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They are called the “Three Games of Men” during which the dudes, and in this progressive age even a few ladies, can compete in the three sports of courage, wisdom and strength. Namely, those are horse racing, archery and wrestling. The Mongol Naadam takes place all over Mongolia on varying dates, but the main event is held in the capital Ulaanbaatar from July 11th to 13th with a whole lot of pomp and traditional costumes.

Surviving Naadam in Mongolia is simple: drink lots of fluids (preferably airag), watch out for horses and it’s probably a good idea to dig out that old gym membership card you got for christmas and never used and get in shape first. For what you ask? Dodging arrows, throwing punches for bus seats and all those impromptu wrestling matches.

Archery competition at Naadam

Naadam Archery: women are now allowed to compete as well.

Eyes up here!

The first thing you need to know is that it’s probably a good idea to not walk around with your eyes glued to ground in front of you. Yes, the grass might be lush and pretty and you might be daydreaming about the sexy wrestler from earlier that day whisking you away on his stallion – but you’ll probably get run over by a horse or hit by an arrow in the process.

The horse traffic, just like a Mongolian horse race, can be a bit crazy and if I know one thing about Mongolian traffic laws of any kind, it is that there aren’t very many of them. Lots of people arrive on their horses and subsequently spend the day ripping around on them. It looks like a lot of fun, sometimes I wished I had one too, but you have to be ready to jump out of the way.

Watch out for them youths on them pimped out horses!

Watch out for those youths on their pimped out horses!

Fights to near death: now at every bus station near you!

Apart from riding their horses, Mongolians like doing several other things: eating lots of Khuushuur, wearing pointy hats, downing ungodly amounts of fermented mares milk and pretending to be human bulldozers.

If you are lucky, you will only get shoved out of the way. Maybe you will feel an elbow bury itself in your stomach and sometimes, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a full on brawl. And that strict meat-dairy-and-fat-only diet of theirs doesn’t exactly tilt the odds in your favour either.

I had already experienced the tendency towards this kind of bold cheek at the Mongolian-Chinese border. A cantankerous lady three times my size who looked like she eats dainty little things like me for breakfast sauntered past a line of fifty patiently waiting foreigners and nudged her whole bulk right in between me and the yellow line, giving me that “whatcha gonna do about it?” look. Not ready to be victimized like that, I shoved her right back out of line, which ended in an elbowing-shouting-janking match right under the very disapproving eyes of several Chinese border officials.

My cat, who’s after all fairly often involved in such territorial disputes, would have been so proud.

Mind you, I might have looked a bit ruffled after, but I won. And the best part is that I didn’t even get arrested.

crowds at naadam

Naadam in Ulaanbaatar: so many people!

I soon learned though, that the border incident wasn’t an isolated case. The attitude throughout the country seems to be one along the lines of “screw you, you and especially you, I can do whatever I want.”

Stand in line? What line?

Generally, this mindset isn’t much of a problem, with Mongolia being so sparsely populated and there usually being a few miles of safe-zone separating one ger from the next. On the average day in the middle of nowhere Mongolia, there simply aren’t any lines.

During the Naadam holiday and especially in the capital though, a whole lot of people not used to lines congregate in one spot and things can get a bit messy.

Heck, who am I kidding, I’m probably lucky I still have all my limbs. During those couple days of Naadam in Ulaanbaatar, each time I had to get onto a bus, train or into a stadium, I was involved in some kind of brawl that in any other country would have sent the cops with tear gas in. As if being stuffed into a bus with – and I swear I’m not exaggerating – five bazillion Naadam attendees wasn’t bad enough, the elbows in my ribs didn’t really add to the experience. If a crowd of Mongolians is waiting for a vehicle, you can be sure as hell that as soon as the doors open, ALL OF THEM are going to try and shove their way throught the door at the same time. Of course it doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Just saying, be prepared to fight back and throw yourself into the chaos or get left behind.

Weird outfits and shapely Mongolian butts

Did you know that some of the most famous Sumo wrestlers are actually Mongolians? After seeing them at Naadam, I wasn’t surprised any more.

