Naadam is the most famous traditional festival in Mongolia. The festival is best described in local term "eriin gurvan naadam" or "the three games of men". The three sports of this event are the Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. Nowadays women have their competition in horse racing and archery but not in wrestling.

Naadam festival in Mongolia
Naadam festival in Ulan Bator, Mongolia

The festival is organized throughout Mongolia during the midsummer holidays. The biggest of them all is the one in Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator). It is held during the Naadam National Holiday from the 11th until 13th of July.

The festival begins with an introduction ceremony which includes dancers, athletes, horse riders and musicians. Competitions in archery, riding or wrestling have been organized in Mongolia for centuries. Still, the Naadam is formally held commemorating the revolution in 1921 when Mongolia became the independent country.

During the holiday people are also playing games using "shagai" or sheep knuckles. Bigger Naadam festival include such games as a separate event. Naadam is also celebrated in neighbouring China by the people of Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.

Mongolian wrestling or "bökh" has always been important part of Mongolian identity. Even the great military leader Genghis Khan, who ruled Mongolia between 1206 and 1227, find the wrestling extremely important for keeping his soldiers in shape.

Mongolian wrestling
Mongolian wrestling

There are two versions of Mongolian wrestling. The one performed in Mongolia and the one in Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.

What is the basic goal of any match of Mongolian wrestling? You should force your opponent to touch the ground with his upper body or elbow. The wrestling in Inner Mongolia has slightly different goal. The opponent is defeated if any body part other than the feet touches the ground.

Wrestling matches are held on a grassy field, on a bare dirt ground or on a surface littered with gravel. The wrestlers are not divided in weight classes. So, even a small guy can beat a big one.

The number of rounds won during the festival determines the wrestler's rank. The ranks of Mongolian wrestling, from the worst to the best, are unranked, bird (5th round), hawk (6th round), elephant (7th round), garuda (8th round), lion (9th round) and titan (winner with lion rank).

There are several styles of fighting – Oirad, Ujumchin, Hulunbuir, Halh, Ordos, Alagshaa/shalbur and Khalkha.

The equipment worn by fighters includes several elements. "Jodag" is a collarless short-sleeved jacket. It is blue or red. It is made of wool, but nowadays also of cotton or silk. The jodag has to show fighter's chest. Why? There is a legend about it. Once a fighter defeated all opponents and and opened the jodag showing everyone her breast.

"Shuudag" are small, red or blue, tight-fitting briefs. They are made of cotton. They improve mobility of a wrestler and prevent getting easy advantage of one fighter over another.

Every wrestler wears leather boots called "gutal". Traditional boots are often reinforced around the sides with leather strings.

Wrestlers in Inner Mongolia wear an extra element. It is a "jangga" or necklace with strands of colorful silk ribbons. Wrestlers successful in past competitions get it.

Just before the fight and after it wrestler performs kind of dance in which he imitates an animal. In Mongolia fighters imitate falcons or “phoenix” taking off ("devekh"). In Inner Mongolia fighters imitate lions or tigers prancing ("magshikh"). In the region of Khülünbüir located in the northeast of Inner Monglia there is an imitation of deer bounding ("kharailtaa").

Horse racing is the next event of the Naadam. Horse races in Mongolia are of cross-country type. Races are between 15 and 30 kilometres long. The length of each race is determined by the age of horses. For example 2 years old horse competes for 16.1 kilometres and and seven years old for 27.36 kilometres.

Naadam horse racing
Traditional Mongolian horce racing

The Mongolian horse or "mori" ("mor") is a small one and has relatively short legs and a large head. It is a native horse breed of Mongolia. There more than 3 million of these horses in the country meaning there are more of them than people.

Mongolian horse
Mongolian horse - native horse breed of Mongolia

This horse breed survives truly difficult natural environment. Let's just mention the temperature. It varies from 30°C in the summer to -40°C in the winter. Mongolian horses roam freely and feed on their own.

Mongolian people use the mare's milk to produce their national drink called "airag". Some horses are used for meat too.

Jockeys in Mongolian horse races are children. They are between 5 and 13 years old. While riding a jockey encourages his horse by shouting Ghiin-go-o-o. There is lot of singing before each races. The audience sing traditional songs.

Five best horses in each class get a title of "airgiyn tav". Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to three best horses. The winning jockey gets a title "tumny ekh" or "leader of ten thousand". The last horse in the race gets a song of encouragement in which people wish him better luck next time.

The archery is the third event of the Naadam festival. It is very unique because the event includes not one but hundred of targets or "surs" on a huge wall. There are both male and female archers. There are 10 men/women teams made of 5-7 archers.

Every archer gets 4 arrows. Team has to score 33 "surs". Men shoot their arrows 75 metres away from the wall. Women do it 65 metres away from it.

Female archery competition
Female archery competition

When the archer hits the target you can hear the judge saying "uukhai" or "bull's eye". The winner or "mergen" gets the title of "National marksman" or "National markswoman".

Naadam also includes elements of Mongolian national cuisine. People gathered at the event consume the above mentioned drink airag, cold meat pancakes called "khuurshuur", cheese, ice cream etc.