In mid July every year, all over Mongolia, business in the boomtown capital of Ulaanbaatar and in the tiny towns dotting the country comes to a standstill — as day laborers, miners, shopkeepers and almost every man, woman, and child head to their yurts to prepare for the Naadam Festival.
(Photo: Mark Fischer/Flickr)
The festival — which some claim has been going on every year for over 2,000 years, although records only go back as far as the 13th century — mainly comprises the “Three Games of Men”: archery, wrestling, and horse racing. [It should be noted, that women do compete in archery — but aren’t allowed in anything else. Legend says that once, a woman won the wrestling tournament, shaming the men, which is why all the wrestlers now must compete bare chested. As the main wrestlers are built like linebackers and move like cheetahs, one can only imagine who the woman was who won.]
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Initially, Naadam began as a way to let off steam or show off after weddings or gatherings, but during Genghis Khan’s reign (and for hundreds of years after) it formalized into a showcase of talent and a way for warriors to catch the king’s eye.
The games also helped determined the new head of state when a king died — the stronger and wilier the clan’s fighters, the better chance they had at getting elected to lead.
A seriously cute future warrior prepares to wrestle.
These days, with the pillaging over, Nadaam celebrates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia officially declared itself an independent country.
And it’s basically a hell of great time.
The day starts with an elaborate ceremony in the National Stadium — where dancers, horsemen, and musicians perform scenes from Mongolia’s past — including, naturally, Genghis Khan’s domination.
And then the games begin.
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Competitors in the children’s division line up.
All the games showcase how at one time Mongolia ruled the world.
Archers, using bows that could shoot longer and with better aim than their European counterparts, shoot multiple arrows at tiny targets in the distance. Wrestlers, who are so powerful that when they slam together you can feel it reverberating in the stands, show their ground-fighting skills — and then there’s horse racing, by far considered the most historically important.
(Photo: David Baxendale/Flickr)
The horse race is 27 kilometers long over rough terrain and is a physical representation of how Genghis Khan and his warriors conquered Asia and Europe so quickly.
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The entire festival takes place over a week or so and draws international politicians, ambassadors, the country’s presidents, and even a celebrity or two.
Steven Seagal brought his wife and son to the games this year. Sadly, he didn’t enter.
It’s like the Olympics, a Renaissance festival, and a hyper-choreographed North Korean parade rolled into one [fun fact: Mongolians are one of the only people in the world who don’t need a visa to enter North Korea]. And if you ever get the chance — you must go.