It’s one of the topics overlanders talk about when Mongolia comes up: the Nadaam Festival. While the event takes place throughout the summer in different towns and villages in every corner of Mongolia, the biggest event is in Ulaanbaatar, in July.
Brilliant as we are in planning, we managed to miss it as we had meandered deep into the Gobi Desert and there was no way to quickly drive out of it.
It was sheer luck that part of the program of the first Horizons Unlimited meeting in Mongolia included a visit to a Nadaam Festival. It took place outside Ulaanbaatar, in the heart of the steppe.
However, after a long Saturday night around the campfire we were all up late, enjoyed the sunny morning with lots of coffee and had our usual overland talks. So we left late, arriving at the festival only at 2 p.m.
Read more: The Gobi Desert in Mongolia
Locally called Eriin Gurvan Naadam – meaning ‘the three games of men’, Nadaam Festivals have been held for centuries. They are a celebration of Mongolia’s three traditional sports: wrestling, horse racing, and archery.
First we walked around the ‘plaza’ – an open area with gers (the Mongolian term for yurt) where you can buy all kinds of traditional Mongolian stuff, clothes, boots, and food. In one of the tents we were invited to sit down and drink the famous but incredibly sour airag – fermented mare’s milk. It’s an acquired taste. Fun was watching the ankle-bone shooting game, called shagai.
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As it happened, the horse racing had taken place that morning and we saw the last wrestlers getting dressed and so our afternoon was dedicated to archery.
From the World Traditional Archery Organization comes this interesting snippet, “Archery in Mongolia has had a long and famous history. Our folk legends tell of Erekhe Mergen, the great archer who saved the people from a drought by shooting down six suns. And when the legendary mother of the Mongolian nation wanted to instill the idea of unity into her feuding sons, she sat them down before her and gave each an arrow telling them to snap it. Of course, they could do that easily. Then she gave each of them six arrows and told them to snap them all together. None of them could. This is how the Mongolian people first learned about strength through unity.”
We watched the men dressed in beautiful traditional robes. There were no shouts of victory, no hurrays for great shots, nothing. It was incredibly quiet, in a beautiful way. It was mesmerizing to watch these men so focused on their challenge.
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With dedication they strung their bow and deliberately planted their feet wide, checking they stood firm and at the right angle. Carefully they took out one of the four arrows that hung in a rope around their waist. They rolled the arrow in one of their hands to check if the arrow was straight before setting it on their bow. Every step was in silence and focused.
Read More: Mongolia Travel Guide
Mounted Archery Competition
While we missed a large part of the traditional activities of the Nadaam festival, we were lucky to be part of the national championship of mounted archery. Contrary to the three typical ‘manly sports’ of Nadaam, this one is for both men and women. In fact, they don’t have a separate competition and neither do they have categories for e.g. age.
The cavalryman or woman is armed with a traditional Mongolian longbow and while they race across a 150-meter track they have to shoot arrows at five different targets. They have to reach the finish within 15 seconds or all target points are disregarded, however, there is no bonus for driving faster than 15 seconds (which I assume prevents from horses being pushed too hard).
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For us the Nadaam Festival was a great way to finish our stay in Mongolia. As we speak we’re preparing our one-month trip to China.
Tonight we’ll take a night bus to the border and after that, well, who knows where we will go.
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