The National Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s most well attended and most elaborate naadam, but it is by no means the only naadam worth experiencing.

This year, under orders from the Ministry of Culture, provinces and soums across the country rescheduled their local festivals to work around the extended holiday due to the capital’s hosting of the ASEM Summit and its preceding events. Naadam lasts one to three days in most places. This year, the festival in Darkhan Province kicked off sleepily on July 18 and wrapped up on July 20, just before the rain returned.

Perhaps, with the sting of this past winter’s dzuud and the challenging spring that followed (and the excitement of the national festival having already passed), Darkhan’s naadam seemed somewhat subdued. Despite that, on its first day, families flocked to the festival grounds (located in the northwest corner of the city) to get their fix of naadam khuushur and summer fun and games.

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Riding up to place an order for shorlog (grilled meat skewers) and khuushur.
Naadam's a time to splurge on summer treats of all kinds.
Naadam’s a time to splurge on summer treats of all kinds.
Sure, there's "the three manly games" but there are other ways to test your skill at naadam.
Sure, there’s “the three manly games” but there are other ways to test your skill at naadam.
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Bet on your free throw.
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Mongol ring toss.
No horse? No problem. Rent one for a walk around the festival grounds or a quick gallop and some photos.
No horse? No problem. Rent one for a walk around the festival grounds or a quick gallop and some photos.
Beating the heat on a boat.
Beating the heat on a boat.

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Taking aim.
Taking aim.

Wrestling began on the second day of Naadam, as did horse racing. On the third day of the festival, the Ikh Nas (horses over five years old) race took place just outside the Darkhan city limits. In addition to the age limit, only horses with previous top nine placement are qualified to run this race. The race began at 9:00 a.m. and the first place winner crossed the finish line just after noon.

Horses catching a break at the stadium while their riders wait for the racers to arrive.
Horses catching a break at the stadium while their riders wait for the racers to arrive.
Horse parking outside a khuushuur tent.
Horse parking outside a khuushuur tent.
As the racers come over the final hill of their course, the crowd approaches the finish line.
As the racers come over the final hill of their course, the crowd approaches the finish line.
Heading to the finish line.
The crowd cheers for every racer with nearly the same enthusiasm as the placing winners.
Stadium seating is nice, but the best view of a race is from the saddle.
Stadium seating is nice, but the best view of a race is from the saddle.

The action quickly moves from the finish line to the “winner’s circle” for trainers, owners, and parents to greet their horses and riders. The horses come in coated in frothy sweat, and it’s good luck to swipe a handful of sweat from a winning horse, so race fans also crowd the winners as they offer congratulations.

Post-race time is a time to review results, distribute medals and prizes, and for the people gathered for the race to enjoy socializing with one another before they head back to the city or back to their summer camps and return to the work of caring for their herds.

Horses need to cool down after a race, and jockeys need to hunt down a cool drink and some khuushuur.
Horses need to cool down after a race, and jockeys need to hunt down a cool drink and some khuushuur.
A jockey reviews the race with his trainer.
A jockey reviews the race with his trainer.
An aspiring jockey tries on some safety equipment.
An aspiring jockey tries on some safety equipment.
Despite changes to safety regulations, some jockeys race without protective headgear. Proper headgear designed to properly protect a rider is expensive and hard to come by. Bicycle helmets and construction site helmets are a more common sight than riding helmets for equestrians.
Despite changes to safety regulations, some jockeys race without protective headgear. Headgear designed to properly protect a rider is expensive and hard to come by outside of the capital. Bicycle helmets and construction site helmets are a more common sight than riding helmets for equestrians.
Heading home after a tough morning, this jockey catches a lift to give his horse a break on the walk home.
Heading home after a tough morning, this jockey catches a lift to give his racehorse a break on the walk home.

There’s still time to get out and experience a soum naadam before the summer ends, but you’ll have to travel outside of the city to get that chance. Head to Uvurkhangai for a yak festival, or down to the Gobi in August.

If you can’t get away from the city, don’t worry, the Danshig Naadam Festival is coming up on August 6. Danshig Naadam brings you all the excitement of naadam with the added benefits of spiritual renewal and insight on the unique traditions of Mongolian Buddhism.

Even if you love the grand scale of the National Naadam Festival, be sure to check out a rural version someday. These more intimate events aren’t just “Mongolia’s answer to the Olympics”, they are crucial to preserving nomadic traditions, and they are a chance to celebrate and honor the land and what it provides.

 

 

 

 

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