Naadam is an incredible two day celebration of the three manly Mongolian sports – wrestling, archery, and horse racing – that takes place in each soum, aimag center, and city across Mongolia. It is an awesome way to dive head first into traditional Mongolian culture.
On the first day the celebrations were opened with a ceremony that included several cultural performances. There was folk singing, dancing, and horse head fiddle playing. One performance had the singer riding on horse back around the arena while girls did a dance symbolic of traditional Mongolian herding life in the middle. If you could boil down Mongolia into one moment that might have been it. There was also a little parade which we were invited to walk in as Peace Corps Volunteers, as if there weren’t already enough eyes on the foreigners in deels.
Once the opening ceremony was finished the competitions got underway. In the arena we watched the first round of wrestling. I don’t know much about wrestling, but the Mongolian take on it seems much different than what happens in the US. For one the costumes are nothing alike. There’s also much more fanfare involved in Mongolian wrestling. The wrestlers have a routine that they perform at the beginning which involves flapping their arms like birds to take power from the sky and then slapping the inside of their thighs and then the outside. I hear the slapping is to indicate that they’re ready. There are no weight divisions in Mongolian wrestling. While mismatched opponents sometimes result in surprising victories, usually they end in predictable defeats. At the end of each match the winner slaps the losers butt. I’m sure there’s some significance to this, but my language teacher couldn’t tell me what it was.
In a nearby field men competed in archery. In the style that I watched, teams of three competed to hit the most cow hide targets. The bows were traditional Mongolian recurve bows and the arrows were tipped in a substance similar to cork. They were kind enough to offer us a try. The bow was different than those I’ve used in America in that it didn’t have a place on which to notch your arrow, but the tension was similar. I’d like to think had the arrow not been tipped with such a bulbous object I might have had more success.
Just over the hill behind town, the finish line of the horse racing was marked with big Mongolian flags and a bright white line. In Mongolia only children race horses and the races are categorized by the age of the horse. Riders win when their horse crosses the finish line regardless of whether the rider is still on them. I breathed a big sigh of relief when all the horses arrived at the finish line with their riders still astride and I didn’t have to wonder what happened to poor Batbold or Alimtsetseg on the 25 km ride. However, there was one rider whose horse didn’t like the sight of the bright white finish line and stopped abruptly, one foot before the end of the finish line vaulting him over the line. The poor kid tugged and tugged on his horse’s reins, but wasn’t able to convince him to cross the line until the two riders behind him had already overtaken him.
Surrounding the arena were stalls selling food and drinks, primarily huishuur and airag. Huishuur are flat, fried dumplings containing meat and onions. Airag is fermented mare’s milk with an APV of about 2%. Truthfully, I had been dreading airag since before I arrived in Mongolia. I think we’ve been thoroughly conditioned as Americans to fear any and all sour milk products. Even more truthfully, I drank a whole ton of it. The after taste is actually quite pleasant.
Beyond the traditional competitions there were also volleyball and basketball tournaments. The volleyball tournament was meant for women and the basketball for men. I am terrible at volleyball and really enjoy basketball, so I broke the norms and competed on a basketball team with two other volunteers, one of our language teachers, and a random Mongolian guy. We were terrible, lost both games, and had a blast.
Naadam was two of the best days of my time in Mongolia so far and I’m really bummed I won’t get to experience it again for another year. Hopefully next year, my current soum’s Naadam and Naadam wherever I end up aren’t scheduled at the same time so I can attend both. Fingers crossed!