A guide to experiencing Naadam festival and how to join in
There are various Mongolia holidays throughout the year, including Soviet holidays such as Children’s Day and Women’s Day. Some are traditional Mongolian holidays, and others are newer.
As far as it goes for big Mongolia holidays, there are two main big ones. Mongolian New Year, and the traditional Naadam Festival.
Mongolia Holidays: New Year’s and Naadam Festival
Mongolia celebrates the New Year according to the Lunar Calendar, much like Chinese New Year, around the end of January or start of February. During this national holiday, families will gather together and give each other gifts.
There may be big festivities during New Year’s in Mongolia, but by far the biggest of the Mongolia holidays is the Naadam Festival. This is celebrated over a week during the summer, usually in July. Mongolians will have the week off during this Mongolian national holiday.
The history behind the Naadam Festival stems from the time of the Qing Dynasty ruling in Mongolia, when it was forbidden for Mongolians to practice traditional sports such as Mongolian wrestling and archery. Mongolians managed to preserve these traditions by holding mini Naadam type events.
Later, in the 1920s, Naadam became a nationwide celebration honouring the victory and the formation of an independent Mongolia.
It’s all play and no work during this time, as many shops and businesses are shut throughout the whole of the country. It’s a time for festivities and celebrations!
Mongolia Holidays: What to expect at the Naadam festival
The Naadam is a time for the three sports of Mongolia: Mongolian wrestling, archery, and horse racing. During the Naadam festival, nomadic families from across the country will congregate together to take part in this ancient tradition, which is still popular amongst young people in Mongolia today.
With nomadic families are constantly on the move and are often isolated from other families, the Naadam Festival is seen as a great way for families to get together, old friends to meet up, and also a way to meet new people. People will get out their best gear for this event; tailors are particularly busy during the weeks preceding Naadam.
Wrestling is the most popular sport. Men fight wearing small, tight-fitting outfits which include a waistcoat with a traditional belt, and small underpants. The wrestling can be over the course of one or two days. Wrestlers will work their way top as they win fights, and if they win overall they get a medal and a cash prize.
Archery happens during the wrestling, with both men and women taking part in different categories. It is more technical than just trying to fire an arrow at a target; the Mongolian bows and arrows alone are incredibly intricate and detailed.
Horse racing then comes last. This event includes horses from different categories, ridden by young boys. Races can be long – up to 15km – with the locals congregating at the finish line to cheer on the winners.
The Naadam festival is focused around these sports, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else on offer!
Many shops and stalls can be found set up around the arena area, and there are also many different games dotted round, including children’s games and the popular ‘ankle bone tossing’ game. Not forgetting the traditional Mongolian food that you can enjoy from the various pop-up stalls, offering a variety of generally meat-filled goods.
Plus, you can even enjoy Black Friday style deals during the Naadam festival in Mongolia as many shops, department stores, and street vendors have special offers on a variety of goods during this Mongolian national holiday!
Mongolia holidays: where to see it
The biggest events are held in the capital city of Mongolia, Ulan Bator, over three to four days. Here you can watch the biggest wrestling, archery, and horse racing events. The best day to attend the Naadam Festival in Ulan Bator is the first day for the opening ceremony.
But while this polished, modern Naadam Festival may offer the biggest events, the bigger experience can be found elsewhere.
Mongolia holidays: how to experience Naadam festival like a local
The best way to celebrate the Naadam Festival is by heading out of the capital city Ulan Bator and going somewhere smaller.
Local Naadam festivals begin in the morning and carry on all day. Watching Mongolian wrestling for an entire day can get a tad tiresome if you’re not a massive wrestling fan, but there is plenty else to see, such as the archery, which is usually nearby. In Ulan Bator, the archery stadium is too far to be able to go and have a look and come back, so you’re stuck with wrestling for the day…
What’s more is that if you come to join in the Naadam Festival in a smaller town or city, you can try your hand at some Mongolian wrestling too and join in. All you need to do is sign up in the morning, and you’re ready to go!
Different communities have their Naadam festival on different days, suiting different wrestlers as it means they can take part in different Naadam festivals in various cities and towns – and potentially win more too!
Mongolia holidays: a traditional Naadam festival with Koryo Tours
Koryo Tours are spending Naadam in the small city of Hovd (Khovd), which has a population of 29,800 people, including nomads surrounding the area who will come in for the festivities.
Travel to Mongolia and you’re already pretty well off the beaten path, but travel to Hovd and you’ll be going to a place that few Western tours ever visit. It’s a very traditional city, situated in the far west of Mongolia at the foot of the Mongolian Altay Mountains. Travelling here for Naadam Festival will mean you’ll see the whole town come together in celebration as families travel from the outskirts to join in together.
Since Hovd is close to a lake, many families will travel here and put up their Gersfor a few weeks, or even the entire summer.
What does Naadam Festival in Hovd look like?
Arriving early before the festival means you can watch everyone walking in, dressed to impress – a great people-watching opportunity! There will also be lots of military personnel present.
The opening ceremony will take place, which often includes a long speech by a local official, followed by a small celebration. This can also include a traditional performance by Tibetan monks, wearing traditional clothing.
Outside, you can find food stalls set up by families outside of their ger for a chance to grab some traditional Mongolian food. There will also be games stalls set up for children and some stalls selling souvenirs.