Games of the Great Khan
THE NAADAM GAMES IN MONGOLIA SEND THE COUNTRY INTO A FESTIVE FRENZY EVERY SUMMER AS PEOPLE REVIVE THE ANCIENT GLORY OF A LOST EMPIRE
is undeniably the best season to travel in Mongolia (unless you want to freeze, that is). The mild weather, long sunshine hours, and untouched green steppe make the country the perfect destination for those who want to enjoy undisturbed Nature at its best; only three million people populate a territory three times the size of France, with about a million of those crowding the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Once you’re outside of the city, there is little chance of bumping into someone!
But disrupting the silent vastness of this landlocked, nomadic country is a riotous summer celebration: The Naadam festival is a definitive highlight for anybody interested in ancient traditions – and a bit of rowdiness as an interlude in the quiet. The three games – wrestling, horse racing and archery – that comprise Naadam are a means through which Mongolians commemorate their nomadic warrior heritage, and independence from China in 1921.
Nobody knows when exactly the tradition started. The Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads says that it was established as a form of memorial celebration as an annual sacrificial ritual honouring various mountain gods – or it may have been established to celebrate community endeavour. Others believe that it most probably evolved from training activities for the military; experts often reference the 13th-century book The Secret History of the Mongols to prove that Naadam has been held since as early as the times
of Genghis Khan, when he united the tribes to create one of the largest and fiercest empires in history. Today, his portrait is still presented at the games; even though the heyday of the empire is long gone – with Mongolia’s power just a shadow of what it once was – many still revere their Great Khan.
In the capital, the opening ceremony of the Naadam competition feels like travelling back in time: Soldiers are dressed in replicas of ancient armour, and circle the National Stadium both on foot and on horseback. They hold spears and bows and arrows and salute the thousands of spectators as if they were playing in a Mongolian version of Ben-hur. Drums and trumpets create an epic atmosphere while the women perform traditional songs and dances. However, in a nod to modernity, Naadam is no longer reserved for men: There are also female competitions in archery and horse racing, although not in wrestling.
The most impressive photos belong to the moment that all the Mongolian wrestlers gather together in front of a wildly cheering audience. Both children and adults descend on the capital from all the corners of the country to display their strength and agility. Unlike international wrestling, they fight with no time limit and no weight categories, leaving many matches rather awkward, with one opponent far outweighing the other.
And yet, victory does not always belong to the heaviest competitor. Sometimes, a sudden fast move can yield awesome results in just a matter of seconds; the one who touches the ground with something other than their hands and feet loses.
Unlike international wrestling, they fight with no time limit and no weight categories, leaving many matches rather awkward, with one opponent far outweighing the other
The only action that was taken was a new rule enforcing that helmets are compulsory, although many in the rural competitions still don’t wear them.
The main events are held in Ulaanbaatar in the middle of July, but it’s still possible to catch the preliminary competitions across the country weeks before the finals are held. Every town seems to have a fenced arena for their traditional sports, and