Thursday, 27 July 2017

Mongolia's Naadam Festival

After nearly 2 weeks in the desert and steppes, we got back to UB (Ulaanbaatar) for the Naadam Festival – the Mongolian equivalent to the Olympic Games, featuring wrestling, horse racing and archery.

Day one was the opening ceremony which had all the pomp and ceremony you’d expect from such an occasion including a bit of a welcome by the country’s president who’d been elected the week prior. 

It was far more dazzling that we’d expected, with floats and the story of Mongolia’s history, from the beginning of man, (sprung from the union of a deer and wolf,) Chengis Khan (that’s not a typo – they call him Chengis) who conquered half the known world including Europe as far as Germany, through to their period of Soviet influence that only concluded in 1990, to present day. There were traditional performers, rock stars, the lighting of the flame, horses, warriors, doves, balloons- it had it all.

I asked our guide if he was impressed, to which he rightly quipped ‘not as impressed as you!’

Like hot cross buns at Easter, they have ‘meat pies’ for the festival period and they’re delicious! They cost about $1 each and have ground meat contained within a light pastry-like bread, fried and served with soy sauce.
Okay - it doesn't look great -  but it was!!
Day 2 was an early start to get out of town to the horse race. We saw the 5 year old horses that trot out and then race back – 25kms!! They’re ridden by kids – some the same age as the horses, some bare back. It was as crowded as a music festival with people who were camped out there for days, pop up markets, food stalls and games like shooting basketballs to win a cuddly toy. Kind of like Moomba, Falls and the Royal Melbourne Show rolled into one.

Note all the camps in the background. It was insane!

The Police went on for at least a kilometre

We found spot ‘On the Rails’ quite a way from the finish because it’s so crowded as locals vie to get to the winning horse to wipe its sweat on them to bring good luck for the next year. Ew. The police presence was enormous, with a cop positioned every couple of metres to make sure the crowd stayed behind the barrier. They seemed pretty friendly.
On The Rails - sans Veuve Clicquot!
The winners race through.

Once the horses shot by, we headed back to the main stadium to catch the wrestling. (That sounds so straight forward but there were thousands of people leaving and the traffic was grid-locked – exactly like trying to get away from A Day on The Green music concert…) We’d seen the archery at a stop out of town so we'd already ticked that box. The wrestling is actually pretty good spectator sport! In fact, I also learnt some of the best Sumo wrestlers are, in fact, Mongolian. Who'd have thought?

Wrestlers - they do an eagle dance before every battle - it's pretty cool

So all in all, I’d recommend Mongolia. It was really fun and very different.

Next stop; Bhutan.

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