Me-go: Around-the-World

Naadam in Ulaan Baatar


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The Naadam Festival is the biggest festival of the year. It’s most well known for the unique form of wrestling but also showcases horse racing, archery, anklebone shooting and various dancing and celebration. Because this year is the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongolian state Naadam included more ceremonies and celebrations than normal. A new mausoleum has been being built in front of the parliament building. Like most public projects, it fell behind schedule and was not completed for Naadam as planned. However, the crews worked day and night and got it to a point where you could imagine what it was going to look like. One day before Naadam officially started the large Chinggis Khan statue in the middle of the new building was unveiled. It was also the first time I saw the Mongolian horsemen in red and blue old-fashioned uniforms ride in formation. They have what I would call a theme song, which sounds very similar to the storm troopers march in the original Star Wars. The line forms two by two and a number of the soldiers ride in with tall white banners made of hair. They walk with straight, even legs and place the banners in a place of importance.

Opening ceremony and a little wrestling
I was in Mongolia three weeks before Naadam and asked to buy tickets to the ceremonies well in advance. I was told that they weren’t really sold and that it was best to go the day of and buy a ticket from a scalper. Victoria and I hurried to the stadium on the South side of the city two hours before the ceremony was due to open. From what we were told we thought we would be surrounded by a swarm of people selling tickets but we only saw three people selling tickets at all. One girl came up to us and tried to sell a single day’s ticket for 30,000T (almost $30) when the face value was 4,000T. The only foreigners we saw had either bought their tickets ahead of time somehow (for 4,000T) or had surrendered to paying 30,000 for the opening ceremony ticket. We started to get worried when we had circled the entire stadium with no reasonable offers. Finally two girls came up to use and sold us each an entire set of tickets (three days) for 30,000T.

We stood in line, were wanded with metal detectors and found a seat in our assigned section of the bleachers. Each section was enclosed by bars which I only saw as a fire hazard. This was even more scary because as more and more people came into our section it was clear that it had been oversold. The police were saving the first bench, which we sat behind. I walked around as much as I could, taking photos of the performers warming up. It turned out the seats were being saved for three white men and their handlers. The man in charge of them went out to buy them hats which made them even more silly. The police began directing people to move over to let people in. My hip were touching people on both sides and that’s my definition of way too close, I certainly wasn’t going to sit on anyone’s lap. When anyone tried to get me to move I just shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

Police directing fans to move Three foreign men taking up a lot of room

Eventually the situation got so bad all of the performers were watching the section and the policy had to physically block the enterance so no one else could push in. People we standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles but the handler in front of us wouldn’t let anyone stand in front of the three foreigners. This was kind of nice for us because when anyone stood there he made them move. When two women tried to get past him he shouted and pulled at their clothes. One woman got past and when her friend tried to pass the handler grabbed her and threw her to the ground. She got up fighting and yelling but the man managed to get rid of her. A few minutes later a man began to climb up the bleachers in the middle of our section but only got about four rows up before the people below him grabbed his coat and pulled him back to the ground. At this point I was not only glad we got there early but was worried that the entire section might erupt into a mob scene.

Performers in the opening ceremony Punk rock Mongol Musicians

Finally, the ceremony began with the storm trooper theme song, the presentation of the hairy flags and the national anthem. The crowd attempted to sing the anthem, aided by sheets with the lyrics that had been distributed to everyone at the entrance. I had to stand out of respect but I spent the entire song worrying that as soon as it ended I would try to sit down and find a Mongolian in my spot like a giant game of musical chairs. I couldn’t understand any of the announcements but there was a lot of talk of Chinggis Khan, who united all of the Mongolian territories (and went on to conquer a lot of the rest of the world too). Chinggis Khan is also known as Ghenghis Khan, which may have been confusing to you too. Actually, there never was a Ghengis, it’s just a name made by Westerners for some reason.

There were many groups of performers from noble people in gorgeous gowns, warriors in leather to children in bright costumes. Each had a different part in the ceremony. A large ger on wheels road around the stadium, which carried a man dressed as Chinggis. Men on horses rode across the field performing acrobatic trick riding that was quite impressive. Some warriors had a dance where they prertended to fight and many children had coordinated dance numbers with massive numbers of participants. A large section of card holders were located in the opposite stands, flipping cards to make interesting designs. The Naadam gallery has a lot of photographs of the ceremonies and competition which might help to paint a better picture of just how colorful and event it was.

The entire spectacle lasted around two hours and was well worth the effort to squeeze into. Halfway through the three foreigners in the front decided to leave and pushed through the crowd toward the exit. Naturally, as soon as they got up the locals rushed for their seats (these guys were big so you could fit a lot more Mongolians in that space). The gates were still sealed because people with tickets were trying to push in so the foreigners couldn’t exit. They came back to their seats, demanding to have them back. It was all pretty funny to watch until one of the women with them decided to sit next to me. Only, there was literally no room next to me! The man next to me encouraged her and tried to get me to move, to where I wasn’t sure. I was able to produce an extra inch or two by contorting my body into an unnatural position, but she wasn’t a small woman. I wasn’t willing to give up my seat so she just sat on me!

