Day one of the 805th Naadam festival
11.07.2011 - 11.07.2011 27 °C
Awakening to a glorious Eternal Blue Sky, so important in Mongolian culture, the anticipated opening of the 805th Naadam festival, the whole purpose of our trip across Eastern Europe, Russia and Mongolia, was now only hours away. Unsure what the day would bring we decided upon a healthy breakfast to ensure sufficient sustenance. With one restaurant purporting to cook a ‘Full English Breakfast’ we ordered eagerly having not had a ‘proper’ breakfast since leaving England some six weeks previously. Needless to say dodgy sausages, potato lacking hash browns and garden peas instead of the promised baked beans were served. With no tea available, although the next person to order tea was successful, this had to be one of the worst breakfasts we have ever eaten. Yet again we learnt that valuable lesson of eating local food when in a place that does not cater widely to tourists.
However, undeterred we headed for the opening ceremony of the Naadam at the purpose built stadium. As we approached the crowds began to grow with many Mongols dressed in their finest dels and sporting excellent, traditional pointed hats. Arriving shortly before the President of Mongolia was to address the packed stadium we staggered to our seats climbing over those already seated with little room to spare.
Sat behind the staging and directly opposite the Presidential box our seats afforded an excellent view of the action but for the majority of the various performances we were looking at the back of people.
That was when umbrellas were not blocking our view. For the locals the warm and sunny weather was too much and as such the tepid rays of sunshine that fell upon us, for this was hardly the heat that Trey and I are used to, required extensive usage of umbrellas. Held high they blocked not only the suns ‘powerful’ rays but also our view. After a number of taps and enforced lowering of umbrellas we won the war and were able to watch the riot of color and costume that passed before us, unencumbered.
Dancing girls with their multi-colored costumes proceeded the mounted Mongolian soldiers who brought with them the nine tail Yak banners we had seen the night before.
Hundreds of 13th-century uniformed Mongol soldiers charged and paraded for us whilst a 300 person horse fiddle orchestra – the traditional knee held two string instrument of Mongolia – played a variety of evocative pieces. As promised the Opening Ceremony was an impressive show and one we were told later surpassed, significantly previous Opening Ceremonies.
After the Opening Ceremony the serious business of the ‘Three Manly Games’ began. The most important sport of the games is wrestling. Bare-chested men compete through a serious of elimination rounds to be crowned champion of the games.
This is the only outfit of the Naadam that has changed since the 13th-century. At some point in the 15th-century it is alleged that a women won the wrestling and as such the requisite attire was changed to ensure that could not happen again. With our lack of Mongolian and as such an inability to understand (or at least easily ignore) police instructions we accidentally (!) ended up on the Naadam field in amongst the wrestlers. This provided for some excellent photographic opportunities, although with so many naked men Trey hardly knew where to look first!
Now finding ourselves within the restricted competitors only zone we wondered around the field taking pictures of both the brightly dressed competitors and the watching crowd.
Yet, these early stages of the wrestling are very much one-sided. The winner is the first to force their opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than hand or foot. Large sumo like wrestlers appear to be commonly paired with young solider recruits apparently brought in to make up the numbers. With the latter showing little chance of success the stadium soon became empty with only a few stands replete with western tourists and other competitors eager to see their friends and potential competition in action.
The second sport of the Naadam is archery. Here both men and women shoot arrows 225ft and 180ft respectively at a wall of 20 to 30 rings on the ground. Judges standing next to the rings, close enough to illicit potentially serious injuries, and emit sounds and raise their arms to indicate the quality of the shot. The archer who hits the targets the most times is declared the best mergen (archer).
It was whilst enjoying the warm sun on the archery field that I bumped into a ‘had to be British’ couple. With the gentleman dressed in tweed and the lady likewise in a typically Cheltenham Gold Cup outfit, this surely had to be the British ambassador come to enjoy the games on this 3-day national holiday. Eager to hear an English accent and see if my supposition was correct I struck up a conversation. With neither of us fully comprehending the rules appertaining to archery we soon progressed onto how we found ourselves at the Naadam. True to my guess this was the British ambassador to Mongolia. Her Excellency Miss Thorda Abbott-Watt. Having just completed, on the train to Mongolia, Matthew Parris’ excellent book on Valedictorian Speeches in the Diplomatic Services, we lamented the passing of this custom and how electronic and social media made the required frankness of the diplomatic service harder to accommodate. Concluding with pleasantries Her Excellency returned to the archery and we to the anklebone shooting.
Anklebone shooting is a relatively new component of the Naadam that entails flicking a sheep’s anklebone at a small target (also made of anklebone) about 9ft away. This indoor sport is given an electric atmosphere by the ever present yodeling of spectators to spur the competitors on. By the time we arrived the semi-finals were well underway with each flick of the anklebone pondered, strategized and contemplated, although, unlike the archery, there was little chance of any judge or onlooker being impaled at this event.
Certainly, during the early rounds of these sporting events it became clear that the locals had little interest in watching the events. Foreign tourists monopolized those areas. For locals the fifty some food stalls were the star attraction of the first day of the Naadam, after the Opening Ceremony. Whilst the President had decreed that this Naadam would be alcohol free it did not seem to detract from people’s enjoyment of the snacks available. From what we could see every stall sold exactly the same food item – Khuushuur – a flat deep fried dough stuffed with minced mutton. With certain restaurants being favored we found long lines at some establishments and none at others. Filling and tasty, although a little bland, we enjoyed our Khuushuur but made a mental note to pack the sweet chili sauce, we had purchased in Russia, so that we could spice them up a little the following day.
With all the events visited we ensured as evening fell that we were back at Sükhbaatar Square to enjoy the free music concert that had been organized for the Naadam. Yet, this was not to be. As we arrived the menacing storm clouds broke and a veritable monsoon drenched not only the crowd but also the stage and the poorly covered sound equipment. Sheltering at the Opera House, behind a phalanx of Police officers it was over an hour before the torrential down pour finally cleared.
With some revelers hopeful that the concert would restart we retired to a café for a hot chocolate to allow the inevitable road and pavement floods, in the badly drained city, to subside and allow us a relatively dry walk home to a thankfully dry and warm bed.