Naadam Festival in Baruun Kharaa

Believe it or not, even though I lived in Mongolia for several years, I never got the opportunity to attend Naadam, a national sports festival held in Mongolia during July. So, I was excited to know that we would be given time off to attend Naadam in Baruun Kharaa.

Our Naadam was held on July 5-6 (the National Naadam held in the capital always starts on July 11th). And even though it is pretty small compared to those held in places like the provincial capitals or even in Ulaanbaatar, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to do.

We were invited to walk with the school staff and students during the opening ceremonial parade, passing in front of the grandstands, all of us volunteers in traditional summer dels. After what seemed like endless photos and selfies, our first mission was to find some lunch in the many food stalls that were set up behind the stands.

But our route took us by the archery field which wasn't really like anything I've seen before. Instead of elevated round targets, the archers shot at cylinders, about the size of a large coffee cup, that were lined up on the ground. The strangest thing was that those helping with the competition, stood directly behind the tagets. Good thing the arrows were blunted (maybe in case they might hit those setting up the targets).

Uugnaa, one of our Peace Corps technical trainers, and his wife invited us to sit down and taste some khooshoor, a very traditional Naadam food. Khooshoor are fried dough pockets with meat and onions inside. The place we stopped at was happy to have so many foreigners. After eating two, I even asked for another since they were so good. (Maybe not as good as my host families, but by far the best at Naadam.)

A bunch of us sat down in the stands to watch some of the preliminary rounds of wrestling. We were told at this point, that the wrestlers could choose their opponent for the first round so there were some very mis-matched pairings. There are no weight classes in Mongolian wrestling so it wasn't surprising to see a wrestler take down someone half their size (or smaller).

After that, Nick and I headed over the the Shagai tent with Uugnaa. This particular version of Shagai played at Naadam (as opposed to the one played in gers during the long winter evenings) is where two teams compete flicking square stones at a target of ankle bones. Besides technique, there seemed to be a lot of special songs sung during the competition to encourage their teammates as they made their play.

Nick and I gave it a shot and it was a lot harder than it looked. Neither of us could flick the stone far enough to even reach the target, let alone hit any of the ankle bones. Uugnaa said in recent years it is gaining popularity with young people. He said he'd been playing it now for about 10 years.

After that I went looking for my host family. And I wasn't surprised to find my host mother at a different khooshoor stall where she promptly invited me to join her. She ended up buying a bag of khooshoor to take home. After I said goodbye to the other volunteers, I headed back home to get out of the blistering heat.

Early on the second day, my host family had arranged that I would go with some other relatives to watch some of the horse racing. The first race was for the 5-year old horses and they were going to race 28 kilometers (17.5 miles). We first stopped off just outside of town were all the riders and their horses met to be checked out by the judges who used the horses teeth to judge their age.

Because of public concern, now all riders, who are very young boys, wear helmets. But I saw many boys that had a full array of protective equipment. I was a little surprised that none of the riders used a traditional Mongolian saddle. using a modern racing saddle. But what was the shock of the day was that the majority of the riders where going to race bareback.

Then, an official SUV led all the riders and horses to the start about 20kms away. We jumped back into the car and slowly followed them while driving on the highway that paralleled the race course. My hosts found a rise just off the highway where we could watch the first few kilometers of the race.

As the riders got closer, you could hear the hoots and hollers as they pushed their horses faster. My hosts said most had been practicing every morning for the last month. But as soon as they passed, everyone jumped back into their vehicles to race to the next vantage point. It was very much like a Chinese fire drill.

It was kind of crazy on the highway. So many folks driving to get a better vantage point of the race, while at the same time the highway had regular traffic headed either to Darkhan or Ulaanbaatar. My hosts pushed hard to get the car way ahead of the riders as the race crossed the highway which would be closed until all the horses had crossed.

I guess it shouldn't have been a surprise that almost all of those at the front rode bareback. I saw one riderless horse so I hope the boy had been picked up by the ambulance vehicles following the race. It was chaos at the finish line as it is considered extremely good luck to get some sweat off the winning horse.

I asked if there was prize money for the winners and they said yes, the first 5 places get a cash prize. Everyone was hoping for a local winner as one of the races on the first day was won by someone not from the area. They said also that this was the first year in the last five that their would be prize for last place too.

I was so happy and grateful for the opportunity to witness the horse races like this. I felt really Mongolian. Later I headed back to the Naadam festival grounds to see if any of the other volunteers were there. I ended up going back to the same stall that had the very good khooshoor and bought some to take back to my host family for a late lunch.

Like some many cultural activities, it is so much more rewarding to experience it 'as a local' instead of just as a tourist visiting. I am very much looking forward to experiencing Naadam in my new community next year.

Naadam Opening Ceremony
All the volunteers in their traditional Mongolian dels.
The Archery Competition
The crowds enjoying the festivities but avoiding the baking sun.
It was all serious play in the Shagai tent.
Teams sang encouraging songs as their teammates got ready to shoot.
A quick horse check before everyone headed to the start line.
And the horses and their young riders are off and running.