Held every July on Mongolia’s vast grassy steppes, Naadam brings the country to a standstill. The grandest event is staged in Ulaanbaatar on July 11-13, a commercial affair nowadays, with plenty of modem touches and side attractions, and all the hustle and bustle you’d expect from Mongolia’s lone metropolis. It’s still a traditional occasion though, with a strong countryside flavour, as nomads fresh off the steppes strut around town on horseback. Outside the capital, Naadam remains an intimate gathering that has changed little since the days of the Mongol hordes. You can get closer to the action here, meet more people, and even participate if you feel like it (some brave foreigners have entered wrestling tournaments). The problem is finding one – there are no set schedules, so your best bet is to ask around in Ulaanbaatar or try contacting the tourist office or tour agencies. Most years, the town of Zuunmod, 43km south of Ulaanbaatar, holds a Naadam in mid-July. It’s easy to reach – public minivans head there (daily 7am- 8pm) from the long-distance bus station, 7km west of Siikhbaatar Square – but check it’s on before you head out there.
Naadam is a time of rest as well as a celebration of sport and manly virtues. Life is hard on the steppes – herding livestock and moving encampments – and the festival offers Mongolians a chance to visit friends, discuss current events and enjoy life before the winter sets in. In Ulaanbaatar, the commercialized Naadam also gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to earn hard currency, as the city becomes swamped with foreigners. The opening ceremony kicks off two days of sporting endeavour – the third day is mainly one of rest, when most visitors take in the sights – with Mongolia’s biggest street fair taking over the Children’s Park and, after dark, Siikhbaatar Square, each evening. The programme changes from year to year, but you can expect a variety of music – rock, rap, classical, traditional Mongolian folk tunes, perhaps even some operetta with live bands and other performers playing under a magnificent fireworks display. Jump into the fray and have fun, but watch out for the horsemen who have wandered in from Yarmag on their mounts – their steeds can pack a powerful kick. The party ends about 1 am, but bars and clubs may stay open later.
The opening ceremony
The celebrations begin on July 11 at around 9am in Ulaanbaatar’s Siikhbaatar Square, as a brass band belts out regal music announcing the arrival of a mounted guard of honour, neatly decked out in blue-and-red regalia, and parading white, horsehair banners around the square in Genghis’ time, the colour white symbolized peace (black meant war). The procession then moves to the Central Stadium, where the opening ceremony is in full swing by 11am. Give yourself lots of time to get there and find a seat; it’s a 25-minute walk from Siikhbaatar Square (just follow the crowds). The ceremony proceeds with a mixture of singing, dancing, and mock battles performed by actors dressed as medieval warriors. The guard of honour then charges into the stadium on white ponies, planting their banners in midfield. Once an assortment of wrestlers and archers have joined them in the stadium, and the president has delivered his opening speech, it’s time for the grand finale: a troupe of skydivers bearing the national flag, which adds a surreal modern touch to proceedings.