The Naadam Festival – arguably Mongolia’s single biggest festival attraction and, subsequently, a hot ticket item – has its roots from centuries ago, marked variously for celebrations and as a means of training soldiers for battle, before adopting its present day guise as a commemoration of the 1921 Revolution and Declaration of Independence from China.
It would remain a Soviet satellite until the dissolution of the USSR in 1990, of course, but that’s another discussion for another day.
The spectacle of the festival in Ulaanbaatar is an impressive one indeed, all razzmatazz and showbiz, with choreographed routines, blaring music and pyrotechnics.
It being in the capital, you can certainly expect crowds, and having to invest in a ticket ($25 US for a tourist ticket purchased in advance, rising considerably if you try to get one from a tout outside the stadium) is another factor that tends to make countryside Naadams more appealing to locals and tourists alike.
Still, circumstances bound me to viewing the ‘city’ Naadam, and I was not to be disappointed. I met some of my fellow volunteers – I was in Mongolia partly to do some teaching at a day centre in Ulaanbaatar – in Sukhbaatar square beforehand, only to found our tickets scattered us throughout the stadium, and I was alone. But I did have a front row seat, and once the ceremony got going, it maintained my attention throughout.
I suppose the ceremony begins proper with a horse parade of the “Great White Banners” outside the State House on Sukhbaatar Square. These guys get proceedings underway at the stadium too, before giving way to the official opening address from the President of Mongolia. And then the show really begins.
The ceremony is framed around the History of Mongolia, taking in the Romans, Genghis Khan (of course) and many other significant happenings up until the present day. The whole routine is impressive – swathes of dancers in traditional dress zigzag across the central grassy pitch whilst giant parade floats of Buddhist/Shamanistic gods circle the arena, interspersed with battle re-enactments and the like – but moments such as a flock of doves being released, and the lighting of the torch, are the moments that remain lodged in my head.
Once the ‘showbiz’ aspects are over, we move on to the traditional archery and wrestling. These are interesting enough for a while, but to my untrained, non-Mongolian eye, the wrestling is a bit…well, dull. And I’m sure almost all of us have seen archery before. The horse racing takes place some distance away from the city, so I didn’t get to see any, although I am reliably told this is also a bit of a let-down as you only really get to see the finish.
But ultimately it’s more about the bonhomie and carnival atmosphere the festival elicits, rather than the actual events themselves, and watching the country embrace its most cherished of traditions is an experience to be savoured.