Ulaanbaatar Naadam Festival

The biggest event of the Mongolian year for foreigners and locals alike is the Naadam Festival held in July in Ulaanbaatar. Wrestling, archery and horse racing are held during the first and second days. Very little happens on the third day, so get drunk the day before, and use it to recover from a hangover like everybody else does. During the three days, few restaurants and shops open and virtually no-one works.

Day one starts at about 9 am with a fantastic, colourful ceremony outside the State Parliament House at Sukhbaatar Square (often missed by visitors). Hundreds of soldiers in bright uniforms play stirring warlike music on brass instruments. Mongolians – dressed in Chinggis-style warrior outfits – parade around the square, then circle Parliament House before marching to the Stadium.
The opening ceremony, which starts at about 11 am at the Naadam Stadium, includes an impressive march of monks and athletes, plenty of music and even parachute displays. The closing ceremony, with more marches and dancing, is held at about 7 pm on the second day, but the exact time depends on when the wrestling finishes.

The first round of the wrestling, which starts at about noon on day one in the main stadium, is the more interesting and photogenic. Later rounds can get boring – most Mongolians don’t bother returning to the stadium until the final rounds on the second day. If the wrestling gets too much, walk around the outside of the stadium and watch the interaction between Mongolians. This can be far more interesting than what is happening in the stadium. Also worth a look is the changing of the guards.

Archery is held in an open stadium next to the main stadium. The judges, who raise their arms and utter a traditional cry to indicate the quality of the shot are often more entertaining than the archery itself. Remember to watch out for stray arrows!

The horse racing can attract well over 1000 horses (so watch your step; this is dung city). During the festival, you may see dozens of horses being herded down the main streets of Ulaanbaatar, as if they were on the steppes. The horse racing is held at the village of Yarmag, about 10km along the main road to the airport – it is very easy to spot. The atmosphere is electric, and there is always plenty to watch.

The best and busiest time to watch the horse racing is at the final race, late on the second day. You will be hard-pressed to see what is going on, and it is unlikely that you will be able to take any good photos. Get there really early for the final, go to other races on both days, or walk up a few hundred metres along the track where the crowds thin out.

To find out what is going on during the festival, look for the events program in the two English-language newspapers, which list the times and locations of the wrestling, archery and horse racing.

Tickets to the stadium (except for the two ceremonies), and to the archery and horse racing are free, but to the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony foreigners need to pay the tickets. A ticket does not usually give you a seat number, so get there in plenty of time for a good position, especially for the closing ceremony, when good seats may have been taken during the afternoon.

If on a package tour, your travel agency will arrange tickets. If travelling independently, getting a ticket to the opening and closing ceremonies can be tricky.

To find out what is going on during the festival, look for the events program in the two English-language newspapers, which list the times and locations of the wrestling, archery and horse racing.

You can find plenty of warm drinks and cold khuurshuur (fried meat pancakes), as well as ice cream, bread and a/rag (fermented mare’s milk) around the outside of the stadium. Take an umbrella or hat, because most seats are not undercover, and it will either rain or be hot.