As soon as the performance ended everyone dashed to the exits, not even bothering to stay for any of the first round wrestling. I certainly wanted to see the wrestling that Mongolia is so famous for but it was soon evident that it wasn’t going to be close to anything like what I saw at the small Naadam in Bayongol. The wrestlers were too far away to see much, even when using my 200mm lens as a binocular. Rain was coming in so I left for the day, happy to have seen the opening ceremony and to have heard the storm trooper music again.

Round 1 wrestling The victory dance Scene outside the stadium

Archery and ankle bone shooting
Day two didn’t have a lot going on, only the continuation of the competitions. I decided not to go to the horse racing because it was a few hours outside of town and I didn’t feel like standing around for hours waiting to see a few horses come in from a distance and pass a line. I did want to see archery, just to see how the competition worked so I headed down to the stadium by myself. Althoguh I knew archery had been going on the day before I hadn’t seen it anywhere near the stadium. It turned out to be in a field near a small area of cement stands where no ticket was needed. The archers wore traditional dels in bright colors and shinny fabric. Each shooter had a different hat, some with long tails in the back signifying that they were previous year’s winners.

Women stood about twenty feet closer to the targets than men, but the men continued to shoot from behind them which seemed like a dangerous arrangement to me. I suppose that the best archers in the country probably won’t slip and shoot another archer in the back. A group of men and women stood down the line around the target, which looked like a pile of stacked bean bags. the archers didn’t shoot in straight lines, they aimed high into the air so their arrow followed a large arc to hit the targets below. When a target was hit the group of people at the end raised their hands, danced around and made a lot of noise. While I was sitting in the stands watching the men it was pointed out to me that Prince Andrew of England was sitting next to the judges and I noticed a large amount of professional looking cameras pointed his way. He just looked like an English guy in a dark suit on a hot day to me.

During the archery I heard strange sounds from a tent next to the stands. Upon investigation I discovered that inside the tent was the ankle bone competition. It’s not traditionally part of Naadam but has been recently added as a sport. Two groups of shooters were competing at one time, each surrounded by a group of spectators standing around them in a circle. At one end four shooters sat on small stools pointing what was shaped like a wooden incense holder which they flicked a piece of carved bone off of using their thumb and middle finger. Directly across from them, about 10 feet away, was a table with a few more bones standing in front of a backboard which they aimed for. I still don’t understand the rules but the goal is to knock down some of the bones on that table. Men sat on stools along the sides of the circle, chanting and tossing pieces of the game up and down before handing it back to the competitors. The entire time shooting was going on the chanting continued, which was the source of the strange noise that had brought me to the tent.

Archer writing on her hand Archery spectators Ankle bone shooting

Closing ceremony, trapped in the stadium again
The final day consisted of the last few rounds of wrestling in the stadium, archery finals in the hidden field and the presentation of various prizes throughout the day. I wanted to see the wrestling final, as it was a very big deal and I was promised that once the little wrestlers were out of the way the competition would get more interesting. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true and by round 9 I was starting to fall asleep. The bigger wrestlers rested a lot and spent a lot of their time sizing up their opponents. Most of the matches were won when I turned my head or when they passed behind an umbrella or judges table blocking my view. The crowds gradually filled up as it got closer to the final and soon everyone was pushing for space again. The police blocked the doors again and Victoria and I were locked inside the stadium in the sun without food or drinks from 10am until 4:30pm. In-between rounds of wrestling the small horse riders (some looked to be about 5 years old) and the archers were awarded large boxes and sometimes medals. I would like to know what was in the boxes, as some were too big for the little riders to carry themselves. After each award the winners walked around the stadium waving to the crowd. The largest cheers were saved for the horse trainers and final winners of wrestling.

When we finally got down to the wrestling finals the second to last match took what seemed like half an hour. When the wrestlers were locked in a grip or it seemed like one might give the crowd gasped out in unison. The final match only lasted about 7 minutes and by then we ready to leave. Although people tried to leave we had to wait for more awards, the carrying of the winner on the shoulders of a crowd and finally for the storm trooper music and the removal of the hairy flags.

Although the actual events themselves aren’t terribly exciting, it was nice to see the costumes, ceremonies and a little bit of each sport. The opening ceremony was the best event by far, even with being sat on. I would suggest that someone going to Naadam to see it in Ulaan Baatar but to also see a local Naadam somewhere else beforehand so they can actually watch the wrestling and get closer to the action. Many people completely avoid UB during this time because they say it’s too busy. I didn’t find it too busy at all, having seen the city weeks before when no tourists were around. In fact, I was a little sad that it wasn’t more busy and full of tourists given that it was the 800th anniversary and the famous Naadam Festival was going on. Some Mongolians working around the festivities asked me if people knew about Mongolia and I said that I think that people are becoming more aware of it as a tourist destination but it is still a bit off the beaten track. Many of them are learning English and there’s a good amount of tourist infrastructure in place just waiting for all of the tourists to come.