We had always planned to go to the Naadam in Ulanbaatar and we had been trying to find tickets for the opening ceremony in the last couple of weeks. They only start selling them a week or 2 prior to the start and only sell a certain amount each day. One of our first jobs when we got to UB was to get some tickets. The ticket office had already closed for the day, but ticket scouts immediately find you and offer tickets at a much better price (for them…).
We bought the tickets for 25.000T anyway as we didn’t want to camp overnight to get tickets for 8.000T (Tugrugs, approximately $5).
Naadam is Mongolia’s annual festival where men and women compete in horse racing, archery and wrestling (men only) and the Naadam in UB is the largest of them all with the most impressive opening ceremony in which the 9 national yak-tail banners are brought from parliament house to the stadium.
We had great seats, even though our feet were standing in what seemed to be the only puddles in the stadium, and loved the opening ceremony. Thousands of people including monks, kids and grannies take part, all wearing their colourful traditional dress. They use horses to carry the banners in and to demonstrate their superb riding abilities, whilst the thousands of people all act out a story in the central grounds of the stadium.
Every seat had been sold at least twice for the opening ceremony and it was jam-packed for a few hours. Once the wrestling started most people disappeared, but we decided to move closer to the stage where all the wrestlers were hanging out. Security in the grandstands is pretty minimal and we hopped over a few fences until we were right behind the stage and then onto the stage itself. We met an impressive wrestler and his little brothers, the 12 year old speaking perfect English so we learned a lot and watched his big brother win his first match.
Mongolian wrestling doesn’t have weight classes or time limits, nor does it have a ring and they use the ‘sudden death’ principle for each match (where the loser is immediately excluded from further matches). This all means the first matches are generally over in a few seconds as the guys who weigh 70kg face an opponent who can easily be 3 times his weight.
A match is started with both wrestlers circling their azuul (helper) who takes their hat off after which they perform their phoenix dance around the 9 banners. As soon as any body part touches the ground (feet and flat, open hands are excluded) you lose. The loser then walks underneath the upheld arm of his opponent who gives him (usually) a slap on the bum as he walks underneath before flying off for his victory dance.
There were 512 wrestlers participating in this Naadam and in the beginning many matches take place at the same time with mostly family and foreigners watching these first matches. We later watched the final on television and by then the whole stadium is filled to the brim again with all seats sold at least 2 times.
Archery is also held in the stadium next to the main building and we headed over there next. Women shoot from 60m, men from 75m and the target for both is a row of leather stubby holders placed on the ground with the central 4 painted red. The judges at the target are fun to watch as they chant and waive their arms around depending on how well they did. Each target has about 4 judges, usually one per archer as they take it in turns to shoot. The bows are very traditional.
The next day we drove out of town to the horse races. Our first drive with Lara as a 2WD car since she had been dropped off at the Land Rover garage. She didn’t do very well and at some point we pulled off the road as we could hear weird noises again and smell burnt oil. She was also seriously struggling to get up any hill, no matter how small. We were very worried, but as it was only another 2km to the horse races we decided to push on, very slowly, and at least watch the races before we worry about getting home again.
Traffic had been horrendous and we had missed the first (of only 2) races already as it took us 2 hours to drive 25km out of town. Mongolians happily overtake 3 rows of cars on a dual carriageway and use both lanes of the oncoming traffic to fit another 3 rows going to the horses! We saw some pretty terrible accidents and near-misses that morning.
Once at the races there was a huge carpark, a massive ger camp and lots and lots of people out for the day, many setting up picnics. We wandered around looking at all the horses, people, restaurants, amusement rides and gers set up in a huge area around the start. As we didn’t have anybody with us who could explain something we were usually just making things up: this must be…, aaahh that’s where they are… We were getting pretty good at this game.
We saw the horses gather for the upcoming race and wondered how they would get to the start line as we knew it was a one-way race over approximately 30km! Soon we found out, they were off galloping into the distant horizon with one guy carrying the Mongolian flag and lots of 4WDs swarming around. They ride their horse to the start line of a 30km race!!! Can you imagine the outcry if you would ask the owners of the race horses in Australia to gallop 30km to the start line before they can start the race?
I keep calling it horse races, but the Mongolians generally ride ponies. Much hardier then their full-sized cousins the horses. And the jockeys are kids, some as young as 5 years old, who are just there to guide their ponies along the course. Most ride with a small saddle, but there are also quite a few who prefer to ride bareback. And it must be a pretty tough ride as there would always be some ponies crossing the finish line without their rider… the pony still galloping with its mates all the way to the end.
We loved the Mongolian horse races! These are ‘proper’ races and I wish they would introduce this style of racing in other parts of the world too (and then I also want to be 5 years old again so I can compete in the race instead of watch).
PS thanks for all your comments, we really love them and will always reply as soon as we can!