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JULY 13, 2003 -> Naadam Festival

The Naadam Festival is Mongolia's biggest event, a sort of Mongolian Olympics that developed from the hunting/sporting extravaganzas of the great Khans. Celebrating the "Three Manly Sports" of wrestling, archery and horse racing, Naadam is a major pull for foreigners and locals. Both participants and fans wear bright, new dels and loovus hats, and the stadium is awash in brilliant colors. When we arrived in Mongolia a few weeks before Naadam, Ulaan Baatar was nearly devoid of foreigners. When we arrived back after our road trip (a few days before Naadam), the place was crawling with them. Because of this, some travel snobs decry Naadam as "too touristy," but we had a great time. Numerous events also coincide with Naadam, such as fashion shows and special museum exhibits.

Opening Ceremonies

I wasn't sure if I was in Mongolia or watching the Superbowl half-time show. Hundreds of youth in regional and historical dress paraded around the grounds, singing and dancing; a troop of parachutists trailing advertising banners (e.g. Khan Bank) spiraled to the ground; and a fur-cloaked Genghis Khan burst forth from a faux granite block and ascended to a golden throne. A half-dozen trick riders bounced on and off their horses, and pirouetted on the horses' backs while in full gallop. The President of Mongolia, clad in a rather jaunty bright-orange del, officially opened the games. About mid-way through the ceremony, a huge banner of Genghis Khan unfurled from tall standards, completely blocking the views of two (mostly Mongolian) sections.


We watched the wrestling final on TV at the Chinggis Jazz Bar, over several mugs of Chinggis Beer. (Though less famous than his brother, Chinggis Beer was notable for his extreme inebriation prior to battle.) The final lasted more than two hours, forcing the Naadam organizers to start the closing ceremonies before the wrestling champion had been crowned. The first thirty minutes of the bout had been exciting - with several aggressive attacks and near-falls - but the remaining hour and a half was a slow dance of the titans, the two combatants locked in what looked like a lovers' embrace.

Unlike modern Olympic wrestling, with its perplexing point-scoring system, the goal of Mongolian wrestling is very simple: throw your opponent to the ground. The first man to have any part of his body, except his feet and hands, touch the ground loses. There are no weight classes, so the largest wrestlers (and there are some giants) usually win. The wrestlers wear red, open-chested red vests and tight, blue Speedos. Some are tall, powerfully built men, but others are squat fatties who are simply too heavy to throw. Naadam starts with 128 wrestlers, and proceeds tournament-style to the final two. We had watched the early rounds at the stadium, where ten to twelve bouts were going on at the same time.


Pretend that you manage an archery range. What would be the two most important rules? 1) Don't go anywhere near the targets. 2) Don't shoot if anyone is in the way. At Naadam, both these rules were flouted. The men shot from twenty feet behind the ladies, and the targets were surrounded by people who judged the accuracy of the shot. Thankfully, the arrows had blunt tips, but it still looked like it hurt when one arrow landed in front of the targets and skipped across the ground, striking a judge in the shins. There was no way to keep track of who was winning, so watching the archery became boring pretty quickly. But it was great to watch when someone did win. All his or her competitors would crowd around the winner, giving big bear hugs and sincere two-cheek kisses.

Horse Racing

At the horse races, located 30 km outside of Ulaan Baatar, we bluffed our way up to the announcer's booth and watched as nearly 400 young riders charged from the starting line, and quickly disappeared behind a screen of dust. More than an hour later, the dust cloud reappeared on the horizon, and inched inexorably closer, before finally spitting out the four lead horses just a few kilometers from the finish. The crowd went wild as the winning horse and its screaming jockey crossed the finish line. The excitement of the race was marred, however, by the grisly site of a horse that had run itself to death. It lay on its side just beyond the finish, the legs stiffened in rigor mortis, and the mouth frozen in a grotesque snarl.

Ankle Bone Shooting

Not one of the original "Three Manly Sports," ankle bone shooting was - in the words of another American traveler - merely an exhibition sport. The games were held under a small tent near the archery range. Teams of four competed to knock down rows of sheep ankle bones (which look like packing foam curlicues) that sat on a platform fifteen feet away from the shooters. It's something like the spitwad football that we used to play on school desks, where a friend makes a goal post with his hands, and successful 'field goals' ricochet off his forehead. The shooters sat on small chairs, and fired a small wedge of bone off a ruler-shaped wood block, using a powerful flick of the middle finger. The accuracy was amazing.