Wrestling, archery and horse racing take centre stage at Mongolia's annual Naadam festival
I stare out the coach window as our bus crawls through the Mongolian capital’s busy street. On one side, young hawkers are selling Mongolian national flags to commuters while on the other, a old man dressed in the traditional kaftan-style deel coat and knotted cap, nudges his horse across the road, almost taking the traffic island with him. An attractive woman in a luxurious Jeep Sahara slams on the horn to warn the horseman that she, not he, has right of way.
Ulaanbaatar is complete mayhem as the nation prepares to celebrate the Naadam festival, an annual event that features the county’s traditional sports. It coincides with Mongolia’s National Day and the city is in festive mode.
“There are about three million people in Mongolia. Almost two million live Ulaanbaatar, and the rest roam around the steppe and Gobi desert,” says Pornchai, our Chinese guide in Ulaanbaatar, as we head to the National Sports Stadium to the opening ceremony.
“Today, however, they are probably all in Ulaanbaatar. They come for Naadam,” Pornchai adds.
Part of “ The Premier: Your Pride, Your Joy”, a unique expedition organised by KBank for its wealthy Premier members, we arrived in Ulaanbaatar after a 30-hour journey from Beijng on the famous Trans-Mongolian train. “Naadam” is the very first Mongolian word we picked up during the trip and we’re looking forward to seeing the sporting tournaments.
“Naadam” is actually shortened from “eriin gurvan naadam”, Mongolian for “the three games of men: wrestling, horse racing and archery. The festival aims to show off the machismo of the nomadic tribe and it hasn’t changed much since the days of Genghis Khan – except that women can now complete in the archery and girls in the horse racing.
As we pull into the National Sports Stadium, we look in amazement at the various forms of transport used by the locals to come to the games. Tourist coaches vie for space with luxury SUVs, old jeeps, plenty of Mustangs, the cheap Chinese-made motorcycle so popular in the town and the occasional horse.
The opening ceremony, which features a series of Mongolian cultural shows and a parade by the Mongolian cavalry, is as impressive as it is entertaining. The games begin when throngs of bare-chested wrestlers clad in tight shorts and wearing sleeves march into the stadium. Two wrestlers square off on ground. The rules are simple. You have to wrestle your competitor until he touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet or hands. When you win you celebrate by put your arms out in the air horizontally and flap them up and down in slow motion.
“Eagle dance,” says Pornchai, smiling at my puzzled expression. “A symbol of power and bravery in the steppe.”
The archery competition takes place outside the stadium. Marksmen and women aim for cork cylinders braided together with leather straps that are stacked on the ground at a distance of 75 metres.
The atmosphere is quite festive around the National Stadium and a few games are set up for the would-be sportsmen among the spectators. You can show your tough side by latching on to an iron bar and hanging in the air for as long as you can. The longer you can hang, the more chance of going home with a gadget. If you think you have strong sense of marksmanship, you might try to knock off a pyramid of old, empty paint cans with a single stone. I love the simplicity of Naadam. No Olympic committees, no drug tests, no bickering.
Food stalls are everywhere selling barbecued camel, horse, cow, goat and sheep. Not a big fan of “burning meat”, I head for the bucket of kumis – a fermented mare’s milk.
A Kumis-monger tosses a bowl of white, frothy drink into my face without saying a word. It smells like rotting apples but the vendor’s challenging look forces me to gulp it down. You don’t need the bravery of Genghis Khan’s cavalry to swallow milk from a female horse but you do need a gut of steel. Kumis has a laxative effect, something I should have remembered from my first experience with it at a marketplace in Kazakhstan.
The ride from Ulaanbaatar to Khui Doloon Kudag valley, where the horse racing is taking place, is uncomfortable, as the fermented milk makes its way through my digestive system. A public toilet is out of question. The Mongols don’t even have a concept of the road and the open steppe has nary a tree behind which to answer the call of nature.
We arrive at the valley in the afternoon and are amazed at the action. The capital was chaotic but this is Nascar without Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Matt Kenseth. Gers are pitched all around the valley and tribal flags flutter from them in the breeze. Horses are tethered outside the tents and watch on as their occupants sit around their picnic tables full of drink and food following the races on small television sets. The rest of the steppe is cluttered with SUVs, motorcycles and more horses.
“The Mongols are great when they’re on horseback,” says our Chinese guide, as we watch two drivers exchanging angry words after a minor car accident. “When they’re out of the saddle, they’re finished.”
It’s hard to disagree. People of the steppe have little concept of the road. In Khui Doloon Kudag valley, for example, everyone appears to have made his own path along which to steer horse, car and motorcycle. Turning is completely random and done without warning and parking is haphazard. When the Mongols look at their cars, they see horses.
The horse racing, one of the world’s most ancient forms, bears no relation to Royal Ascot with its celebrities and fancy hats. Up to 1,000 horses with child jockeys on their backs, compete each other over a 30- kilometre race. The winners are praised with the title of “tumny ekh” or “leader of ten thousand”, while the losers are soothed with the “bayan khodood” song wishing them a better luck next year.
We follow the crowds and watch as the youngsters clamber on to their mounts. Unfortunately we cannot wait until the end of race as we have a plane to catch but linger it long enough to see a ferocious flurry of dust way off the distance.
The Mongolian horses are coming.
If you go
_ Naadam Festival is held every July with most of the activities taking place in Ulaanbaatar.
_ Beijing is the gateway to Ulaanbaatar, offering both plane and train departures to the steppes.