Friday, 13 July 2012

Naadam Festival - The Mongolian Olympics

Naadam is the reason why I came to Mongolia when I did. It's the biggest event in the Mongolian year, celebrating the 'three manly sports', wrestling, archery and horse racing, the legacy of the culture of Chinggis Khan (that's Genghis to you and I) and the Mongolian Empire. I'd seen snippets of it on the television at home, but I thought if I'm coming all this way I may as well coincide it with the cultural climax of their calendar, and so planned the initial stages of my travel to allow me to attend this event.

Naadam began with a parade from Sukhbaatar Square to the Central Stadium, cavalry carried the Nine White banners, which are made from horse hair and today are a symbol of the traditional Mongolian state. 
We turned up in a damp Sukhbaatar Square at 9am, to wait for the military band to start playing and the opening ceremony to begin. The band played a repetitive tune, but one I enjoyed and reminded me a little of the Star Wars music, and I was humming it for the rest of the morning. The cavalry and band left the square and paraded to the Central Stadium where the games were being held. I turned into press photographer mode and left my friends and bolted down the street, looking for vantage points to shoot the parade from, as the police and public lined the streets making it near impossible to get a clear shot.

I rejoined my new friends along the route, having ceased shooting the parade once I'd snapped myself into a sweat, and we ambled along to the stadium. The vicinity around the stadium was awash with activity and excitement, a bit like a football stadium at home but without the rivalry, today only one team was playing: Mongolia. We found our wooden seats and waited in the open air stand for the opening ceremony to begin. The cavalry ceremoniously delivered the Nine White Banners, and the brass band played the same tune I had enjoyed earlier, before dancers, performers and singers took to the centre of the arena to entertain the swollen crowds of Mongolians and tourists.

The opening ceremony of the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar's Central Stadium.
Just like home: the spectators are forced to shelter under umbrellas as a short shower drifts overhead.
The opening ceremony lasted a fair while, it felt like an hour but I actually have no idea of the time it took. There were performers in traditional clothes carrying what appeared to be a huge cauldron, dancers performing a Mongolian horse dance and comical moments of lip-synced pop songs. I wasn't sure what half of it was meant to symbolise but it was great to see nonetheless. The whole ceremony did feel a little disjointed for me, it got lost in places and lacked a crescendo, so much so I wasn't sure when the ceremony was over and the tournament was about to begin. It would be unfair to be too critical of things I don't really understand, but I think I could have choreographed a tighter tapestry of cultural ceremony.

Once I was clear the actual wrestling was underway, it was fairly entertaining, with at first the wrestlers performing an eagle dance with their arms outstretched, before handing over their acorn shell shaped hats, to who I assume were the judges, and then beginning the hunched over grapple. However once I'd seen a few matches, it felt like I'd seen them all. Some were over very quickly, as it didn't seem to be organised by weight categories, there were gargantuan behemoths against weasely midgets like myself, who of course lost. Matches began with a ceremonial dance and were over as soon as any part of the opponent touched the ground, other than their arms or feet. There were several matches taking part on the field at all times, and it was a knockout with up to a thousand contestants taking part over the two days, so there was a lot of wrestling to get through. By chance I'd met up with my friend from the train, Lenka, who happened to be sitting near me, so we went to get some lunch in the many food stalls situated outside the main stadium. They were all serving the same thing, a type of mutton and fat filled pancake that was fried and looked a bit like a pasty. It tasted as good as you can imagine: not that great, but I dipped it in soy sauce and ate the lot. We returned to the wrestling to watch for a while, but to me it wasn't that exciting from the stands as a spectator sport. We were about to leave to check out the archery nearby, when I thought, 'fuck it, lets try and walk down from the stands and walk down to the floor of the arena, the worst they can do is tell us to go back'. Amazingly, we were unchallenged and walked through the pit of wrestlers. We were able to watch up close, and posed for a few photos with them. I was able to get a bit closer for pictures of the action, and then Lenka and I decided to try and walk a lap of the entire stadium before leaving, just to see if we were unchallenged. None of the police or officials said a word to us, so we had fun walking around and exploring and getting up close and personal with the events, before exiting to have a look at the archery.

Wrestlers chatting before taking part in the action.
A wrestler, in speedo pants and acorn hat, chills out before grappling with another half naked man.
A few stretches and lunges are in order before taking part in proceedings, to stretch the muscles as well as the pants.
If any part of your body touches the floor, other than your hands and feet, you've lost. This blokes arse is about to meet the grass. He lost. 
Some of the younger wrestlers: credit for taking part, but they didn't stand a chance.

Can you ring me back, I'm just doing some archery?

