Posted by Selena Travel / 05 29, 2023
In Mongolia, the Naadam Festival is one of the most anticipated events of the year for the entire nation. It’s a celebration of the country’s history, culture, and way of life.
For visitors, everything can seem a bit foreign when you explore a cultural event in a new place, so we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to the Naadam Festival as a resource that travelers can reference on their journey to Mongolia.
Here, you’ll get a better understanding of where the Naadam Festival came from, why it’s celebrated, and how you can join in on the fun.
History of the Naadam Festival
Today, the Naadam Festival marks Mongolia’s 1921 secession from China, but the history of this spectacular event travels far back in time and shows varied purpose through the years.
The festival is thought to have begun during the rule of Chinggis Khan in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, serving to groom the military through physical activity. The event’s three main sports, wrestling, horse riding, and archery, would give warriors a well rounded skill set with which to fight.
After Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, the festival evolved over time into what it is in the present day. It celebrates Mongolia’s former empire, rich history, and the values and customs that have carried on through the centuries, culminating in the country’s independence and present culture.
The Three Sports Of Naadam
Like we said, the Naadam Festival hosts three sporting events: horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Participants practice diligently and must show great skill when the time for the big event arrives. For horse racing, child jockeys guide their horses over 15 or 30 kilometer tracks, depending on the horse’s age.
Actually, much of this sport depends on the horse, as it’s more about their abilities than those of the jockey’s. The fastest and most skilled beasts are given awards and praise.
In the wrestling event, the object is to avoid letting any body parts, save for hands and feet, make contact with the earth. It’s a tough match, with wrestlers facing the possibility of immediate elimination in every round. Top participants earn distinguished titles such as “arslan,” or lion, and these wrestling matches are a test of strength, nimbleness, and endurance.
Last but certainly not least, we have the archery competition. This is the event where the most women are able to participate, with some girls also taking part in horse racing. Archers aim to take down a stack of surs rather than hit a target, and it’s a magnificent show of skill with weaponry.
In addition to the sport itself, the attire of the competitors is also a noteworthy aspect of the game. The ethnic outfits add another layer to this cultural experience.
The three sports of the Naadam Festival, horse racing, wrestling, and archery, are the most popular of the event. But, as we’ll see next, the historical significance of the foundations of the Naadam Festival are preserved in ceremonial aspects.
Not only a celebration of Mongolia’s independence and great skill in sport, the Naadam Festival is a time to commemorate the uniqueness of the country’s culture. With origins in the Chinggis Khan era, it’s only appropriate that a piece of this ancient history is highlighted in the event.
While Chinggis Khan was in power, the empire flew nine tugs, which are unique banners comprised of horse hair on a pole. These are significant to Mongolia for a couple of reasons. Horses are a key element of the way of life for citizens of this country, not to mention the tugs themselves are reminiscent of an important time in Mongolian history: the rule of Chinggis Khan and the former Mongolian Empire.
Their significance has not wavered over the years, and, as such, for the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, nine tugs are moved from the Government House in Sukhbaatar Square to the National Sports Stadium, where the festival takes place. The gesture is representative of the history and culture that is celebrated during the event.
Across the country, the Naadam Festival takes place over the summer. Ulaanbaatar hosts the grandest of the events in their multi purpose stadium, the National Sports Stadium, in July every year. With thousands in attendance, the National Naadam is easily one of the biggest annual events in the country.
Outside of the country’s capital, you’ll find several smaller scale Naadam Festivals in more rural areas. July 11 may mark Mongolia’s official independence from China, but other Naadam celebrations might take place outside the traditional dates. They’ll still feature the three sports, but in a more intimate setting.
How to Attend The Naadam Festival
If you’d like to be a spectator at Mongolia’s premier event in Ulaanbaatar, you’re lucky. Tourists are welcome to attend the Naadam Festival and it’s not too daunting to plan either.
Mark off July 11-13 in your calendar, as that’s when the event typically occurs, and start planning your transport and accommodation for Ulaanbaatar. As the country’s capital and main gateway for international visitors, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find plane, train, or bus tickets in and find a reasonable place to stay. You’ll have to buy tickets for the Naadam Festival in the National Sports Stadium, and, as this particular event tends to be rather crowded, be sure to hop on getting your passes as soon as possible.
If you don’t manage to wrangle tickets or would prefer to avoid the crowds, no worries! Keep an eye out for those other celebrations of the Naadam Festival throughout the country, and plan to attend one of those instead. You’ll enjoy a closer experience, but you’ll have to do a little more planning to get there.
That’s all we’ve got on Mongolia's Naadam Festival! It’s our hope that this beginner’s guide has been helpful as you plan your trip to Mongolia, and that you make it over to the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar while you’re there. It’s a terrific way to become more acquainted with the ancient reaches of Mongolian culture and the way of life of the people that live here.