Games of the Great Khan


Asian Geographic - - Festival Highlights -



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

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