Thursday, July 13, 2017

Our Last Naadam

Sally and I attended Darkhan’s Naadam festival two years ago. Last year we were unable to celebrate this Mongolian holiday because we were at the Scouting Jamboree, but this year we had plenty of time to go and see Chinggis City’s Naadam festival!

Naadam is a national competition/festival that occurs every year in the summer. It is the celebration of the “three manly sports” horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Usually smaller Naadams are held first in soums and aimag centers, and then the winners go on to compete in regional and national competitions. While it is the “manly” sports, women can compete in archery and sometimes horse racing.

Since Sally and I know a lot of people at our site, it was easy to find a friend who was willing to take us to see the horse racing which takes place outside the city. The races are usually with young horses of the same age competing across various distances. The first race I saw was 3 year-old horses who galloped a distance of 14 km (8.75 miles). Watching the races in person is a little anti-climactic, because you only see the last couple of km as the horses race across the steppe. One controversial aspect of the Naadam races is that the jockeys are children. It is not unheard of for a child to be injured or killed during one of these races. However in the defense of tradition, many of these children have been riding and living in the countryside since a much younger age, so they are often very experienced riders.

Wrestling in Mongolia is a big deal. Mongolia takes pride in the fact that their wrestlers are revered on an international basis, and many of the best sumo wrestlers come from Mongolia. However the wrestling is not the fast pace or even weight class style of American high school matches; instead it is more of a lumbering grapple where each opponent tries to bring the other to the ground. During Naadam the wrestlers wear a traditional garb that provides some amount of handle holds in the shoulder region. One way that Mongolia illustrates in enthusiasm for wrestlers is by electing a lot of them in to roles in politics after they finish their sports career.

Archery involves firing an arrow from 75 m into a low row of stacked targets. The object is to strike the center of the stake and knock down the orange targets. It’s a little different than firing into a target and the arrows are not tipped so there is no danger of someone getting accidently killed, which is refreshing since a number of judges and assistances stand right next to the target during the competition. Archery is impressive to watch not just for the skill, but also for the elaborate traditional deels that the competitors wear.

There are other smaller competitions that occur during Naadam. At our Naadam we also saw a Shagai competition which involves flicking bones across a distance of 5 m to knock down another row of ankle bones. It’s like a smaller archery competition. At some of the larger Naadam festivals, various feats of horsemanship are demonstrated.  The festival also includes lots of Khushur ger kitchens where it is easy to buy the traditional Mongolian food of meat-stuffed fried dough and fermented mare’s milk. For children there are all sorts of games set up outside the stadium and lots of toy and ice cream venders.

Sally and I were happy to see Naadam this year. It is our final Mongolian holiday. We are quickly approaching our final days in Mongolia, and will soon start our elaborate return journey which will take us through parts of Europe. By this route we will be able to circumnavigate the globe.
Sally is wearing a new summer deel she had custom made. 


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