Genghis Khan already decided a couple hundred years ago that wrestling was the perfect sport to keep his army happy, in shape and battle-ready. Being a good wrestler could even decide if you got promoted in the army or whether you were destined to be used as arrow fodder on the front lines. And bökh, as wrestling is called, has remained to this day the most popular Mongolian sport. During Naadam, it’s the mens golden opportunity to jiggle all their menflesh in the direction of stone-faced ladies and, without age, weight or time limits, compete to become the “Undefeatable Giant of Nation”.

Sounds awesome, right?

I have to be honest, I don’t know much about Mongolian wrestling rules. I only understood that the goal is to get the opponent’s knee, elbow or upper body to touch the ground. The best thing about bökh though, is watching the scantily clad wrestlers prance around in their tight outfits. I might be emasculating them a bit, but apart from some sweaty grabbing and rolling on the ground, wrestling also involves copious amounts of butt shaking, stretching, bending over and dancing in weird circles. In short, a lot of pointing behinds in all possible geographic directions to dazzle the masses.

Well, prepare your virgin eyes.

Some stretching...

Naadam wrestling: There’s some stretching…

Some hugging... real men show emotions or whatever

Some hugging… real men show emotions or whatever

Some dancing...

Some dancing…

And there is some wrestling happening as well.

And then, there is some wrestling happening as well.

Drink up that airag!

Fermented mares milk and Mongolia belong together like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. There is definitely some bizarre food in Mongolia, but you simply cannot escape that sour smelling, slightly clumpy deliciousness that is airag. Well, maybe it isn’t exactly as addicting as crack, but you should absolutely give it a chance, especially at Naadam.

The first sip of airag I ever had left me gagging. You have to believe me when I say this, but usually I’m really not a fussy eater. I’ll stuff pretty much anything laid before me into my face. But the sour, fizzy, slightly alcoholic drink that also had this distinct overlaying taste of cheese wasn’t something I immediately enjoyed. However, the expectant stares of several hosts left me drinking bowl after bowl trying not to show any hint of discomfort on my face. Hospitality mandates that every visitor is offered a bowl of milk as well as some cheese and crackers. And you wouldn’t want to mess with a wrinkly Mongolian grandma by not drinking up your milk – they look fierce!

And you know what, soon I was used to it and actually craved more.

Airag, fermented mares milk

Yum!

Also, your lactose intolerance isn’t an excuse. The fermenting destroys the lactose, converts it into lactic acid, ethanol and carbon dioxide and leaves the end result perfectly save to drink for everyone. It’s actually pretty darn genius.

Since the Mongolians are literally addicted to it, during Naadam, whole barrels of fermented mares milk are brought out and handed out liberally to anyone coming by. At one Naadam celebration I attended in the countryside, a big bucket was placed on the wrestling field and it was made sure that by the end, every spectator had had a bowl of airag. It simply goes very well with Khuushuur, the popular Mongolian meat pastry and a typical Naadam festival food.

Airag distribution crew at a countryside Naadam.

Airag distribution crew (and bonus wrestlers) at a countryside Naadam.




About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

8 Responses

  1. Maria Falvey

    Fantastic festival Tiffany – I love the concentration and focus you captured on film in the shot of the Naadam Archery scene. Intense!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      The concentration was incredible, and the resulting accuracy as well. They almost always hit the target dead on.

      Reply
  2. Anna

    I’ve heard of this!! But the first time to read a coverage of it. Looks like great fun if manage to escape without serious bruises or injury :P. I applaud you for drinking bowl after bowl do that fermented mares milk… I don’t think I can stomach that…yuck!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Haha you really get used to the terrible taste, after a few weeks you will already be half-Mongolian and slurping bowl after bowl 🙂

      Reply
  3. Agness

    Wow, locals take Naadam Festival really seriously. Look at their warrior faces! I’m glad you enjoyed it that much. Wish I could experience something like this in the near future. For now, I’m enjoying Amsterdam!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      They really do and it’s so much fun to watch, I hope you get to go there at some point! But Amsterdam is so much fun too, so you’re in a pretty amazing place yourself 🙂

      Reply
  4. Corinne

    Tiffany, Naadam is definitely on my list. I loved Mongolia the first time I went, and have a plan to go back. I think I will have to make it in July. How did you find out about the fests in the countryside? Love your photos!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      The trick with the countryside Naadams is asking around a bit when you get to Ulaanbaatar. It’s basically impossible to find out the dates beforehand, but the locals usually have family in different parts of the country and know what’s going on 🙂

      Reply

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