar Naadam Festival is very well planned out, with even the smallest details closely organised and the dates consistent! The regional Naadam festivals such as Murun, tend to be a little more “relaxed” in terms of organisation. Thankfully though the event is generally ran in July with exact dates usually announced in the early summer.
How to get there?
You best bet is to take a bus or domestic flight from the Capital Ulaanbaatar. Be aware of a smaller selection of hotels and accommodation so book well in advance.
Another up close and Personal Naadam Festival, this is a great one to see the action up close and not behind crowds of people and stadium seats! Another great thing about Kharkhorin, is it’s centrally located in Mongolia and close to the capital Ulaanbaatar than other smaller towns.
To get to Kharkhorin from Ulaanbaatar, hop on a bus will be your easiest bet. For somewhere to stay check out a hotel, guest house or even an authentic Ger Camp if your after something more traditional!
Kharkhorin is also close by to Khangai Nuruu National Park, which is a great place to check out after the festival is over.
Located in the western part of country, Ulgil is the capital of the province of Bayan-Ulgi a popular doorway to the other exciting parts of Western Mongolia. As with other expect a more intimate occasion, but with the same events as the Ulaanbaater Naadam Festival. The setting here perfectly if your a photographer looking to capture the people of Mongolia in a more natural setting.
To get to Ulgil, it’s best to take a domestic flight as a drive would take over 48 hours! I highly recommend staying in a Ger camp well here this will give you a real taste of the Mongolian lifestyle. For those feeling less adventurers there are hotels on offer.
Smaller Naadams in the Mongolian Countryside
If your feeling even more adventurous and really want to find some unique experiences then definitely head out into the Mongolian Countryside, to check out some mini Naadams. These are uncrowded authentic events, where you can really get to know the locals.
There are a few benefits of heading to a mini Naadam, firstly they are Free…unlike Ulaanbaatar. Secondly, they are the most intimate you can get with the local Mongol Community and really see their traditions unfold…without all the bells and whistles of the stadium in Ulaanbaatar.
The smaller Naadams are also a great opportunity to try the local foods and delicacies, and even stay in a Ger or take part in a homestay.
Where are the Mini Naadams?
There are a couple of cool spots to check out if your after a real authentic experience. The first is Khovd, a small town in Western Mongolia and the second is Khatgal near Khuvsgul Lake in the north. (Location of the famous Mongolian Ice Festival!).
For more on the great Mongolian Ice festivals check out this Epic article
To get the these mini Naadams you need to be flexible and take a combination of different types of transport. A good option is to grab a domestic flight from Ulaanbaatar out west to Khovd. Then take a bus or jeep further out to get to Khuvsgul Lake.
Be aware of which nomad tribe will be hosting the festivities for example, if out west it will be the Mongolian Eagle hunters and if up North it will be the Tsaatan Reindeer herders.
We suggest booking a great local tour while there, if you need help with this, drop us an email at mail(at)townandtourist.com and one of our experts will get back to you and help you to book flights, hotels etc.
Travel Tips for Naadam Festival (Ulaanbaatar)
1. In Ulaanbaatar your best booking a private tour. Although the city just have a free bus system for the festival, it can be pretty packed out.
2. Check the competition times. Information of the program is usually published on www.mongoliatourism.gov.mn in the first week of July.
3. Bring with you a face mask as the horse racing field, can get very dusty.
4. A photography permit is available for the professional photographers who wish to get closer to competitions in the stadium. A good tour operator can assist you in getting one of these. Before taking a photo of a local Mongolia it’s polite to ask for permission first.
5. Roam around during the festivities to experience different perspectives, especially inside the stadium.
6. Check out the Monasteries, museums and other attractions before or after the festival, when there will be less crowds. Check with your tour operator on opening times.
7. For the more rural Naadam Festivals, be aware of the “flexible” dates and late announcements. However, the plus side is it will definitely be more of an intimate occasion.
Fancy the Golden Eagle Festival? Check out this Epic Article