The wrestling tournament starts after the opening ceremony. More than five hundred of the country’s top wrestlers compete, and the draw is seeded so that, theoretically, the best wrestlers face each other in the later rounds. Matches are notoriously long in the countryside, often taking hours to complete, but new rules in the Ulaanbaatar finals keep the action going at a fairly decent pace. Even so, you might want to save yourself for the final rounds, which take place on day two. There’s no way of knowing when the last match will be, but it’s likely to happen between 6pm and 8pm. You’ll want to time your arrival to see the best of the action, when the hours of waiting are rewarded with the final spinning take-down – after which the beefy winner does his traditional celebratory eagle dance and charges into the stands to receive praise from the president. The adoring crowd will then try to swipe off some of his sweat for good luck (foreigners usually avoid this tradition). The closing ceremonies are brief – the guard of honour trots around the stadium on horseback and rides off with the white banners. If you’re still standing, go and hit the clubs again.
Archery and anklebone shooting
Just outside the main stadium, a concrete amphitheatre provides the stage for the archery events. Decked out in their finest silk dels (traditional robes), the archers fire heavy, dull-tipped arrows at a stack of small cylindrical baskets placed on the ground. The judges, rather than calling out the score, sing a verse of praise for each successful shot. Likewise, the archers might also sing to their arrows – requesting a straight and true flight. You can watch the contest from the grandstand or near the targets where the judges stand (watch out for stray arrows!). A relatively new addition to the Naadam line-up is Shagai, or anklebone shooting. Basically a Mongolian version of darts, the game sees crouching competitors flicking a sheep’s anklebone from a small board at a target of bones. The more bones they knock down the more points they score. As in archery, the judges kneel near the target and sing praise for each direct hit. The competition is held in a tent next to the archery stadium.
The most dramatic of the manly games is horse racing. The races are staged at Hui Doloon Khutag, around 30km west of the city, a temporary tent city that, for horse trainers and race fans, becomes the centre of the festival during Naadam. Gers (the traditional felt tent used by nomads) are lined up and transformed into small restaurants, and patrons queue up to enjoy the national drink, airag, a fizzy concoction made from fermented mare’s milk and tasting like bitter yogurt. Mongols down airag by the bowl-full; it has the strength of weak beer, but don’t drink too much or your stomach will erupt.
There are three or four races per day, varying in length from 15km to 20km according to the age of the horses – the older the horse the longer the race (though all can last an hour or more). The race begins when the jockeys, who are between the ages of five and ten years old, sing a song called “Gingo” to their horses, which helps to pacify the half-wild steeds. After officials check the teeth of each horse (which determines the age), the riders are off. The best way to see the start – it’s usually located well away from the crowds – is to hire a jeep driver to take you to the starting line and then drive you further up the course for another look.
If you haven’t got money for a jeep you can just hang out with the locals at the finish line, biding your time with bowlfuls of airag and vodka. Many Mongolians jockey for position behind the finish line where they can wipe the sweat from the top five finishers – touching the sweat is auspicious, so mind the stampede. The winner is pronounced Tumny Ekh, or “Leader of 10,000” a reference to Genghis Khan’s army, which was organized into units of tens, the largest being made up of ten thousand troops. The jockey is then honoured with a cup of airag, which is sprinkled on the horse’s head and rear end, and the appreciative crowd sings to the winners. A special song is recited for the horse that finishes last in the two-year-old race, encouraging it to lead the ten thousand horses the next year.