Dates: 11–13 July
Level of participation: 3 - play a round of Shagai and sink a bowl of airag
Mongolia’s major festival is a celebration of ‘manly sports’. The manly pursuits are archery, wrestling, horse racing and, unofficially, downing bitter bowls of Mongolia’s beloved airag (fermented mares’ milk). All the sports involve arcane rituals - apart from the drinking, which involves nothing more complicated than locating a ger (tent) and some vodka.
Perhaps the most quintessentially Mongolian game is the horse racing, a tribute to the animals used by nomadic herders on the Steppe. Up to 1000 horses take part, ridden by jockeys aged between five and 13. The riders’ inexperience tests the steeds’ skill and their lightness allows the horses to race for up to 20km.
The proceedings begin with the jockeys shrilling a song, gingo, to calm the horses, which have their teeth checked to determine their age and what level they should compete at. After the heated gallop across the plains to the west of the city, the overall winner, known as Tumny Ekh (Leader of 10,000), is commended with a song. The loser is consoled with a ditty spurring him to head the 10,000 the following year.
Music is also an important part of the archery. Echoing the jockeys, contestants sing to their arrows to implore them to travel straight, while the judges sing their commentary. Although the target is no longer a live marmot, the competition is still a spectacle. Clad in bright, traditional costumes, the archers use horn-and-bark bows and arrows made of willow branches and vulture feathers. On the sidelines, a game that requires less skill is Shagai, a local version of skittles played with sheep bones.
Wrestling is the only game women don’t compete in. Indeed, the wrestlers’ open-fronted jackets, designed to out female infiltrators, were supposedly introduced after one such pretender toppled the men. The bizarre costumes are completed by silk briefs and knee boots with twirly toes.
Aiming to make a part of their opponent’s body other than their feet or hands touch the ground, the contestants vie for the grand titles of Nanchin (Falcon), Zang (Elephant), Arslan (Lion) and Avarga (Titan). The loser removes his jacket and ducks under the bulging arm of the victor, who performs an ‘eagle dance’.
Naadam (full name Eriyn Gurvan Naadam) is a centuries-old tradition, having begun as a ritual to honour the gods of the mountains. Genghis Khan treated it as a recruitment exercise and the Communist government used it to commemorate the 1921 Mongolian People’s Revolution. The opening ceremonies are as colourful as the sports, featuring a parade, mock battles, dancing, skydiving, and the guard of honour in traditional warrior uniforms.
Essentials: touching the sweat of the winning jockey or wrestler bestows good luck.
Local attractions: with the look of a neglected 1950s European city, UB (Ulaanbaatar) is surrounded by mountains. The sleepy capital is home to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of Mongolia’s most significant and beautiful Buddhist monasteries.
More info: Mongolian Tourism Association, Ulaanbaatar (+976 11 323026)
See other top festivals in July here.