Where nomads meet the lion

By | Entertainment
Naadam Festival credit@Nicole M via flickr.com

While large parts of the world were focussing on Brazil and watching the World Cup, another part of the world held a slightly different sporting event of equal excitement. July is traditionally the month to celebrate Naadam, locally known as “eriin gurvan naadam”, or ‘the three games of men’ in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar. According to common belief, this festival has existed for many centuries, dating back to the time of Genghis Khan. Legend has it, that it was Genghis Khan himself who launched these competitions in order to keep his soldiers in good shape during times of peace. This long tradition has now also been recognised by UNESCO, who inscribed Naadam on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

Attracting the best sports men, competing in horse racing, Mongolian wrestling and archery; this action-packed event is the most widely watched festival among Mongols. While wrestling and horse racing still draw the biggest crowds, spectatorship in archery also remains strong. Traditionally it was solely men who competed against each other; however women are now also free to participate in archery and horse races. Due to the festival’s popularity, provinces and small towns across the whole country host their own Naadam games throughout the month. Involving over 1000 contestants, it is an exciting and fast-paced spectacle. Requiring much skill and training, wrestlers enjoy the utmost respect in Mongolian society, which is reflected in the prestigious title awarded to the winner: ‘lion’.

Wrestling at the Naadam Festival credit@Michael Reeve via flickr.com

Wrestling at the Naadam Festival credit@Michael Reeve via flickr.com

Horse races are particularly popular among herders, who make up one of the world’s last remaining nomadic cultures. For millennia they have lived on the steppes, roaming the vast planes in search of the best pasture and camp-sites. Especially considering the climatic conditions, it is rather impressive how Mongolians have developed such strength and resilience over the centuries. Living for and by their livestock, especially the horse, which is the most cherished animal by nomadic Mongolians and often referred to as the nomad’s best friend. Just like their owners, Mongolian horses are known to be incredibly resistant and are therefore indispensable for long distance journeys and a great help in keeping other livestock together. They also provide nomads with their favourite drink ‘airag,’ which is fermented and slightly alcoholic mare’s milk.

Nomadic women are masters in making airag, while men learn how to be skilful herders and saddle makers. It is one of the pillars of the nomadic lifestyle to divide daily popularities evenly among family members; all regarded as equally important, an example to all of us. Cooperation and readiness to help others are qualities also deeply engrained in nomadic culture. Having to brave the weather following their seasonal routine, nomadic families would always allow any passer-by to rest and eat in their yurt, even when the family is away.

Mongolian countryside credit@Antoine Roy via flickr.com

Mongolian countryside credit@Antoine Roy via flickr.com

As soon as nomadic children are able to sit up, they are instructed how to ride a horse. It therefore comes as little surprise that they grow up to become excellent riders, who travel long distances to bring their best horses to the Naadam festival; where they demonstrate their astonishing riding skills. Children, some as young as six, are among the jockeys who repeatedly impress the crowds.

Besides being a fantastic event and excellent way to engage and learn more about Mongolian traditions and culture; Naadam is now celebrated in commemoration of the 1921 revolution, when Mongolia declared itself a free country, as well as to honour the achievements of the new state. Since the country distanced itself from a one-party state in 1990, this system was replaced with democracy and a new constitution. New political and economic reforms were also implemented and the list of achievements to be celebrated is getting longer. Mongolia’s economy is now one of the fastest growing economies worldwide; boasting vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth and a consistent increase of foreign investment, which is expected to transform the country even further in the coming years.

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