About an hour and a half northeast of Ulaanbaatar Mongolia, the Bayan Goliin Dugang  Naadam took place in the countryside the first week in July.  Naadam is a UNESCO World Heritage designated festival representing Mongolian culture.  After driving through the city to the outskirts, we went on an informal dirt road that traversed the steppes.  As our car neared a large campsite, a group of horses rushed past with their young riders on top followed by trucks and motorcycles.

“They’re going to the turning point,” said a Dutch friend who has lived in Mongolia for over a decade.  The races are long-distance and take between 16-30 kilometers to complete, depending on the race.

Pic: Michelle Tolson.

His Mongolian wife waved us into the parking area, scolding him for being late.  “Another guy hit my car!  It wasn’t my fault,” he interjected while she waved him off with a tolerant smile.

The shaman dance we had hoped to watch had just concluded.  The shamans, having shed their traditional clothes onto the ready branches of a swath of trees, were lolling about on blankets and drinking beer with their families.  Our own party consisted of two journalists, one researcher, a ger (yurt) manufacturer and his wife.

Soon a woman beckoned people through blaring loudspeakers to gather in an adjacent open meadow next to a stream and at the foot of a small mountain.  A throat-singing (Khoomei) band dressed in red emerged and began playing string instruments, mesmerizing the crowd.  Next, solo folk dancers twirled and kicked their heels to recorded music, at ease with the Smartphone-equipped crowd taking their pictures.

After the gentle feminine event, the wrestling began.  Two men, dressed in street clothes, would approach each other ritualistically, grapple and try to throw each other off balance.  The first to land on the ground was the loser of the bout.  This could last for a few moments or several minutes.  There were several bouts that afternoon and the final winners tried their hand at facing an accomplished wrestler dressed in traditional wrestling clothes but he beat all the contenders.  As the wrestling concluded, airag (fermented mare’s milk) was passed around to the adults while several children took their turn on the meadow, engaging in mock-battles and throwing each other to the ground with laughs.

Pic: Michelle Tolson.

The show apparently over, people made their way to nearby tents populated with women selling Khuushuur (a fried pastry filled with herbs and meat) and ate on blankets set on the ground.  Suddenly the forgotten riders burst down the road to the camp in a flurry of flying hooves and dust, followed by pickup trucks and motorcycles.  People jumped to their feet and grabbed their cameras and iPhones to record the finish.

Naadam, Mongolia’s well-known summer festival, has a centuries-long tradition that goes back as long as there have been nomads.  However, following the beginning of Soviet occupation, it was designated in 1921 as an official holiday to (ironically perhaps) signify independence from Chinese domination.

The festival celebrates the “three manly sports:” wrestling, archery and horse-racing, yet it’s more than that as it’s also a time to appreciate Mongolia’s summer cuisine and drink specialties, the most popular being airag and khuushuur.  Most importantly, it is a large family-oriented summer picnic that can go for days.

During Ulaanbaatar’s festival, which is what most tourists will see, one comes across drunk merry-makers, which makes it seem not unlike other independence holidays, such as the U.S. Fourth of July and the UK’s Guy Fawkes celebration.  If you visit Ulaanbaatar’s Zanazabar Museum, you will see old paintings featuring scenes of traditional Mongolian life.  One painting shows outdoor party-goers drinking airag heartily, while a few of them appear to be upchucking a fountain of the white fluid on the ground, which shows that binge-drinking mare’s milk might be best approached with caution.

While the capital’s Naadam dominates the tourism scene, there are less crowded and homier options more popular with locals.  Each of the 21 provinces, known as “aimags,” has its own unique festival and events.  While the capital’s Naadam ran from July 11 to 13, as did many of the aimags, smaller ones are scheduled at different times in the countryside.  The Naadam we visited was a local town festival.  Last year Zamin Uud, a border-town by China, had their Naadam the first week of August.

Countryside festivals are scheduled July 26-28 in several aimags (Tuv, Arkhangai, Khenti, Dornogobi, Zavkhan) and can be visited by taking local buses, booking a tour, or hiring a driver. See: http://www.infomongolia.com/ct/ci/6235 

Visiting a professional horse trainer is another way to enjoy the roots of this festival.  In the Arkhangai aimag is a revamped former Soviet era wellness center with hot springs called Hasu Shivert Resort.  Sukhbaatar, a horse trainer within the same family that owns the resort, has about 300 horses, many of which are raced professionally.  With 15 years of experience behind him, dozens of medals decorate his ger, including the National medal and regional awards.

Pic: Michelle Tolson.

His wife is the sister of one of the highest-ranking trainers in Mongolia and he credits her for giving him excellent advice on how to win.  During a visit in June, several race horses were tethered to posts outside his ger, under-going training.  When the herds were brought in during the evening, two young colts were caught with an “Urga,” a Mongolian lasso, and wrestled into a halter to be given as gifts to a friend.

Pic: Michelle Tolson.

The Arkhangia Aimag Naadam, scheduled July 26-28 according to local government sources, can be reached by taking a bus from the Dragon Center west of Ulaanbaatar’s city center.  Buses leave in the early morning at 8am and arrive about 10-12 hours later.  Arkhangai’s provincial center is Tsetserleg, and has a guesthouse called Fairfield that can help with logistics.   If you miss the local Naadam, you can contact Hasu Shivert Resort to book a tour and visit the horse trainer.

Horse festivals are a nomadic tradition that can be found throughout Central Asian cultures.  The Tibetan Prefectures of China, known to Tibetans as Amdo and Kham, in the Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan Provinces still have nomadic populations, though the Chinese government has been relocating herders to settled villages over the past decade.  Neighboring Kyrgyzstan has its own as well, though the nomadic traditions are not as strong as they are in Mongolia where 30 percent of the population makes their living as pastoralists.