The archery was situated in a small open air complex within a small stand just a hundred metres from the wrestling. Lenka and I pushed our way into the complex, the crowds were throbbing and it was not so easy to see the action taking place. The best view was from the side, as from within the stand all you could see was the back of the archers heads. At first I thought it was a health and safety nightmare, as at the end of the range were dozens of judges scoring the contestants. I wondered how long it would before someone took a arrow straight in the face, King Harold style. Then I looked closer and the arrows were not tipped with sharp points, but they had a dull rounded head. Mild disappointment ensued. The targets were not the circular targets that I am familiar with, but what looked like (without my glasses) a collection of stacked wooden blocks, to hit and knock over, a bit like cans at a funfair. There women taking part as well, this is the only part of the competition that women are involved in, and they shoot from about 10 metres in front of the men. It was fun to watch for a while, but again, the entertainment was not sustained for a spectator uneducated in the arts of what I was witnessing. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable atmosphere and the people watching was as entertaining as the competition, and the skill of the archers was very impressive. I quite fancied having a go myself, but alas I could not find the registration tent and my blagging abilities are sadly not yet extended to the Mongolian language.

There are ten people in a team and each gets four arrows each to hit the target
The arrows have a rounded blunt tip for safety reasons - but I still wouldn't want to be hit in the face with it.
Although not officially part of Naadam and not one of the 'three manly games', there is another traditional Mongolian activity taking part on site during the festival: ankle bone shooting or shagai (not the Jamaican singer). It was a little bit like darts, and I actually found this the most entertaining sport to watch during the day. Contestants sat on tiny stools that ought to be only for children, and held a small wooden plank, less than a foot long and a few inches wide, with a groove carved into it. The men would flick a carved ankle bone, nestled into the wood, with the intention of hitting another bone position on a box-cum-table like object a short distance away. For some reason I found this the best to watch, the target to hit was tiny, maybe as big as a hard boiled sweet, yet they seemed to manage to clatter their projectile into almost every time. Also during the games, the spectating team members would sing this long, drawn-out, flat note, that didn't alter in pitch or rhythm, and reminded me of an intimidating visit to Millwall's New Den.

The men aim at a small bone target sat about 5 metres or more away.
The men flick their ankle bones. Not a euphemism.
The spectating team members sit either side of the target area, encouraging their team mates.
I left the festival late in the afternoon, and walked for thirty minutes back to the apartment where I'm staying. Later that evening I went with my Australian friends to the theatre to see a Mongolian orchestra perform. The orchestra was combined of almost purely Mongolian instruments, apart from a flute and a triangle, and I'm not sure which nation will claim that as their own. The predominant instrument was the Morin khuur, a type of two string violin, which is sat in the lap and played with a bow, and decorated with a horse's head at the nape of the neck. The music was truly beautiful. It conjured images of huge open landscapes that demand freedom, the rhythm was reminiscent or a horse galloping freely, and the melodies made me fondly think of lost loves. There was also traditional Mongolian throat singing, which is mesmerising both in wondering how it is performed, and in the beauty of such alien sounds. After the concert I met some of my train friends for some drinks whilst they were still in town. When the pub rang the bell for last orders, we decided to try and find somewhere else for one last drink. Most places were closed as it was a national holiday, and after ten minutes of wandering down dark streets we found a doorway that said karaoke above it. We pushed the door open and made our way down a creaky staircase into a quiet and dated hallway. I wasn't sure what we had walked into, having never been in an establishment like this before, but soon we heard some awful singing in a foreign language, so assumed we were in the right place. We went into a large private room, and ordered some beers for the Mongolian who appeared, and spent the next two hours singing atrociously to various pop and rock classics. I'd never done karaoke as an adult before, as I am perfectly aware of the horrendous tones of my voice, but I was really enjoying it and quite willing to keep the microphone and howl another tune when no one else wanted a turn.

