‘Nadaam’ means games


While the world get’s obsessed those days with world cup and football waiting for final match between Argentina and Germany tonight there is a place on the earth where people also get high sports emotions but linked to completely different event.

This place is Mongolia and the event is called Nadaam festival, which means ‘games’. This big festival is held since centuries gathering country’s best men in three disciplines – wrestling, horse riding and archery in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. And it’s held mid of July having its big finale today.

I must admit that Nadaam was one of the few things (except of weather forecasts:) I took into account while planning my trip in Asia. I got enchanted with colorful pictures combining tradition with wild nature while searching in internet.  However I was not researching a lot about the ‘substance’ of the games letting it surprise me on the spot. And I was not disappointed.

Though a few days before the official Nadaam I was already in Ulaanbaatar coming back from the trip in Gobi desert I was advised by locals to go to the country side first in order to watch the games there before attending the official final games in the capital gathering the winners from all over the country. I chose to go to Kharkhorin, a little town located in the valley of the Orkhon river and nearby ruins of the ancient city Karakorum that used to be a capital of Mongolia under Ogedei Khan.

Already coming there was an adventure. Packed in the bus full of people and balancing inside of the vehicle between plastic tanks of Mongolian vodka, fermented mare’s milk (called also kumis) and bags of cheese while heading on the bumpy road was challenging experience. Nadaam is a big thing in Mongolia, not only because of the love to sports but as a good pretext for family celebrations and fashion show off.


After short searching I found the camping place I booked in advance. A place full of nomad yurts called ‘gers’ instead of tents. In one of them that I was sharing with other people I met Tomasz (Canadian of Polish origin) and Sarah (American),  friends working in Beijing as teachers and making holidays in Mongolia attracted by the same event as me. After speaking with locals we knew that the games will be held ‘somewhere there in the steppe’ so the best way was to follow the crowd or hitchhike there,  which was the option that we chose.

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And indeed after short ride we saw a circle of stands and gers around the big grassy arena in the middle of nowhere. The place was full of Mongolians clothed in traditional and colorful ‘deels’ (kind of folded coats), walking between the tents or slowly riding their horses, talking, laughing, collecting  bets for horse riding competition.


The arena where wrestlers were standing was a center of the activities and it looked like out of three games it is wrestling that gets the most attention. But a bit on the side there was also stand for archery, the only discipline where the woman can also take part and compete with each other (but not against the men).


On the other side the fans of horse riding were collecting awaiting the winners of the long ride (up to 30 km). Surprisingly most of the jokeys were little boys between 4 and 11 which made me think that all young mothers I have among my friends would just get the heart attack seeing their babies riding the horses bareback over tenth of kilometers shouting ‘tschu! tschu!’ which is the word to drive the horses on (by the way in Mongolian exist no word for stopping them though).


We had a walk around the food stands offering ‘kushuur’ (kind of meet dumplings) and admired colorful ladies putting different kinds of cheese made of horse and camel milk and sweets into pyramids and giving herewith new meaning to the word ‘cheesecake’.

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To kill the awaiting time on the side there were some stands with the social games giving the random players and watchers almost same emotions as the real games itself assuming from the noises and shouting that were accompanying them. Over us a bunch or better said band of eagles were circulating and watching the crowd from above wandering why those people gathered here changing this peaceful and broad steppe into a colorful anthill.


After checking around we moved to take some good places around the main arena and next to the cheesecake stands. Though you cannot eat lot of them because of their sharp taste it was nice to have a pinch of it and receive a cup of mare’s milk from an elegantly dressed Mongolian lady refilling and redistributing the same cup over and over again among the public gathered in her tent. Her little daughter wearing the high heel shoes was accompanying her with a serious face as if that would be the most important activity she has ever done. The games were about to start soon.

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First there was some strange dance of mythological ghost or monsters (not sure), than some acrobatics, lady singers and at the end the parade of locally important people and previous  stars of the games.

And then it finally started. Honestly, it was Tomasz who wanted to see the wrestling more than us girls who were waiting for horse riding rather than looking at hugging guys. But as we did not wanted to linger from the beginning  we kept our mouth shut and looked at the performance that was just about to begin. What happened next was an enchanting game that could be named ‘guess what the rules are’. After an hour we lost bored Tomasz in the middle of the games while me and Sarah looked more and more fascinated on the following male couples playing against each other trying to find out the rules and sequences of the game.

At the beginning we got intrigued by the costumes they was wearing. Not to say we found them funny but than it turned out that they were functional as well as linked to tradition.

They wore little and tight, collarless and short-sleeved, red or blue  jacket (‘zodg’). Traditionally made of wool, nowadays from cotton and silk. The front was open but tied at the back with a simple string knot thus exposing the wrestler’s chest. According to legend there was an unknown wrestler that won all the games, but when one of the defeated wrestlers ripped his zodog it turned out that the winner was a woman. From that day on, the zodog had to reveal the wrestler’s chest. The gear  was completed by ‘shuudag’, small, tight-fitting briefs made of red or blue cotton cloth. These made the wrestler more mobile. They also prevent one’s rival from easily taking advantage of long pants and material to trip on. The wrestlers are also wearing lether boots (‘gutal’) with slightly upturned toes.



None of them started without the ceremonial dance of the players waving with their hands like big birds and hitting their tights few times at the end of each dance. On that way the praise to spirits was done and the game could begin. Than they were approaching two other men staying in the arena’s center what we thought were judges but turned out to be their encouraging friends (‘zasuul’) that were taking the funny hats out of their heads and watching the fair play or even singing the songs of encouragement to their fighting friends. Theoretically the static game was full of tension and showing male power. The rule was that the one who touches the ground with any part of the body different than feet or hand will lose the game.


The winner was dancing same dance at the end as in the beginning or even threw the cheese confetti (of course!) to cheer the public thanking for their support (at some point of my trip in Mongolia I got to conclusion that everyone in Mongolia is obsessed about the cheese, they had even cheesy vodka). And so we had a winner and even managed to make a photo with him. Now he was ready to go to Ulaanbataar for the final big games and the price was worth to try it – the keys to a flat in Ulaanbaatar handed over by the president!

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The games were over and people one by one started to go towards their houses. With no luck for hitchhiking this time we started to walk by foot to get lost and be invited to a ger by some Nomads living nearby which was already a start of a new and quite different story…


winner wrestlers from all over the country at the official opening of games in Ulaanbaatar

for more about Nadaam and it’sorigin you may check the following link: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=10621