Nadaam is a two-to-three day summer festival here in Mongolia and probably the second thing that will come up on your google search about Mongolia (the first being It Is Cold There) and the first thing to come up in your travel guide book. The national Nadaam (meaning Ulaanbaatar’s Nadaam) is timed for their Independence Celebration from China, but in the countryside, Nadaam is more of a celebration of Mongolia and of the three manly games that existed long, long before their Independence and even predate Chinggis Khan. Towns all over Mongolia choose the dates of their own Nadaam, usually only a couple of weeks before it actually happens (if even that long).
So if Nadaam was in July, why am I only posting this now? Well, dear reader, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the internet has been a scarce commodity in these parts, so it goes up when it goes up.
My town had a stadium on the outskirts of town that they only ever used for Nadaam, to give you an idea of how important this festival is. It was tremendous fun; it involved a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen followed by a rush to see what was happening, then going back to waiting. During the waiting periods, you could play any number of carnival games (ring toss, etc.), or admire all the spectacular deels (pronounced dell, it is the traditional Mongolian dress worn by men and women), or eat lots and lots of khuushuur (a deep fried mutton or goat empanada). My site mates and I were quite lucky in that our host-families generously gave us our own deels. I was extremely impressed when I received my deel because my family had never asked me about colors, styles, or sizes, but somehow gave me something I absolutely adored and fit perfectly. My best guess is they started stealing my clothes in the first week.
The highlight of Nadaam are the three manly games: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. It is a bit of a misnomer though, because anyone can compete in the archery, and instead of using adult jockeys, they use small children of both genders. Although not an official manly game, shagai is also very popular and is played by aiming sheep bones and trying to hit a target.
My favorite game to watch was the horse racing because unlike in the USA, Mongolians do not use jockeys to race the horses around a track, oh no! Mongolians race their horses across vast distances of steppe using small children as jockeys, sometimes riding bareback. It is quite a sight to see them arriving at the finish line, horse and child exhausted and dirty.
I loved Nadaam and I completely understand why it is ranked so high on the “must-see” list of Mongolia, but while I watched some of the National Nadaam on TV and was impressed by the splendor of it all, I have to say, I loved the small town Nadaam. It felt close to what Nadaam was originally about: being proud to be Mongolian and having a heck of a good time.