Horse racing on the Mongolian steppe.
The following day we were up very early to take a bus out of the city to where the horse racing was taking place. This event was the third and final part of Naadam which I wanted to witness. The road out there was pretty bumpy in places, but I was informed it was once of the best and newest in the country, as most roads didn't actually exist, but are just well worn routes. The traffic was heavy, and the two lane carriageway overspilled into the oncoming two lanes, so it became a four lane one way road. Any oncoming vehicles were forced to drive in the dirt at the side of the road. The site where the event was taking place was huge, and there must've been nearly 100, 000 people there. It reminded me a little of Glastonbury, but without the music and with plenty of horses. We wandered about and got our bearings as huge crickets and grasshoppers sprung up about our feet and hung and buzzed in the air. I was hungry so wanted to find some light breakfast. I had a deep fried hot dog on a stick, which was warmed up in a microwave and tasted as disgusting as it sounds. I couldn't see anything else on offer at the time. The crowds were huge and I only saw about 40 Westerners all day. It wasn't long before I lost the group I was with, as I had darted off to take some photographs of assembling Mongolians on horseback, who were gathering around a large LCD screen to watch the race in progress. The races themselves are categorised by the age of the horses, and are up to 30 miles long, so take some time. Interestingly, or bizarrely, the jockeys are between the age of 5 and 13, yet the races are much more about the horses than the children on top of them. It would be strange if the biggest sporting event in my society, say the FA Cup Final, was the Chelsea Under 8s against the Manchester City Under 8s. It would also be pretty shit to watch. The skill of the jockey is not what is being tested, it is the skill of the horse. I did see one dead horse close to the finish line, which presumably died after a heart attack after being flogged by a boy for nearly 30 miles. Some of the jockeys rode bareback, which must've been incredibly uncomfortable on their young arses, and many looked incredibly fatigued as they crossed the finished line; some slumped over as if they had an Apache arrow lodged in their back.

Men gather to watch the results on the big screen.
At the front the spectators are sat on the floor, those at the back are sat on horses to get a better view of the screen 
I received plenty of cool stares as I made my way through the crowd.
Everyone is glued to the screen as the horses approach the finish line.
The winners, accompanied by a herd of 4x4s, approach the finish line.
Horses, ridden by jockeys as young as 5 for up to 30 miles, race towards the end.
Initially I stayed a few hundred metres from the finish line, as the side of the race track was packed with locals, all jostling forward. I knew it would be uncomfortable, my pockets would be in danger of having hands rather than wallets in them, and I would not be able to see a thing of the action. I thought it would be nice to get some wider shots, to show the whole scene with the horses galloping in, the crowds packed in down below, and the traditional Ger tents in the distance. Once the winners and leaders of the pack had crossed the finish line, most of the locals left to go and do something else. I then made my way down towards the stands where you could watch the horses coming in, and climbed up onto the wooden platform with the remaining Mongolians. There were hundreds of horses taking part in each race, so I knew I would be able to get close up shots of some finishing the final furlong. I didn't care whether they were in first place or 201st place, it made no difference to me.

The boys whip their horses over the finish line.
Some of the stragglers struggle towards the end of a long race.
You can't flog a dead horse. Clearly.
There were two races being held that day, and typical Mongolian style both were several hours late. In between the races I wandered about alone having earlier lost the friends I was with, and enjoyed people watching and soaking up the atmosphere. There weren't many tourists at all, sometimes I went for half an hour without seeing a European face, and I did feel quite alone, but I liked it. I got some quite cold stares from some of the men on horseback, when I nodded or smiled back I received nothing in return, but a few others greeted me and smiled and gestured for me to take their picture. These are usually the most boring pictures. I went down to what looked like from the distance a market area, which upon closer inspection was a huge dining area, all serving from what I could tell was exactly the same food. The deep fried meat filled pasty-shaped pancakes I had eaten the day before. I meandered through here, before eventually bumping into some people from the group I was with. I latched onto them as it was only a further hour before we were due to leave, and there was no chance in hell I was going to find the minibus we arrived in. Surrounding the event was a sea of vehicles parked chaotically and without any landmarks, and there was no zoning so it wasn't like I would be able to find D6 or whatever.

A view of one side of the event - the market looking area is a food city, all serving the same untasty food. 
Wild wild east - a couple of cowboys ride through the restaurant town.
The horse racing seemed to be a social event as much as an interest in the sporting results.
Hooves kick up dust as a horseback boy racer speeds through the spectators. 
There were a variety of different fashions on show, including mine.
Many people arrived to the event on horseback, though they were not racing themselves.
The dust was everywhere, kicked up by hooves and heels alike, and clung to my clothes and throat.


  1. ...outstanding Ben: I think I remember Palin visiting this on his world travels - your account was easily as interesting and informative. I think I'm most in awe that you found your way out there and back again - I see could myself helping pack the tents up having missed the bus!


  2. Cheers Andrew - too kind. The next big thing is a 16 day trip west across country with a charity, the Association for Parents of Disabled Children (APDC). I'm travelling with them in a 6 person team, as they run workshops and clinics in different rural provinces; I'm documenting their work, both photographing and hopefully making a short film too. I get to be involved in a worthwhile project, and the chance to see some beautiful parts of the country. When I get back from that I'm shooting a wedding in a national park, and then covering the Mongol Derby, the longest horse race in the world. I've got a busy month ahead! Then hopefully heading to China after that, but we'll have to see if I get a visa on Wednesday!

  3. Wonderful pictures Ben, keep them coming!