Naadam Festival Guide: What to expect
Mongolia Naadam Festival
Arguably the most epic time of year for Mongolia and one of the oldest traditions, the Naadam Festival is something that any visitor or tourist should not skip when making their stop in Mongolia.
Regarded as a massive holiday in the nation, you can expect large crowds of people and huge displays of the local culture, if there were one event that portrayed the core of the Mongolian tradition, this would be it. The festival can be compared to the Olympics in regards to its format, despite it only having three sports, the passionate people and cultural focus make it an electric atmosphere to be a part of.
The above point is especially integral for anyone who loves history, Naadams traditions are deeply related towards the military history of Mongolia hence the physical focus, therefore promises to be both a physical and educational joyride. For a fun and exciting practical history lesson, be sure to keep the below in mind before buying your tickets.
What to see
Before the main events occur which includes competition in different sports, the opening ceremony commences. During the ceremony, you will witness the opening march which is arguably one of the most impressive displays as it includes a wide array of people marching from all walks of life including soldiers, monks, dancers, athletes and much more. It isn't surprising that viewing this segment should be a given for your experience, and sets the tone for what's to come.
One of the 3 "manly" sports that are played during the Naadam festival is of course wrestling, which features a single tournament where several wrestlers meet to battle it out. The event is as much of a performance as it is competition, before the matches, wrestlers carry out an eagle dance for the purpose of showing their physiques of.
The significance of this sport is due to the perception of wrestling from the locals, it is truly the manliest sport and carries out that persona which is why the winner is labeled as the "Lion" and gains instant national recognition.
Being known as the national sport, horse racing evidently plays a significant role in the Naadam festival. It is perhaps one of the most diverse events as it features six racing categories and even child jockeys who aren't even teenagers yet as the riders.
The view is quite perplexing and serves as one of the most majestic sports due to the landscape being an open steppe and all the riders coming in together, almost something out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Evidently, the most military-related sport is Archery, which goes all the way back to the era of Genghis Khan when military training involved this activity among a lot of its practices. Despite the military background, it has become an open sport and features both men and women battling it out to hit targets with compound bows.
The ranges are 75 meters for men and 60 meters for females, and therefore require quite a skilled archer to take the winning position. Despite the simplicity of archery as a sport, the Naadam Festival spices it up with both an individual and team competition which includes 8-12 players each.
It is evident just by being present during the Naadam Festival that it is deeply rooted in the Mongolian culture and history, with its background starting from nomad wedding assemblies and hunting extravaganzas of the Mongol Army.
Due to the long history of Mongolia, Naadam festival has supposedly been around for centuries, though has gone through many reformations and is now officially classified the biggest festival of the year for Mongolia.
Ulaanbaater or the countryside
Although the Naadam is a national event, there are several places from which you can visit, which are categorized by either countryside or Ulaanbaatar. The preference is largely based on your personality, and what crowds you like, as although both Ulaanbaatar and the countryside are representing the same festival, the atmosphere is dramatically different.
For the full experience amongst several 100,000 people, the Ulaanbaatar is undoubtedly the obvious choice. Inside the capital city, you will usually experience from afar the biggest opening ceremony and most electric atmosphere Mongolia has to offer, just expect a lot of traffic and congestion, so you're prepared for the pushing and shoving.
The UB Naadam is undoubtedly a good performance, but you need to share it with 300,000+ other people, which makes it something you watch from a distance. The Naadam events take place in 2-3 different locations, so you need to move (along with those 300,000 others) to catch the different events ... and the traffic congestion is an overwhelming experience for some.
There are many other naadams all around the country. The smaller towns all hold their own naadams and these are fascninating to watch, but they often only compete in one or two of the events, and don't have a particularly big opening ceremony.
If you're someone who still wants to experience the Naadam but is not excited about the inevitable traffic and massive crowds, then the countryside may be the best option for you.
For example, in Bayan Ulgii province, first day there would be an openning ceremony and wrestling will start. In second day, there would be horse racing and it takes place 15km outside the city. There are no seats and people will be enjoying the horse racing from hills, people put their tents, this area turns to a big picnic area.
Among these quieter but still very intense events, you can sit and experience the action much closer, and fully take in the essence and culture of it. Aside from this, there are also several countryside locations that feature the Naadam Festival, all of which are diverse in their sizes, leaving you a lot of options.
How to get tickets
Attaining tickets for the Naadam Festival is a relatively straight forward process, ensure you have your mind made up as they are only available one week before the festival. If you're a tourist and have already paid for everything including accommodation and so forth, you will be glad to know that tickets start at 10$ USD price for the opening ceremony.
If you are not already in the country, attaining tickets can be a little tricky. Due to the main site having a lot of issues, your best option is to contact one of the many tour providers in Mongolia, and they will arrange something for you. On the flipside, if you are in the country, during the week of the opening ceremony there will be two days where ticket offices will be open, which will be announced as to when this is by the local media.
In general, there are three typs of Naadam tickets:
1. touristen tribune (seat and shadow roof, nearby the oficials like president and so on) - 50$ - 100$
2. tribune (seats, no shadow roof) - 30$ - 50$
3. standing aerea (no seats, no shadow, and flat level) - 10$
On the plan, the sections in red have a basic protection from the sun and would be considered the best seats. However, it does not prevent the sun getting into the seating area - especially if you are in the front seats.
The other challenge is that it wil depend where/who you purchase the tickets from as to what section you end up sitting in. Tickets do not go on sale until the week before Naadam.
The tickets are only for the opening / closing ceremony and for the wrestling. All other activities including the archery and ankle bone shooting are free and take place in the Naadam grounds but outside the stadium. The horse racing takes place at Khui Doloon Khudag roughly 40km from UB.
As always, be sure to constantly reference back to this post for a guide, especially if this is your first time traveling to the Naadam Festival. Although its layout is simplistic in events, the atmosphere is certainly not, and if following the above, you will get a taste of the electric atmosphere it has to offer.