Mongolia's Naadam Festival
The annual, countryside celebration of the three manly sports; horse racing, wrestling and archery. Melissa recalls her first experience.
Not a cloud in the sky; what a perfect morning to attend the infamous Naadam festival in the soum (village) of Khatgal on the south westerly tip of Lake Khovsgol, the Blue Pearl of Mongolia.
Bouncing along the plains in the characterful Furgon (the Russian-built vans in Mongolia), I can hear the excited shouts from the crowds even before the festival site comes into view. Row upon row of Furgons and motorbikes line the grassland behind the bustling main ring and hundreds of Mongolian horses are waiting patiently amongst the trees nearby. What a display of colour! Locals have turned out in their hordes to support their annual celebration. Deels (traditional dress) of every colour you can imagine are being worn with pride, and traditions such as passing a snuff bottle upon greeting someone are a common sight.
Flags are raised and banners carried as the parade of beautifully dressed dignitaries enter the ring to commence with the opening ceremony. Shortly after, the crowd was introduced to the many fine, athletically-built wrestlers and then the bouts began. Having met a couple of the wrestlers previously, I was able to cheer them on with extra enthusiasm!
The excitement was heightened as Dalaibayar, the youngest of our new wrestler friends, kept winning! A splendid display of respect by the defeated wrestler is shown after each short bout in the form of an eagle dance; the loser will swoop under the winner's arm to formally conclude the match. The winner then dances out of the ring – graceful, strong and proud; like an eagle. Several matches were being fought at the same time – the atmosphere from the crowd was electric – each person noisily encouraging their local wrestler to fling their opponent to the ground. When a male child is born, Mongols wish for him to become a wrestler. It is easy to understand why – there is so much national pride oozing from each and every festival attendee, let alone the participants themselves; it’s just in their genes.
As the rounds continued, I took a break to watch the final few hundred metres of the horse racing. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything like the horse racing you may have seen on TV … this Naadam activity is a cross-country event with races 15-30km long, depending on the age class, that is, the age of the horse. Children from 5-15 years old are chosen as jockeys, trained in the preceding months and, perhaps controversially, do not necessarily wear helmets or even use saddles! The dust cloud appears in the distance, followed by the vibrations underfoot … the horses come into view with their jockeys keen to make their families proud by being the first to cross the challenging terrain.
An arrow glints in the sun catching my eye. Meandering past the competitive volleyball game which was in mid-flow, I reached the archers just in time to see the local policeman letting loose his round-winning arrow. This ancient art stems back to the thirteenth century when the successes of the Mongol army were primarily down to the keen skill and technology of the Mongol archers. Bows were made using a special technique with horn and wood – technology which is still used today for competing in the Naadam Festival. Since the communist era, women as well as men have been able to participate in this event and in fact, Mongolia’s first world champion was a female archer in 1971!
Returning to the wrestling ring, I was somewhat distracted by the beautiful array of what can only be described as ‘Mongolian-market-tat’ but in the fondest way, of course. Snuff bottles to slippers, handbags to hats; these treasures are priceless to those who want to buy them as traditional keepsakes. I just couldn’t resist some fast food; deep fried dumplings, khushuur, are order of the day and Mongolians eat them by the bagful. These greasy little numbers give Dunkin’ Donuts a run for their money!
Narrowly missing a Union Jack-clad dart hurtling towards balloons pinned to a board (a favourite with Mongolian kids!) I made my way back round to the main ring just in time to hear the announcements. Having closely followed the wrestling and my new friends throughout the two days of Naadam, I was overjoyed to understand that Dalaibayar had defeated the champion to become elephant (a rank held by winning 7 rounds) of Khatgal Naadam!
What a way to end the most unique festival I have ever been to. The smells, tastes and colours of the two days left me wanting more; an incredible country rich in strength and pride – this is Mongolia.