Naadam Festival: Mongolia’s Ancient Games

Naadam Festival: Mongolia’s Ancient Games

MIR Tour Manager Michel Behar loves the colorful traditions and fiercely competitive games of the 111-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

Helen: 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.

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

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.


Helen: 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, Iran, 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

Helen: 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

Helen: 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.

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

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.”

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

Helen: Is Ulaanbaatar the only city that celebrates Naadam?Michel: No. Ulaanbaatar has the biggest festival, but it’s also celebrated in other places within Mongolia and in countries where Mongolians live, like parts of Russia. In all, there are about 35,000 wrestlers, 11,000 horse riders, and 15,000 archers who compete throughout the country.


Helen: 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 111-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

Travel to the Naadam Festival with MIRLearn more about MIR small group tours that experience the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, or at a more intimate country Naadam. You can also book a custom private journey.

Top photo credit: Helge Pedersen

PUBLISHED: February 10, 2014

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