Mongolians celebrate one of their most important festivals every year from the 11th to 13th of July, wherever they live. Naadam, listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO, is celebrated in the UK too by the Mongolian communities. I was looking forward to attending the event organized in London, as I always do so if I am in the UK during that period.
This time though I will share my earlier experiences with you, directly from Mongolia. The best memories I have are from 2003, from a very different era, comparing to my latest visit in 2012. Today’s Ulaanbaatar is like the usual cosmopolitan city – leastwise for those, who know how it was only a decade ago -, whilst in 2003 it contained a very homogeneous society. For that, I was quite often stopped and pointed at, but never unkindly. The winter was especially funny, because only a handful of Europeans lived in the city and that was the first time that I understood how it feels to be very different from the crowd. Summer was different because as soon as the sun came out and the air started to warm up in May, the tourists arrived.
Naadam, although a three-day celebration, that time meant that the city came to a standstill for a whole week. In practice it meant that I could hardly find a shop open to buy at least bread. Because that was my first visit, without knowing much about what I can expect, I was not very well prepared for a week this way. Thankfully, Naadam means lots of food in many other ways. This time families come together from distant parts of the country, many of them can see each other only at this time of the year. Implicitly, lots of delicacies are involved.
The official celebration in Ulaanbaatar starts in the National Sports Stadium with a splendid ceremony of dancers, horses and musicians, then the competitions begin. According to Mongolian tradition, wrestling, horse racing and archery are the ‘three games of men’ (эрийн гурван наадам), and these are the base of July’s festival. Horse racing is held outside the city in really beautiful sorroundings. On my first visit to Mongolia I didn’t see much of it, because, as a proper foreigner, I took the wrong bus and arrived to somewhere else. That place was gorgeous too though. Finally I managed to catch the end of the race, when the riders arrived in the finish. And I am happy I saw it because nowadays the temporary race course is all fenced around, you can hardly see the riders in the distance. In those days though you could feel and touch the horses, that is really important, because the winning horses bring luck for the next year. To feel the energy of both riders and horses is really special. Originally the races served as preparation for the battles but nowadays it’s pure fun.
Because I had to work during the games in 2012, I could not attend the wrestling or the archery competitions in the Stadium, I could only see a fashion show on my way home on Sukhbaatar square, but the director of the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, where I worked that time, made sure we all enjoyed the festival. The first day we celebrated with cooking lamb the traditional way, with all its chitterlings. No need to explain it any further, just have a look at the photos. Yes, I tasted it all, and yes, I enjoyed most of it. It could not have been more authentic. Of course, as the only foreigner in the Museum, my colleagues extremely enjoyed that I did not run away seeing their delicacies. At the end I was officially honoured with being called a real Mongolian and I can tell you, that is an achievement.
Naadam is still a very important part of the Mongolian calendar, but because tourists flood the capital due to hundreds of organized trips, if you would like to see the real thing, and you are ready to leave your comfort zone, just head to the countryside. Ideally with a local guide or if you are brave enough, on your own. That’s the best and probably the only way to see how the country really looks and feels like beyond the carefully crafted postcards. I have done that and I am still here and I can only recommend it. Experiencing the rapid changes of the last one decade though, better to book your flights as soon as possible.
Finally, apologize for the quality of the photos. My camera did not appreciate the -30-40 C winter.