We arrived in Ulaan Baatar a few days before the great Naadam festival. The biggest festival of the Mongolian calendar, think Super Bowl, Independance Day and Christmas all rolled into one. Its sort of a Mongolian Olympics, originating since the time of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan), where the best and strongest warriors pitted their skills and might against each other in the sport of archery, wrestling and horse riding. These days, its not quite such a matter of life and death but doing well in the games is a matter of great pride for the competitors.
Throughout the country, there are numerous regional and village Naadams taking place around the same time but the grand daddy of them all is held in the National Stadium in Ulaan Baatar, where the stars of the various sports compete against each other, and the resulting spectacle, televised.
The ceremony starts with soldiers and horsemen, amid much regalia, delivering the nine white horse tail standards, representing the nine tribes of Mongolia, from Sukhbaatar Square to the National Stadium, where it is placed right in the centre of the proceedings. The president then gives a speech and declares the games open.
It is indeed quite a spectacle to behold, with hundreds of performers dressed as warriors performing traditional tribal dances, strangely enough, there seems to be some ‘corporate sponsorship’ as well, with various brands parading their mascots throughout the parade, I felt that took a little away from the authenticity of the festival, especially when you have a giant Chupa Chups walking along the track waving to the spectators.
From what I gather, wrestling seems to be the most popular sport, followed by horse riding then archery. Although its supposed to be the ‘Three Manly Games’, women are increasingly taking part in the events of horse riding and archery, but not wrestling.
Horseriding on the steppes
It was a 4am start to the day to get to Khui Doloon Khudag, just outside of Ulaab Baatar to catch the preparations for the horse racing event. Horse riding is of course, the iconic symbol of Mongolia, from the earliest days of the legendary Mongol army led by Chinggis Khan, Mongolian skill in horse riding and hardy Mongolian horses has played a fundamental role in the victories of empire building. At first sight, Mongolian horses don’t seem all that impressive looking, being smaller in stature and size than normal western horses, but apparently, the smaller sized horses allowed calvarymen to mount and dismount their horses with greater ease in the heat of battle, and the horses themselves are famously spirited and tireless.
Mongolia horse racing is differs from Western horse racing in that it is not a sprint event, but a long distance, cross country endurance race, often up to 30km in distance, with up to 1000 horses taking part. The jockies are also often very young, children from the age of 4 to about 13. The horses run their hearts out, quite literally, and sometimes, tragically, they collapse midway through the race and just die of heart attacks. I personally witnessed one such sad incident that morning.