7 Must-Do Things During Naadam, The Biggest Holiday

Think you know Naadam? Think again. Originally a boot camp to prepare nomads for war, Naadam — or the “Nomads’ Olympics” — is the most important holiday event for Mongols. But some travelers end up only scratching the surface of the rituals and misinterpreting their meanings, and even city Mongols are unaware of some of the great things happening. SoWhyMongolia dug up everything so you don’t have to. What we learned was that this year was special because of a government program named “Friendly Ulaanbaatar”, which is organizing sundry satellite events around Naadam. The government being the government, you might not see them next year. So, catch them before they go poof.

1. The Deeltei Mongol Traditional Attire Parade

No national holiday is complete without the national pride of traditional attire, and nothing gets you immersed in a culture better than wearing the national clothing and joining a team of marchers. (Yes, even New York Pride!) Deel (pronounced “dell”), our primary ethnic garment, is the Swiss pocket knife of clothing – although there are many varieties depending on the season and/or prudishness of the wearer, the classic design acts as a storage, toilet, camp tent, and even a standing motel to bump uglies on the steppe.

deeltei mongols
But we digress.

July 10, 19:00 is when the Deeltei Mongol Parade marches around Chinggis Square, like an army of mellow Mongols peacefully invading the city and persuading its citizens to wear the long-forgotten traditional clothing. You can stand by and take pictures, but since there’s no picket or anything, you might as well join them. But first you have to buy a deel from the big markets at a range of $75-$250 and join in. The deel can also serve as a Halloween costume – if you buy a headpiece and a wig, you can become Queen Amidala from Star Wars: Phantom Menace.

queen amidalaa
The fact that Natalie Portman was wearing a Mongolian headpiece on a Star Wars prequel meant we were going places… until the movie sucked.

2. Bökh Wrestling Tournament at Central Stadium

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way now. Bökh wrestling is one of the three manly games and is the national pastime of Mongolian men, coming third after alcoholism and road rage. In bokh, two wrestlers grapple each o other from standing position, and the first to “be down”, or have his knees, elbows, or butt touch the ground is the loser. The matches are slow but end in rough victories worth a watch.

The proper reaction to this victory is expressed by the man in light blue deel.

July 11 is when the National Bökh Wrestling Tournament, and Naadam, officially begin. The opening ceremony starts at 10:00 and the first round match will start at 12:00 p.m., with several matches being held simultaneously until 6:00. You pick up again at 9:00 am the next day; the finals match will take place by 6:30 on July 12. The funny thing about the matches is the beginning and ending ritual, where wrestlers “show off” by flapping their arms like a flying bird, which is a little far-fetched when you consider their weight.

In their defense, our king of birds is pretty overweight.

3. Horse Racing at Khui Doloon Khudag

The last manly game is horse racing, although the riders are little children now, due to the fact that they’re lighter. Horse racing is the biggest event of the three games in participation, with more than 1,000 horses racing each year. There are six categories of races according to a horse’s age – daaga (1-year-old), shudlen (2-year-old), hyazaalan (3-year-old), soyolon (4-year-old), ikh nas (adults) and azarga (stallions), and the distance of the races range from 10 to 24 km, according to the age class.

horse race about to start
And don’t call them ponies, they’re not that short! Arrrgh! Stop it!

Horse racing starts on July 10, with the 3-year-olds racing at 8:00 at Khui Doloon Khudag. The 2-year-olds race at 2:00. On July 11, the stallion race starts at 8:00 and the adult horse race starts at 2:00. But this is not all, July 13 is officially the trainers’ naadam. The people who prepared and trained the horses do a little mini-naadam of their own and visiting their camp is sure to be a treat. Every camp treats you with some free airag, making it the bar-hopping equivalent of the nomads.

Наадам морь
Want to know what airag is? Just imagine half of these horses as brewing barrels.

4. Archery Tournament at the Archery Arena

Archery is an old and deadly art, and an official manly game, although the current form has become a little tame and confusing for the uninitiated. Three types of archery exist – Buryat, Uriankhai and Khalkha, which shoot from 35 m, 45 m and 75 m, respectively. The targets are either walls of cylindrical leather baskets called khana, or khasaa, which is a shorter wall of cylindrical leather baskets. So, basically, like Angry Birds.

Not pictured: Archers practicing on their iPhones
Not pictured: Archers practicing on their iPhones

Preliminary tournaments for Uriankhai archery started on July 7 , Buryat archery on 8, and Khalkha archery on 9. On July 10, there will be the khana tournament, on July 11, there will be a khasaa tournament. During the Manchurian Empire’s colonial times, archery was prohibited among Mongols and men secretly played with miniature crossbows inside their gers, like unemployed Robin Hoods in a mid-life crisis. Due to the prohibition, the practice of archery waned among the Mongols significantly, although the current practice is evolving and progressing as well – women and children also compete in archery.

Everyone's Katniss in our Hunger Games
Everyone’s Katniss Everdeen in our Hunger Games

5. Anklebone shooting

Now that the three official manly games are crossed off, let’s move on to the other games. Remember how the men spent their days in their dwellings before Mongolia became independent? This gave rise to anklebone shooting (How the hell did it sneak into the official Naadam schedule?), which is a game of players flicking a small rectangular soum at a stack of anklebones nine tokhoi (4.72 m) away. Anklebones of sheep and other livestock have been a source of recreation for nomad children, and this is one of them.

anklebone shooting
But despite how it sounds, almost all players are grown-ass men.

July 11, 11:30 is when the anklebone shooting commences at the Shagai Tent at Central Stadium. On July 12, 8:00, the finals tournament of the anklebone shooting will happen. The only redeemable thing about anklebone shooting is that the soum and its launch pads have swagger.

Treat your man-child husband with this goodie
Treat your man-child husband to this goodie

6. Naadam Foods

It’s not a holiday if it doesn’t have grub! Around Central Stadium, which will be teeming with events and spectators between July 10 and 12, you should visit and catch your mandatory bite of naadam khuushuur. Khuushuur is a crispy, deep-fried pastry that looks like naan bread, but with mutton or beef inside. Naadam khuushuur is the same as regular khuushuur, but flat.

Dun dun DUNNN!

Khuushuur is for Mongolia what sushi is for Japan. Also you should try airag, or fermented mare’s milk. Better known as kumis in Central Asia and internationally, airag tastes one third sweet and two thirds sour, making it the equivalent of beer for nomads. (Also called milk champagne in the U.S.) Airag is a staple drink for any festive occasion. Mongols even drink airag as punishment for losing in khuruu, a Mongolian rock-stone-scissors game, or dembee, a Mongolian rap (?) battle.

Now go crazy.

7. Mini-Naadams, Everywhere

Naadam doesn’t just stop in Ulaanbaatar. It happens in almost every province and every hamlet. They are smaller and more peaceful events with wrestling, horse racing and archery, so outsiders are welcome to join in and do tryouts, as long as they don’t do this.

lost wrestler
His parents won’t bring him back to Mongolia. It’s the Disneyland incident all over again.

The provincial naadams are held from mid-July through early August. There are other things, such as an outdoor opera and a cultural naadam. You can find the details here. Happy Naadam!

mm About Natso Baatarkhuu
Natso Baatarkhuu lives in Mongolia and writes in English. His works have appeared in Cracked.com and The UB Post, and he started this website. He dreams of publishing novels and selling screenplays someday.


Natso Baatarkhuu

Natso Baatarkhuu lives in Mongolia and writes in English. His works have appeared in Cracked.com and The UB Post, and he started this website. He dreams of publishing novels and selling screenplays someday.

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