Naadam 2020 : Travel to Mongolia for the main traditional festival

Naadam means “games” in Mongolian. Naadam is the most important festival in Mongolia. For tourists, it’s a perfect opportunity to get more familiar with the unique Mongolian culture.

Locals call Naadam the “three games of Men”, representing the wrestling, archery and horse racing events that take place during the festival. Despite its name, women and children have been starting to participate in a few events. Another popular activity is the “Ankle-Bone Shooting”.

Originally a Buddhist/shaman celebration, Naadam is now also a festival to celebrate the Mongolian state. For instance, Naadam 2020 will celebrate the 2229th anniversary of the Mongolian statehood, the 814th anniversary of the Great Mongol Empire and the 99th anniversary of the Mongolian people’s revolution, the moment when Mongolian became independent from China.

We were traveling in Mongolian during Naadam 2019, and since we wanted to do it independently we had a hard time finding information on the festival. The reason behind this article is to help travelers to have a blast and be more aware of what’s going on during this celebration. It will be frequently updated as soon as the schedule for 2020 will be known.

What you will find in this article :

Trophy for the competitions in Mongolia
Some of the trophies used to reward the winners

When is Naadam ?

In Ulaanbaatar, the main festival lasts for 3 days, starting on the 11th of July and ending on the 13th of July. The 14th and the 15th of July are also public holidays in Mongolia, but there are no attractions for tourists during these days. On the other hand, there are activities related to Naadam starting from the 6th of July with the archery events, and numerous activities on the 10th such as Horse Racing and Archery.

The festival has different dates depending on the Mongolian province, in July and August. I will update this post as soon as I know the dates.

What to see during the Naadam festival ?

There are 4 different activities during the Naadam festival, namely Wrestling, Horse Racing, Archery and Ankle-Bone Shooting.

There’s also an opening ceremony and an ending ceremony to the event. All around the stadium, you’ll find many stands serving traditional food or selling stuff.

The Naadam Opening Ceremony

This is an important moment for the festival and it lasts for a couple of hours. It takes place in the National Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar on the 11th, usually around 11 am. You need a ticket to attend this event. The cheapest ticket is around 25$. You need to buy a ticket through a tourism agency for several days in advance.

The ceremony consists of multiple parades, speeches, dancing performances and a lot of songs.

Naadam Festival Night Opening Ceremony

Mongolians are trying to organize more activities linked to Naadam for tourists. In 2019, for the first time was organized a Naadam Night opening ceremony. It was performed in English, started at 9pm on the first day of Naadam (the 11th) at the National Amusement Park. Tickets were available on ticket.mn.

The program consisted of various performances such as Mongolian songs, contortionists and traditional Mongolian dances as well as a firework show to close the ceremony.

Mongolian Wrestling

The tournament is reuniting wrestlers from all around the country. It is the first event of Naadam, starting right after the opening ceremony and lasting for 2 days. A classic wrestling tournament features 512 wrestlers. That number will rise to 1024 during the big anniversary years. It’s a single-elimination tournament meaning that you have to win to get to the next round, otherwise you are eliminated. Therefore there will be 9 rounds during traditional years, and 10 rounds during anniversary years.

Mongolian Wrestling is different from traditional wrestling. There’s almost no limit of space and no time constraint. A wrestler wins once his opponent’s elbow or knee touches the ground.

There’s no weight category and no women can participate in this event. The highest-ranked wrestler faces the lowest ranked wrestler, the second highest-ranked wrestler faces the second-lowest ranked wrestler and so on. During the third and fifth rounds, wrestlers, starting from the highest ranked, can choose their opponent.

The first two rounds occur during the first day, while the remaining rounds take place on the second day.

Wrestling competition during Naadam
Photo credit : Evgeni Zotov

Horse Racing

Mongolians are crazy about their horses. There are as many horses as Mongolians in the country. All the horse racing events occur in an open-air “horse field” located on the Western side of Ulaanbaatar. The horse racing event has the particularity of not being a race in a stadium, but rather an open-field race.

