Naadam (НааДам) is the biggest festival and party in the Mongolian calendar. It is a national holiday for three days in July, based around the three manly sports of wrestling, archery and horse riding.
On the holidays of 10, and 11 July the national focus is on the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where the wrestling stadium hosts the opening ceremony, and then two days of extremely large men wrestling in blue embroidered underwear and chest-less shirts. Next to the stadium in smaller venues is archery and anklebones, a little like darts combined with ten-pin bowling. The horse races take place outside the city.
Most towns and provinces have their own naadam festivals of manly sports at different times during July, but it is the wrestling championship in the capital that captures the attention. This year 1024 wrestlers fought in the stadium through 10 rounds to find the Champion. The rules are simple. Two men grapple and if any part of your body other than your hands or feet touch the ground then you lose.
I went with three other Australian volunteers to the opening ceremony, which was a stunning visual spectacle tracing the course of Mongolian history. The Mongol horde staged mock battles on foot and horseback, rockets took off and skydivers landed amid the mayhem. After it was all over, the mess was cleaned up (especially from the horses), and the wrestlers took the field for the first round.
We stayed to watch the first few series of matches. About thirty wrestlers took the field, all wrestling in pairs at the same time. Clearly, there were a few extra guys dragged in to make up the numbers, as some of the wrestlers were only normal size, instead of 120kg+ monsters. Mongolian wrestling has no weight classes so they were quickly dispatched by the bigger men, but we always cheered for them.
After getting my fill of watching over-large men wrestling from a long way away, I spent the rest of the day I spend wandering around the different events and stalls outside the stadium. However, I returned the next night for the final rounds. The opening ceremony crowd was half European, but the wrestling finals were an all-Mongolian affair. I didn’t see another white person anywhere.
In the finals the crowd finally started getting vocal, cheering on their favourites as they won increasingly long matches. By the time eight wrestlers were left they were slowing the matches down as much as possible, walking off for injuries, chatting to the referees, and looking like they would happily stand around all night. After twenty minutes with no sign of any progress in the last four matches I snuck out to the horror of my neighbouring Mongolians. It was a good decision as the last match didn’t finish until about two hours later.
If anything could top men in their underwear, it was the next day when three of us went to watch the horse racing outside the city. Tsomo, our guide for the day, took us to visit her friends in their ger near the races. They had their own herd of horses, but had finished their races the day before. They welcomed us into the ger and we proceeded to drink fermented horse milk (аираг), salt tea and vodka, while all their neighbours came to join us. Eventually we finished the vodka and spent some time riding and milking their horses before going to watch the small children racing horses. It is the norm to put your smallest, lightest and youngest child on the horse for the races, and hope they come back on the horse. Not all of them do. Despite ethical oversight by UNICEF, many had also thrown away their helmets by the end as well.
After a good day of this entertainment we drove home, our Naadam fun finished for the year. If only I could say it was the last time I was going to have to drink fermented horse milk!