Naadam Festival is often mistaken as one and only celebration: Independence day on July 11th. However, for Mongolian, Naadam means much more than that. Naadam includes wrestling, horse racing, archery and ankle bone shooting at various different levels: state, provincial, village, and family - making the whole country celebrating Naadam for months. And the most important aspect is for locals to meet with their friends and family and learn about their life, share their news and re-bond.
THE STATE NAADAM IS ON 11-12TH OF JULY
On the morning of midsummer day, everybody wakes up excited to celebrate the most exciting celebration of national games. Yes, they have longed for a whole year to finally enjoy Naadam again.
The Naadam Festival, recorded as the second oldest game-feast after Olympic Games, has its different means and roots over the centuries. Challenging strength, patience, skills, more importantly, the right tactics, main games had first used to determine the chosen ones from scarcely populated nomadic tribes.
Later Chinggis Khaan had Naadam Festival official competition in order to balance power among tribes, thus unite them for the sake of Mongols. While the empire was disintegrating and losing its power to foreigners, the unwritten rule that Naadam winner accepted as the leader of nomads was created. Mongols had never lost to any foreigners until the revolution of people brought the prosperity of the independent country.
The Naadam Festival with its three main games now is celebrated on the anniversary of people’s revolution for two days and an extra day for horse trainer's Naadam.
A Mongol, wearing traditional costume proudly rides into the Naadam field expecting his supporting wrestler to become the champion of the year and extend the title. Wrestling is a national event like football in Germany or Brazil that wrestlers enjoying enormous popularity throughout the whole country.
As a sport, it is not only about strength, but also important to think fast and do varying tricks to get the other guy on the floor. The well-known wrestlers do several tricks in a row with an impressive maneuver, agility, and speed. However, as they get older, they focus on their upper body strength than the speed. This is easily observed when the titled wrestlers (champion, lion, garuda, elephant, goshawk, and falcon) call the least trained or the weakest wrestler for a match. How is that fair? In the long run, where Nomads don't have any rush, it does make sense that they would want to challenge the youth to lose again and again to gain the true strength of masterhood where they learn from their mistakes. The older generation of wrestlers will still be there to share their extensive experience and wisdom.
The wrestling is held by a playoff system like a natural selection so the audience often skips the first few rounds. As the fifth round starts, wrestlers and audience alike start to get excited. The highest titled Mongolian wrestler had 64 praising words in his title. The 12th of July is the final stage that decides the champion of the year.
For the local Naadam, there is a better chance to see the wrestling match up close and talk to the wrestlers. It is also nice to mix and mingle with locals to share their passion for this over 2000 years old tradition and sport.
A teenage jockey, singing praising songs for his horse, memorizes the advice and strategy taught by the trainer. Sure these three partners are looking forward to seeing the result of year-round training and to become one of the five winners out of over 200-2000 competitors of the same horse age group.
The open steppe fills up with fast horses categorized in six groups depending on their ages, their family horses brought to participate in fair and exchanges, trainers' horses dedicated to show-off their beautiful existence, and audiences' horses that are resting after the journey to Naadam. Then the horse racing field almost quakes because of the exciting audience who jumps up to see winners still running as fast as modern vehicles even after dozens of kilometers from the start. Once a horse arrives at the finish, the crowd of audience who has been dropping a tear over their excitement run and struggle to touch it to share its fortune.
Local Naadam race is calmer and more serene where horse trainers give more importance to the bonding and reconnecting with their friends and families over the winning. Jockeys are often real hobbyists rather than professionally paid. The audience feel so much pride to race their horse even without winning just to be part of this important local event.
An archer - a craft produced his own bows and arrows, a savior kept ancient traditions like clothing, greeting, shooting and teaching, and a talented and experienced estimator shot a spot in the open air even it’s windy or raining – enjoys the silent competition.
Archers from different regions do not only compete with only one-time opponents but also train their generations and study about newcomers of different regions since they are varied by their style of shooting and tradition of making bow and arrows. Archery is the only sport in which all ages and both genders of archers are entitled to participate.
The rule is quite easy to understand. The archer has to hit the target yarns that lined in the distance of 72 m (236f) for men and 64 m (210f) for women. They will shoot 4 times with 4 arrows on each try, collecting scores by the successful hits. It is impressive to look at these archers to easily pull the re-curved bow and control it to their whim when the untrained struggle to stretch it even for an inch.
