According to the Ger to Ger itinerary we were stuck in this grey, bleak Gobi Desert village until 11AM so I decided to try to make the best of it and find some beauty in it’s coldness by going for a walk around the dusty empty streets with my camera.
I was surprised to find that there were more people out buzzing around the gravel roads than I had expected. Up until now, the Gobi Desert villages had been pretty devoid of life. I perched myself in the middle of the convergence of tire tracks which was presumably the ‘town center’ and watched the village sputter to life.
I stopped in at the store to get some bottled water for our day’s journey. When I stepped outside, our I saw our driver and jeep speeding towards me with a trail of dust following. My travel companions, Valerie and Natalie were inside.
He opened the door and said, “Sherry, Naadam!”
I smiled, and immediately hopped in the jeep. It was as if he had said, “Sherry, Brad Pitt wants to see you.”
What is the Naadam Festival
One word in Mongolian that I knew before I arrived in Ulaanbaatar was Naadam; the annual Mongolian festival celebrated in early July coinciding with the New Year. Naadam comes from the word Naadakh which means “to have fun”.
The festival is an expression of nomadic culture, the celebration of national independence, and sports. It includes competition in the 3 manly sports – wrestling, horseracing, and archery. There is also a lot of pomp and circumstance included that will also give you a taste of the culture and arts of Mongolia.
The big Naadam festival is normally at the beginning of July in Ulaanbaatar with the best of the best from the country competing at a big arena to large crowds. It’s the basically the Super Bowl of Mongolia. It is often the focal part of many tourists’ trips.
However, I had to make the regretful financial decision to miss Naadam in Ulaanbaatar in the beginning of July. The already expensive airfare in July became impossible to afford on my ESL teaching salary if I had gone during the dates of the festival. I wondered if it would be a move that I would regret once I arrived in Mongolia in late July. I must admit, after meeting tourists who had been here for the festivities, I felt pangs of regret resulting from my budget decision to skip Naadam festival.
Given a Second Chance
However, when Shat pulled up in a fury and said the word “Naadam” in his heavy Mongolian accent, I knew I had been given a second chance by the travel Gods. Shat was my savior leading me to it.
I knew that the official ceremony had already taken place in Ulanbatar on July 11th with a huge fanfare and throngs of tourists. Each event was highly orchestrated for the thousands of viewers in the capital city.
However, I also knew that communities around the rest of Mongolia celebrated at different times around the 11th of July. Today was July 31st; much later than I would’ve expected any lingering celebrations, but I certainly wasn’t going to question it.
Sometimes it’s Necessary to Throw Away Your Travel Plan and Be Spontaneous
Shat drove us out of the village and over a rocky hill where we saw a bunch of people gathering with horses. Small children were sitting on top of the small Mongolian horses – for once, it looked correct proportionally.
The people started dissipating, the event was finished. My happiness quickly changed to sadness, we had just missed one of the horse races. Shat beckoned for us to get in the jeep so that we could continue on to our next Ger on the tour itinerary, we were already running late after this little diversion.
I begrudgingly got back in and asked him if we could stay for more Naadam events and he said, “No, Ger to Ger.” I had been here long enough to understand the cryptic English. This meant that he must keep us on our planned itinerary.
We started to drive away feeling dejected; I was given a second chance to see a Naadam festival and I was missing out again. I knew I didn’t want to regret missing this cultural opportunity and decided to ask him to call the Ger to Ger office and explain that we wanted to stay for the Naadam Festival in this little village.
After a short conversation with the Ger to Ger manager and explanation that we’d rather watch Naadam than go horse riding again, it was set! Shat was to take care of us the rest of the day at Naadam! I was so happy that they were flexible with the itinerary!
Naadam in the Gobi Desert
Naadam is a festival of ‘the 3 manly sports’; wrestling, horse racing, and archery. I decided to leave my feminist alter ego inside and enjoy the manly sports without worry about why there weren’t any women allowed to participate.
However, I did find out that young girls were allowed to race the horses if you didn’t have a son in your family!
It was challenging to figure out the rituals of Naadam without a guide or any nearby English speakers. We had no one to ask our many questions to. We sat on little benches where all of the locals gathered to spectate. I noticed many of the young girls were there in their best dressed outfits to watch all of the men compete.
The atmosphere was happy and festive in this grey little village. They even had a few ‘carnival’ games set up; one in which you threw a ball at a pyramid of old, empty paint cans. I loved the simplicity of it all; no neon lights, no funnel cakes, no rides.
After an opening ceremony of singing and various speeches, the competitions were ready to begin the wrestling portion of the festival.
As we watched all of the men compete, the villagers seemed to be watching us – the strange foreigners in the crowd. People would come up and sit next to us for a while just to look at us; then they’d leave.
