Mongolia isn’t really a country synonymous with sport; famous Mongolian sportsmen are pretty thin on the ground. Come to think of it, so are any famous Mongolians. Yet each summer this huge, landlocked country tucked away between Russia and China, grinds to a halt as its population descends upon its peculiar capital, Ulaan Baatar, for the prestigious Naadam Festival.
Dusty Ulaan Baatar is a sleepy city, but Nadaam seemingly brings out every single one of the capital’s one million inhabitants out onto the streets as it explodes with resplendent colours to celebrate a festival of the three sports which defined the once-mighty Mongol Empire: horse racing, archery and wrestling.
Over 5,000 years old, the Naadam Festival takes place each summer on July 11th for three days. It begins with an elaborate opening ceremony in the dilapidated Central Stadium. Throngs of people fill the rickety stadium to bursting point in the warm Mongolian sunshine to catch a glimpse of the colourful brass band booming out a deafening (and truly awful) rendition of the national anthem.
Yet as the band fades, the cacophony of noise continues as the Mongolian president makes his way onto the field to lead out hordes of muscular wrestlers, the stars of the three-day event. The crowd jostles for space to catch a glimpse of the burly men in some very dubious (and very tight) purple pants, flapping their arms around whilst making some wild, ethereal noises that apparently symbolises an eagle.
It is no surprise this event takes a full three days to find a champion; the 1,000 wrestlers must each perform this bizarre ritual before and after each bout, and often the two-minute dance takes longer than the actual fight itself.
With no weight divisions and a seeding system that would have the likes of Manchester United swooning, the first day sees the top-seeded wrestlers choose their adversary, frequently resulting in a 20-stone leviathan pitting his wits against a puny 15-year old, who often disposes of his opponent in well under 30 seconds, yet still celebrates like David beating Goliath.
A rather disorganised fashion, it seems every wrestler is competing at the same time. The field is awash with wrestling matches, making it difficult to ascertain what is happening, yet this is just one event in this unusual sporting festival. Alongside the wrestling, Mongolia’s finest archers, dressed in traditional (yet gaudy) silk robes of deep oranges, purples and blues compete in an event which sees them fire their arrows into the clear blue sky and drop into diminutive ringed targets on the ground.
It is evident that little has changed down the centuries in the archery, like much of Nadaam. If it weren't for the huddle of television cameramen and ubiquitous Pepsi Cola advertising hoards around the stadium, I could have easily been mistaken for thinking I had stepped back several hundred years in time.
Aside from the two events inside the stadium, the three-day event is a festival of Mongolian culture. Whilst that might not sound particularly enthralling, the celebration of the country’s fascinating nomadic lifestyle makes attendance at Nadaam a must, even if you don’t appreciate the sporting spectacle on offer.
Breaking up the monotony of the wrestling, teams of garishly-dressed horsemen race out onto the field on majestic horses, galloping at full pace, stooping down to scoop up a handful of silver coins on the dusty ground, much to the delight of the whooping crowd. Throughout the day the festival spills over onto the street, and the city’s bleak Sükhbaatar Square is one of many venues that come alive with hawkers, live music and theatre as Ulaan Baatar rises from its slumber for three days.
The festival brings the people outside. The market that had sprung up around the stadium has the repugnant stench of mutton (Mongolia’s national dish) hanging in the air. Vendors sell everything from giant inflatable dolphins (particularly useful in a country engulfed by the vast Gobi Desert), to some rather questionable-looking cuisine, right down to Airag, fermented horse’s milk that packs quite a punch to the unassuming drinker.
This lively party atmosphere continues long into the night. Although Ulaan Baatar’s nightlife doesn’t quite rival that of London, Mongolians know how to party; the city’s bars are packed to the rafters with people heartily celebrating into the small hours. After a hard night’s celebrating, the wrestling and archery continue at the stadium on the second day, yet just outside of Ulaan Baatar, the competition’s horse racing gets underway in rather chaotic circumstances. Lining up at the start is a ramshackle group of riders, some as young as six-years old, who race for 10 miles along the Mongolian steppe towards the windswept capital.
The finishing line is adorned with spectators on both sides, yet the lengthy race hardly requires a photo-finish for the myriad of racers, with the winner, a sprightly 18-year old winning by a good two minutes. Although spectators flank the finish, the more adventurous hire a taxi to ride alongside the action to take in the racing firsthand.
Nearing the conclusion of the three-day event, the crowds becomes ever-smaller; the tedious wrestling matches become longer. The final pitches two evenly-matched, brawny men who grapple for well over an hour before one (I couldn't tell which) threw the other to the floor, preceded by the now-familiar “eagle dance”. The champion is crowned with a somewhat small trophy, scant recompense for three days of fighting.
With Nadaam drawing to a low-key finish, the closing ceremony hails the end of three days of the world’s second-oldest sporting event. Whilst thousands of visitors are making their way to China this summer for a money-spinning sporting spectacle, over the border in Mongolia the less-illustrious Nadaam Festival will be taking place with much of the spirit the Olympic Games seem to have lost over the years.