The national Naadam is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11-13. Regional naadams are held across the countryside throughout July
Mongolia’s Enin Gurvan Naadam – Naadam, for short (literally, “Manly Games”) – is one of the world’s oldest and most spectacular annual events. After seeing it, you will understand how the Mongols once conquered half the planet. Basically a sporting contest, the festival pits the nation’s best athletes against each other in tests of skill in the “manly sports” of archery, horse racing and wrestling – the very talents with which Genghis Khan forged an empire.
It’s an experience you won’t forget easily: you know you’ve done Naadam when you’re squeezed into a nomad’s tent, swilling Genghis Khan vodka with a pair of 300-pound wrestlers sweating in their bikini briefs while a woman in traditional silk robes sets before you a platter full of sheep parts.
The origins of the Naadam games in fact date back long before Genghis Khan. The competition is thought to have evolved when clans and tribes came together to celebrate weddings, the enthronement of a leader, or to honour the spirits of the land – the accompanying feasts and colourful sporting events lightened what was an otherwise precarious existence. It was Genghis Khan, however, who presided over the first organized Naadam celebrations – in the 13th century – when the focus shifted from venerating ancestral spirits to glorifying military campaigns; though Genghis also used the occasion to scout out talented youths for the front lines of his army. Winners were granted titles and battle gear – wrestlers and archers received helmets and armour, while the best equestrians earned new saddles.
In the sixteenth century, Mongolia adopted Tibetan Buddhism as its state religion, and Naadam began to serve as a gathering place for nomads ready for conversion. The grandest of all naadams was held in 1641 to honour the Bogd Gegen, Mongolia’s equivalent of the Dalai Lama, after which it took place every three years until the end of the nineteenth century, when it became an annual event. In 1921, the new communist government swept away much of old Mongolia, but Naadam managed to hang on, albeit in a slightly modified form, showcasing Soviet military strength, with tanks replacing brawny horsemen in the opening cortege. The festival date was set for July 11, the Day of Independence (from China). After Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, Naadam reclaimed its roots. Old traditions now reign supreme, and the event is as much a symbol of an independent Mongolia (from Russia) as it is a sports festival.