NAADAM IS MORE THAN SPORT GAMES
The Naadam Festival is not limited as a sporting challenge, indeed it is a broader display of traditional arts, music, clothing, greeting, food, and customs.
Wrestlers perform eagle dancing while their zasuul (assistant and coach) sings informative praising songs. Winning horses together with their young jockeys get to hear praising songs. Nomads who are still spending their independent way of living find their distant relatives or friends at the Naadam field and exchange news and useful discoveries while showing off their snuff bottle and pipes made by precious stones, saddles, and harnesses decorated with silver ornaments, and deel (long costume) and shoes elaborated with decorative stitches. Various dairy products such as fresh cheese, milk tea, aaruul (curds) and airag (fermented) are served along with special Naadam khuushuur (fried pancake with minced meat inside).
Naadam is a unique dating place where young people from different regions find their friends and partners and it is the nomadic style of a conference in which herdsmen exchange their discoveries.
Naadam passes old traditions and customs to younger generations and Mongols truly enjoy celebrating it as a holiday and festival.
GOBI FOLK ART FESTIVAL
We have been working together with local communities and local people for a long time. We often see it as mutually beneficial cooperation. However, we didn't think of we could be having fun together. Locals, especially camel and horse herders asked us to organize an event that includes us, them and lucky travelers who happened to be there on this special day. On September 30th, 2019, the very first Gobi Folk Festival was held in Nutsgen Steppe in Bulgan Village.
Turns out Gobi nomads are truly talented people. They just have been too busy herding their animals to study and follow their dreams. We decided to call the event “Gobi Folk Art Festival” to celebrate and find out where the talents are hidden. This year, the event was held in a theme of Gobi legends which might change into something fun next year. As we are a community-based society, teams were formed to present the performance of songs, dances, praises, and acts.
The festival was full of learning opportunities as the teams started to present their acts. The Dal performer had our jaws dropped with his amazing talent of traditional praise song which narrated a beautifully composed poem about how the Gobi came to be the way it was and more. The story behind the poem was inspiring and at the same time made us thinking about the controversies that Gobi people are facing in the fast-changing life in the countryside.
“Ev negdel” young fellows came from as far as Dalanzadgad, performed the legend about “Why Algui Ulaan Tsav”, one of the most amazing land formations in Gobi Desert earned such name. It was funny, it was informative and it was definitely worth watching. When the next team presented the legend of the zodiac in which camel and mouse competing for the first place in the traditional zodiac, we were amazed at how well prepared they were. It was a good thing a little girl who played the role of the mouse became the winner. The poor camel was standing there, still a little bit arrogant just like the story says.
Gobi people are so proud of their tradition to coax a mother camel to adopt a colt /a rare and treasured white colt/. When Khankhongor woman started singing, not only the camel and the colt, but the whole audience was captured by her beautiful voice and heartfelt compassion. Everybody including the mother camel had teary eyes.
The most famous legend in the Gobi is definitely about the camels! Camels once upon a time had magnificent antlers and sweeping tails. A rogue deer and a sly horse took advantage of the generous heart of a camel to trick their beautiful features. The poor camel never got them back. We were only very happy that he didn’t lose his two humps! Two teams presented this famous legend both in their own unique ways and the winner got the “Gobi Folk Art Festival Cup” that was designed and crafted by the local artist Battogtokh from Bulgan village. They looked genuinely happy to walk up the stage.
The festival continued with the horse skill challenges among Mongolian cowboys. Nutsgenii Tal is a well-known pasture for horse herders after all. They were demonstrating the great skills one after the other. At the same time, Gobi archers were competing for a target shooting, traditional style, and distance archery. The Gobi Folk Art Festival gave us the chance to reward the best students in the music program in Bulgan Village school. M.Enkhjin, G.Anujin, B.Enkhzaya got awarded for their commitment and dedication.
While we enjoyed the festival we were also making a statement! Gobi Folk Art Festival left no trash and no human traces in this spectacular steppe of Gobi Desert. The eco-toilet was away from the space with a handwashing sink, the parking spot, and the stage was set up without blocking the photo opportunities, and Dream Gobi Lodge provided us with delicious and safety assured meals. On this day, we made one big family of the audience, participants, artists, archers, travelers, school students, horse trainers, and camel herders. Thank you so much for everyone and see you next year.