Horse racing is not only one event, but many different races depending on the age of the horse and the breed. The most popular races involve pure Mongolian breed, such as the Stallion, for a 22 to 24-kilometer-race, and the full aged geldings, for a 25 to 27-kilometer-race.

Horse racing competition Naadam
Some spectators socializing during Naadam. Credit : Mark Fischer

Archery

The archery event starts on the 7th of July, much before the official start of Naadam. This event takes place right next to the National Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar. It is free to attend. Unlike Olympic archery, contestants are not shooting a target, but instead shooting cylinders on the floor. They are usually located from around 30 to a maximum of 65 meters away from the shooter depending on the event.

Women can participate in this event. Children have also their archery competition on the 9th.

Ankle-Bone Shooting

This is the least popular event of Naadam and it was a late addition to the program in 1998. It resembles Bowling, except that competitors use a small piece of deer horn to shoot ankle bones or other little bones of herd animals.

Teams compete against one another and are composed of 6, 7 or 8 players. The event happens right next to the archery field and is free of charge.

Ankle-Bone Shooting during Naadam
The competition

Where to see the Naadam festival ?

The Naadam festival takes place all around Mongolia at various dates. You can also experience a similar festival in the Inner Mongolia part of China and in Russia. The biggest event is taking place in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, each year between the 11th and the 13th of July.

Where to see Naadam in Ulaanbaatar ?

National Sports Stadium of Mongolia

This stadium is located on the Southern side of the city. It’s about 2 kilometers South from the Sukhbaatar square. The total capacity is 12,500. It’s a walking distance for the center, but you can also take a bus or a taxi to get there. 3 out of 4 events take place in the stadium or just around it. The wrestling competition, as well as the opening and closing ceremony, happen inside the stadium. The archery and the ankle-bone shooting are just next to the stadium.

Khui Doloon Khudag – Horse Racing

This event is raced outside of the city. It is located West of the city, some 35 kilometers away from the center which usually takes about an hour. Be aware that the road will be totally jammed the days of the event. Some of our friends missed the events because they couldn’t access the location. All the events of the 13th of July happen in Khui Doloon Khudag, sometimes spelled as Hui Doloon Hudag.

Where to get tickets for Naadam ?

You don’t need any tickets for the Naadam events outside of Ulaanbaatar. Only in the capital you’ll need a ticket to access the National Stadium.

I was surprised to arrive in Mongolia and to learn that it was impossible to get tickets for Naadam without going through a tourist agency. You need a ticket for events inside the stadium (opening/closing ceremony and wrestling).

The cheapest opening ceremony ticket is about 25$, it is valid for the 11th so you can stay inside for the wrestling event. It should cost around 10$ to attend events of the second day (the 12th).

Some tourist agencies offer a full Naadam tour, including tickets and transportation to the Horse Racing event. You can only buy a ticket if you prefer.

If you didn’t buy tickets beforehand, be aware that we found people re-selling their tickets through Facebook, or you could find re-sellers at the stadium.

What can I do for free in Naadam ?

You can see the whole archery and ankle-bone shooting competitions free of charge, right next to the stadium. You can also attend the Horse Racing events, but keep in mind that the field is located far from the city. You’ll be able to see fireworks and parades on the main Sukhbaatar square in Ulaanbaatar during Naadam. There will be a lot of food stands and shops near the stadium as well.

How does a typical Naadam schedule look like ?

This was the schedule for the 2019 event :

Tips for Naadam in Ulaanbaatar

Khuushuur
Homemade Khuushuur, a dumpling with meat, onions and various spices inside.

Feel free to comment on your experience or if you have any questions about the festival !

Maxime

A young father following his dream of travelling the world, now joined by HiuYing, his wife, and Darian, their first son.

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