In a place where 30% of the population still choose to follow a nomadic lifestyle, tradition runs deep. The ancient Mongol warrior disciplines of wrestling, horsemanship and archery are still held in great regard and once a year, these skills are celebrated at the Naadam festivals held all over Mongolia. A country of extreme climate and hard manual labour breeds tough competitors, so the games are taken very seriously.
The festival begins with a rousing opening ceremony of traditional music, dancing and singing. Mongolia’s soviet past is clear in the mass choreography but the music and instruments come from a much earlier time.
Excitement starts to build as the Mongolian wrestlers enter the arena – while they come in all shapes and sizes, some of the top fighters are absolutely huge. Previous champions are entitled to wear a red flag on the back of their hats.
Each wrestler wears a special uniform of a spiked hat, a pair of sleeves, trunks and special custom-made leather boots. Legend has it that the chest is left uncovered to prevent women participating.
Each bout is a straight knock out competition where the loser is the first person to hit the ground. There are no weight categories which means that smaller, faster wrestlers can be be pitted against one of the massive giants…and sometimes the little guy wins.
There is still a strong spiritual element to the contest – the winning wrestler performs a victory “eagle dance” where the loser must pass under his “wing” as a sign of respect, then the winner performs the dance under the Mongolian flag.
While off-duty, the wrestlers gather in groups in the stand to study their opponents tactics.
Behind the stadium, the archers compete in a quieter but no less intense battle. Each shot is highly pressurised as the rivals stand in close proximity, taking turns to shoot one arrow at a time in quick succession.
The real heart of the Naadam beats on the dusty, wind-blown steppe outside of town. Man’s relationship with the horse has been key to survival in Central Asia for thousands of years, so the horse racing is sacred. These are the same tough little horses that carried Genghis Khan’s army 8000km from Mongolia to the gates of Europe.
The event is strictly a test of the horse, not the jockey, so the riders are little kids aged between 6-10 to keep the weight as low as possible – some even dispense with a saddle and ride bareback to minimise the load. These children ride horses from the time they learn to walk, so all are supremely confident on their animals.
The horses are herded into a special enclosure for the start. The little riders are completely unfazed by the experience and none show even a hint of nerves.
Finally, the fence drops and the race begins. The course is a loop of up to 30km across the open steppe and the riders quickly disappear in the distance. The spectators pile onto trucks, cars, motorbikes or horses and rush headlong for the finish line a couple of miles away – they have to bag a decent viewing spot before the riders arrive.
After a nervous wait, the leaders appear, racing right to the end.
Not all the competitors make it back – one horse collapsed and died just short of the finish line – a victim of a heart attack from the strain of the chase. The winning horse is mobbed by the spectators at the finish – each has a wooden spatula which they use to gather sweat from the exhausted animal and then wipe onto their foreheads for good luck, believing that some of the horses strength and spirit is transferred in the perspiration.
I attended the Naadam in Bulgan, a provincial town in Northern Mongolia. My full Mongolia gallery is here.
My Mongolia trip was arranged by the excellent Wild Frontiers Travel.