The locals all passed around a big bowl of airag, fermented mare’s milk. Who knew that you could get drinkable milk from a horse? The bowl eventually was passed to us by a nice local that wanted us to be included in the festivities. I gave it a sniff, and decided, what the hell; I drank. It had a sourish taste of home made booze, but it honestly wasn’t too bad. In fact it was better than most of the cheap liquor I drank in college!
Mongolian Wrestling at Naadam
During this tour in the Gobi Desert whenever I met a Mongolian man it felt as if there was a cowboy aura about them. They were rough, tough, silent, and hard working. Plus, they wore these elaborate traditional robes with beautiful colorful sashes and always a hat; sometimes a cowboy hat or baseball hat.
So when these manly men oozing testosterone suddenly stripped down to baby blue and pink embroidered speedos and mini bolero jackets with pointed hats; I about fell over.
I know why they call wrestling a manly sport; you had to be in touch with your manhood to wear that outfit!
Most of their bodies were shockingly fit despite a lack of gyms, bad smoking habits, and having a heavy dairy diet of Mongolian food. These were bodies you couldn’t form in a gym; instead they were bodies developed form hard, manual work.
Mongolian Wrestling Rules
Genghis Khan considered wrestling to be an important way to keep his army in good physical shape and combat ready. I can imagine his whole army out in the desert throwing each other around!
The rules of Mongolian wrestling are pretty simple. The object of a match is to get your opponent to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground. There is no ring, no weight classes, nor is there a time limit. They can use their hands and tripping and lifts are allowed.
The ‘ring’ was just the hard, Gobi Desert ground, which means there were some hard landings that made me cringe. This was definitely the most intense wrestling I’ve ever seen.
Rituals that Take Flight
Since we didn’t really have a guide, and we were the only foreign spectators at the festival, we had no one to ask questions to. We watched the matches, trying to make sense out of it all and figure out the rules based on wild guesses.
The wrestling itself had many strange rituals. They would take off their hat and hand it to When they entered the ‘ring’ they squatted, slapped their thighs, then slapped their ass (yes…you read that right) and ran into the ‘ring’.
At the beginning and the end of the match, the wrestlers put their arms out in the air horizontally, and slowly flapped up and down in a fluid motion like a bird. I found it to be an odd way to taunt the competitor. When one of the men pinned his opponent, he would get up, get his hat from the officiator, and then proceed to do this bird dance again as the winner.
It kind of reminded me of the taunting that American football players do when they make a touchdown.
After a little time on Google, I found out that it is called the “Eagle Dance”, based on the flight of the mythical Garuda bird, which symbolizes power, bravery, grace and invincibility.
The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat
I loved the wrestling matches. The wrestlers were tough, really tough. There was no nicely padded floor; only the hard, rocky desert ground to land on. They were focused as they began their match often spending the first few minutes simply staring their opponent down.
The next move was often taking swipes at the other person, sometimes even latching on to their pretty baby blue bolero jacket. You were lulled into relaxation as you watched the grown men pawing at each other as if they were puppies playing – then all of a sudden – ATTACK!
Before I knew it someone was airborne and you heard a thud. The dust cleared and a winner was declared. The loser brushed the pebbles and dust out of their speedos and graciously watched the winner do their bird dance and receive his prize from the judges – hard unleavened bread…all of that for bortzig.
Naadam Horse Races
After many random wrestling matches; some occurring at the same time, the spectators suddenly got up and started walking or driving up over the hill in the distance. Shat gathered us up and took us there too.
Way off in the distance you could see them; little puffs of dust. It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at or for, and then it dawned on me that this was the horse race.
I wondered where in the world the horses started at – clearly they had been running for a while. The child jockeys raced them bareback in to the finish line where their families cheered them on.
The young boy who won, had brought the highest honor to his family. I didn’t need to speak the language to understand that.
After the race the horses all came to the main ground where the wrestling had been taking place and various forms of milk were poured on the winning horses as some sort of honor; milk is King in Mongolia!
Seeing the local Naadam festival was my highlight of my time in Mongolia. I loved that we were the only visitors there and we were welcomed into the festival. I didn’t even care that we had no real idea what was going on! Shat took care of us all day directing us where to go and where to sit. He even took us to his friend’s home to eat freshly made buuz by some local women.
The festival continued on the next day with archery. even though I badly wanted to stay, it was time to get back on our itinerary schedule.
I came across the Naadam Festival in the Gobi Desert by accident, and I personally think it’s the best way to experience the Naadam. I was able to get up close to the locals and experience it first hand. It was less of a show and more of a travel experience.
The day was a great reminder that often the unplanned events are often the best part of travel.
How You Can Experience the Naadam Festival
Most tour companies offer tours to the Gobi and the National Naadam Festival in Ulaabaatar. I couldn’t find any that just offered small village tours during Naadam sadly. I do think it’s worth it to contact Ger to Ger who I traveled with and see if they could arrange one for you. I know they believe very strongly in the local experience so I’m sure they would do their best to make it happen – just as they were flexible with my itinerary! Ger to Ger Naadam Tours Other Naadam Tours