To Nadaam and Beyond: Mongolia’s Festival of 3 Manly Games

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Yesterday marked the beginning of the 22nd annual Nadaam Festival in Mongolia. Six years ago this festival marked the beginning of one of the great adventures of my life.

Coming to the end of 3 longs years of law school I was in serious need of some adventure (and fresh air) before entering the next stage of my legal confinement.

View over the steppes, somewhere in Mongolia.

View over the steppes, somewhere in Mongolia.

Why Mongolia? First of all, I was convinced the vast steppes of the Mongolian plateau would provide me with the sense of freedom required after spending three years tied to a library chair in Ludlow Hall (my beloved law school). Secondly, I had recently spent hours putting off studying by watching the Long Way Round a documentary series that chronicles the antics of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they travel around the world, the long way round (east) on motorbikes – including through Mongolia. My brother had recently bought me the series as a gift. I had mistakenly assumed he did this in order to spend hours watching motorbike-related television but quickly understood it was actually a move to encourage my dream of visiting Mongolia. Thirdly, I had recently made the decision that I would start visiting destinations at times that worked best for their schedules – not only my own (a lesson I had learned after various rain-filled dive and climbing trips). It just so happened that I had exactly one month off before my new job and that month was July, perfect timing for the Nadaam Festival.

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And so it was decided, before heading to my new job high in the office towers of Bay Street – I would head to the sporting grounds of Ulaanbaatar.

Every July, the Nadaam is celebrated all over Mongolia. However, people travel from all corners of the country to participate in the main festivities in the capital, Ulanbaatar (UB). The Nadaam started two days after I arrived in UB and I had a full access pass to the events – the perfect way to begin my Mongolian adventure. The Nadaam is akin to the Olympics for the nomads of Mongolia, and includes all the ceremony and media coverage one would expect of such a grand event. I was surprised to see huge screens broadcasting the events all over the city. I was even further impressed when I returned to my hotel to learn I could watch replays and commentaries of the day’s events before turning in for the night.

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Screens depicting Nadaam events over the streets of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Screens depicting Nadaam events over the streets of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

The evening before the festival began, UB was abuzz with excitement as men in Genghis Khan era uniforms paraded through the streets on horseback (excuse the cliché, it is true). The opening ceremonies the following day are still to this day, the greatest mix of old and new cultural elements that I have ever seen in a single event. There were traditional songs from the 13th century on one end of the spectrum and an appearance from Mongolia’s biggest Hip-Hop Star (who knew?) on the other. There were hundreds of women racing by on horseback and men doing traditional dances. As an aside, it was the first time I felt a sense of equality of the sexes here, a feeling that remained with me throughout my stay. It is one of the very few places I have travelled where I had a sense that even if the genders had separate roles they were equally valued within the society.

Spectators during the opening ceremonies of the Nadaam Festival. (Photo courtesy of one of my American-Mongolian travel family members).

Spectators during the opening ceremonies of the Nadaam Festival. (Photo courtesy of one of my American-Mongolian travel family members).

Arrival of Mongolian Hip Hop Star by motorbike.

Arrival of Mongolian Hip Hop Star by motorbike.

Later that day we headed out to the steppes for the horseraces. It was a 25km race with jockeys ranging from 5-15 years old. Some of them had very official-looking uniforms that included bike helmets while others rode bareback and shoeless. Although parents in my country may not let kids of this age out of their sight, for these parents it was pure pride at having your child race the prestigious Nadaam.

Some of the little jockeys before the race.

Some of the little jockeys before the race.

Young riders arriving.

Young riders arriving.

Racers coming in.

Racers coming in.

Spectators at the races

Spectators at the races

Nadaam is traditionally a celebration of Mongolia’s “3 Manly Games”; wrestling, horseracing, and archery (Women participate in all but the wrestling). The year I visited they introduced a 4th Manly Game: Ankle-Bone Shooting. Teams from all over Mongolia participated in this traditional game of players flicking pieces of reindeer horn across the room at the ankle bones of goats, attempting to hit certain targets for the most points. The most interesting part wasn’t the flicking capabilities of the players at all, but the serious heckling by the other teams.

From the ankle-bone shooting tents we headed to the archery pavilion. One of the most memorable events for me was the women’s archery competition. The sight of these tall, elegant women in elaborate ceremonial robes shooting their arrows with absolute precision and focus during the archery competition still comes to my mind when people talk about “women and sport”.

The final day of Nadaam was the highlight of the festival – the much anticipated wrestling competition. This is not wrestling as we know it in the west. These are men of all sizes dressed in outfits of one size – small. They wrestle opponent after opponent on a large field while countless other pairs do the same around them.

Coaches and Wrestlers prepare for the games.

Coaches and Wrestlers prepare for the games.

Wrestlers preparing to go on.

Wrestlers preparing to go on.

Wrestling matches, Nadaam.

Wrestling matches, Nadaam.

At the end of each round the participants perform an “Eagle Dance” around their opponent, said to come from centuries-old shamanic traditions. [Note that Charley Boorman does a particularly entertaining version of the Eagle Dance in the Long Way Round]. In recent times, winning wrestlers from the Nadaam have gained great popularity in Mongolia, often becoming politicians.

Some fine Eagle Dancing.

Some fine Eagle Dancing.

The closing ceremonies were somewhat somber in comparison to the celebratory feel of the opening ceremonies only 3 days before. What stood out for me was a traditional throat singing performance that featured sounds of such depth it was hard to believe they were of this world, let alone from the humans standing in front of me.

After three days of this showcase of Mongolian culture one word came to my mind: WILD. It was an adjective that I would use over and over again in the coming weeks, not for lack of vocabulary but because there was no better way to describe any of it.

So that was my Nadaam. A wild beginning to what would be one of the great adventures of my life as I spent the following weeks travelling across the steppes of Mongolia, staying with nomadic families, making new friends, and even experiencing a traditional shamanic ceremony in the north of the country. A wild beginning to my little adventure that I like to call To Nadaam and Beyond!

Arriving at Nadaam.

Arriving at Nadaam.

Spectators at Nadaam.

Spectators at Nadaam.

Camps set up at the horseracing site.

Camps set up at the horseracing site.

Arguably the burliest of the Nadaam wrestlers.

Arguably the burliest of the Nadaam wrestlers.

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