Next Great Travel Writer: Experiencing Naadam

Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows and Suzanne Roberts, winner of the “Next Great Travel Writer” essay contest, have been exploring Mongolia and sending IT dispatches along the way. Today, Suzanne gets a hefty dose of local wrestling and horse racing culture.

The hotel phone rings at 8:30, waking me from a short albeit dead sleep. “You want to come to Naadam?” Keith asks. “We’re leaving right now.”  After my adventures at the Mongolian disco, I hadn’t managed to properly set my alarm. But, I wasn’t about to miss Naadam, so I flew out of bed, threw clothes on, and was on the bus within five minutes. Eriin Gurvan Naadam (Naadam for short), means “Three Manly Games” and is the most anticipated and important festival in Mongolia. Naadam consists of the nomadic sports that date back to the days of Genghis Khan—horseracing, wrestling, and archery, and although they are considered “manly games,” girls and women participate in all but the wrestling.

The horse riding is a long-distance event, taking place on the open steppes, but the wrestling and archery happen in the stadium in Ulaanbaatar. We arrive and walk around the grounds, which are bustling with activity—vendors set up little shops, selling everything from children’s toys, traditional hats and dels (the long Mongolia robes), sunglasses, and all kids of food and drink. Because I missed breakfast, I choose what I think is a pizza. As it turns out, the “cheese” is really carrots and the “pizza sauce” is ketchup. When I ask our guide Oyunaa what it is I am eating, she says, “It’s pizza.” I was right after all—Mongolian pizza.

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Before we enter the stadium, I decide to get some pictures. First, I offer a man in traditional dress some money for a picture of him with his horse. We negotiate the price with hand gestures, and once we have settled on 1100 tugriks (about one US dollar), he tries to get Keith up onto the horse. Apparently, the negotiation charades had not gone as well as I had thought, and we had just paid for a horse ride. Somehow, we get the horse man to understand that we wanted him on his horse, and I get my pictures. Then, I see a group of military men whose commander is wearing a black silky LAPD (Yes, Los Angeles Police Department) warm-up jacket, and I follow the soldiers behind a cement building, ready with the camera. I quickly learn the reason for their retreat behind the building—the ladies room is in the building; the men’s, behind it—enough with the camera.

The stadium is full of tourists and locals, and the ceremony begins with a welcome from the president, followed by a colorful procession of soldiers, horse riders, archers, Olympic athletes, dancers, and singers. There is much song and dance, traditional costumes, and five giant mechanical flowers open up their petals to reveal brightly-dressed contortionists, making up the acrobatic stamens and pistols of the flowers. Around the contortionist flowers circle Buddhist monks, shaman, and gods, as well as leaping Russian dancers. All the while, soldiers in Khan-era uniforms pose in warrior stance.

After the impressive opening ceremony, the wrestling begins. The wrestlers wear tightly-fitting speedo-like pants called shuudag and an open-fronted jacket called a zodog. Legend has it that after a woman (dressed as a man) won the wrestling competition, they designed open-fronted jackets so this embarrassing episode would never happen again.

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The crowd begins to leave the stadium even though there will be anywhere from six to eight more hours of wrestling. According to Oyunaa, “Mongolia is a big country with lots of space, so we do not have time limits. No space limits. No time limits.” This means that if a pair of wrestlers are well-matched (which usually means about the same size—there are no weight categories either), a single match can take hours. We don’t stay that long; instead, we wander over to the archery. The archers are traditionally-dressed, but modernize their outfits with sunglasses and high heels for the ladies. The women of Mongolia love their high heels—even some of the policewomen wear stilettos with their conservative uniforms.

After the jump, Suzanne describes the mini-Naadaam in the Gobi Desert

Although the festival in Ulaanbaatar is quite the gala event, the mini-Naadam in the Gobi Desert (known as the Govi to Mongolians) allows us to watch the wrestling and horse racing up close, sometimes too close—the wrestlers often push each other into the audience, scattering the crowd. From this distance, we also witness the “wrestler dance,” which each wrestler does before a match—in this region of the Gobi, the wrestler dance emulates a falcon poised for flight.

Rather than 512 wrestlers as in the grand Naadam, only 14 participate in this smaller version. The early rounds eliminate the wrestlers wearing designer jeans, as well as the skinnier fellows—from my very limited experience watching the sport, the biggest ones usually win. And in this particular competition, the heftiest wrestler won himself a color television set.

During the competition, our guide Oyunaa comes up to me and whispers in my ear. She says, “That’s the one I like. He’s hot,” and points to a wrestler who is waiting for his turn.

True enough, he is hot, so I tell her, “I will get his picture for you.” Just as I snap the photo, he sticks his finger way up into his nose and really goes for it. I bring my camera to Oyunaa and tell her, “I got a picture of your boyfriend.”

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“Let me see. Let me see,” she says and takes the camera. She falls off her chair laughing but says, “I don’t care. I still like him.” In Mongolia, the wrestlers are the national heroes, so a little nose-picking would hardly be enough to work against them in the eyes of their admirers.

The wrestlers finish, and we move off to the horse races—in the bigger Naadam, the horses race up to 30 kilometers depending on the age of the horse, but this horse race is only 15 kilometers, still a long way to gallop on a horse across the steppes of the Gobi desert. The child jockeys are between the ages of five and 13, and they begin warming up the horses by riding in a small circle and singing a ghingo chant. In our race, there is only one girl jockey. I bet on her, of course, subsequently losing my money. In Mongolian horse racing, it is the horse that wins and not the jockey, so in the bigger races, the horse trainer, or uyach, can win lots of money or even a Toyota Landcruiser, which was rumored to be the prize in the larger horse race close to Ulaanbaatar.

The jockey of this winning horse is a 9-year-old boy who has been competing for three years. When I ask his trainer how long he has been riding, he says, “That is the same if I ask you when you first rode in a car. You were a baby. How can you know? Usually children can control their horses by the time they are three or four, but they ride on them much earlier.” After the race, the top five horses are celebrated with mare’s milk poured on their heads and blue ribbons and medals tied around them. This is the end of our mini-Naadam. Everyone leaves—some on horses, some on motorcycles—and the horse trainer walks off toward his jeep carrying his new color television set and boom box.

Photos: Suzanne Roberts