For many Mongols, the annual Naadam celebration (11–13 July) is the most important day of the year. It’s the time of year when Mongolians celebrate their “three masculine sports”: wrestling, horse racing, and archery, either in Ulaanbaatar or on television or radio.
Throughout July, several smaller Naadam celebrations take place in various aimags (provinces), and these more intimate festivals may allow you to get much closer to the action.
It is believed that the Naadam festivities began with the establishment of the Great Mongolian Empire. They were employed by Chinggis (a.k.a. Genghis) Khan to maintain his soldiers in top physical condition. The competitions were conducted during religious holidays after the empire fell apart, and since the communist revolution, they have been held on its anniversary.
According to legend, a woman once disguised as a male and won a wrestling match. Long-sleeved wrestling outfits, known as “zodog,” feature exposed chests to indicate that all participants are male. Wrestlers wear “shuudag” short trunks and “gutal” Mongolian boots. The number of times a wrestler has been a champion in Naadam will be shown by the yellow stripes on the stories of wrestlers’ hats.
Wrestlers are only given recognized titles by Naadam. Mongolian wrestling competitions are divided into 9 or 10 rounds, depending on the number of 512 or 1024 wrestlers that have entered for that year’s competition. The wrestler will be given the title “Nachin” (bird) if he wins 5 rounds, Hartsaga (hawk) if he wins 6 rounds, Zaan (elephant) if he wins 7 rounds, Garuda (Eagle) if he wins 8 rounds, Arslan (lion) if he wins 9 rounds, and Avarga if he wins 10 rounds (Titan).
Zaan (Elephant) Sumyabazar won 9 rounds in 2006, earning him the title of Garuda, although that year 1024 wrestlers competed in 10 rounds, which he won all of. As a result, he was granted Avarga. Alternatively, Arslan (Lion) must win two games in a row to become Avarga (Titan). The titles are permanent. If Avarga (Titan) continues to win in Naadam, he will gain more and more qualities to his title.
In Mongolian wrestling competitions, there are no weight divisions, but there is a 30-minute time restriction. If the wrestlers cannot overturn one other, the referees employ lots for superior position, which often decides the fight. The person who falls or whose body comes into contact with the ground loses the contest.
Mongolia Wrestling bouts are attended by seconds, whose job it is to help their wrestlers in whatever way they can and to urge them to win by slapping their butts. After 5 and 7 rounds, they also chant praise songs and titles to the top wrestlers from both wings, west and east. The regulations are monitored by the referees, but the people and supporters are the ultimate arbiters. They will continue to talk and spread the word about who is who until the next year.
Tsagaan Sar (White Moon) is a three-day public holiday that begins on the Lunar New Year. It is not popular with visitors due to the fact that it is held during the coldest month of the year. Families gather to eat a large meal of sheep’s tail, mutton, rice with curds, dairy products, and buuz. Drinking airag and exchanging presents are also customary.
The Golden Eagle Festival, held on the 5th and 6th of October in lgii, is the world’s largest gathering of eagle hunters. Typically, 60 to 70 Kazakh eagle hunters participate in the competition. Their golden eagles will fly to them on order, and they will capture a fox fur being dragged by a horse from a perch on a neighboring mountain. Traditional Kazakh games such as Kokpar (tug-of-war over a goat carcass while on horseback), Tiyn Teru (a timed race to pick up a coin on the ground while on horseback), and Kyz Kuar (a timed race to pick up a coin on the ground while on horseback) are also included during the event (“girl chase,” is a race between a man and woman where the woman whips the man while he tries to hold on). The event also includes a traditional Kazakh concert, camel racing, and exhibits of Kazakh art. On September 22nd, a smaller eagle festival takes place in the neighboring hamlet of Sagsai.
Nauryz, also known as lgii, is the Kazakhs’ traditional new year’s festival, which takes place on March 22nd. During the celebrations, there is a parade, a concert, and horse racing. Though the majority of the festivities revolve on visiting friends and family and eating Nauryz Koje (soup) and boiling mutton and horse meat.
Each February, the Ice Festival takes place on the frozen surface of Lake Hövsgöl, just outside of Mörön. Wrestling, reindeer sleighs and riding, ice skating, shaman ceremonies, folk concerts, and cultural activities of the Tsagaan reindeer people are all part of the two-day celebration. You should be aware that February in Northern Mongolia is very chilly.
On July 23rd, between Karakorum and Arvayheer, there will be a Yak Festival. With a full day of Yak races, a rodeo, and other events, the celebration honors the unusually hairy cow that survives in the harsh Mongolian winters. In the midst of the steppe, there is a market, tourist gers, and an entire makeshift town.
- New Years- January 1
- Tsagaan Sar- January/February (3 days, depends on Lunar New Year)
- International Women’s Day- March 8
- Soldiers’ Day- March 18 (Not a day off, just lots of parades)
- Mothers’ and Childrens’ Day- June 1
- Naadam Festival- July 11–13
- Genghis Khan’s Birthday- November 14
- Independence Day- November 26 (No longer a day off, replaced by Genghis’ Birthday)
Working hours are nearly usually shown in a 24-hour format. Shops are typically open from 10:00 a.m. until 21:00 or 22:00 p.m., with Sunday and Monday being exceptions. Banks are typically open from 8:00 a.m. to 17:00 p.m., but they are often closed for an hour for lunch. However, stated timings are not always accurate, particularly in rural areas. Expect stores to open around 10:15 or 10:30 a.m. on most days. Restaurants shut around 22:00, while bars remain open until midnight or later. In the capital, a few fast food restaurants remain up until 3 a.m., but no stores stay open beyond midnight.