Traveling to the remote country of Mongolia is no easy feat. While most adventure seekers trek through the rugged Tavan Bogd mountains of the west or venture onboard the Trans-Mongolian railroad, cultural enthusiasts can find Mongolia a fascinating destination to explore the historic Great Mongol empire and its people’s nomadic lifestyle.
For the best taste of Mongolian culture, you can’t beat traveling to the country during July to see the annual Naadam Festival that takes place for a week, with sporting competitions, music concerts, costume parades, food fairs, and family picnics held across the country. The Naadam Festival is considered an ancient Olympic-style competition and is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO. It measures courage, strength, daring, horsemanship, and marksmanship through three sports integral to Mongolian culture — wrestling, horseback riding, and archery.
The main affair takes place at a stadium in the capital of Ulaanbaatar. Parades of mounted cavalry dressed in traditional costumes open the 3-day event ceremonially, while thousands gather to watch. Tickets are sold out months in advance, so make sure to get yours at the earliest.
Here’s what you can experience at this unique festival:
Get a Grip on Your Wrestling Skills
Bare-chested muscular men dressed in bright-colored trunks and long sleeve capes known as zodog, intimidate their opponents by crouching and flapping their arms like eagles. In this traditional wrestling match, the only way to win is by getting the opponent’s upper body to touch the ground multiple times within 30 minutes. The winner receives the title of bird, hawk, elephant, eagle, lion, or Titan, depending on how many rounds he takes to win.
Ride Faster Than a 5th Grader
The horseback races take place at open-air venues in different aimags (provinces) around the countryside. In Mongolia, only 5- to 12-year-old boys and girls racehorses for a 6- to 18-mile sprint. These kids start riding at just the age of 4 and race at very high speeds through dusty deserted trails, testing their skill and endurance.
Hit the Mark at an Archery Contest
Archery is one of Mongolia’s oldest sports and now allows women to compete as well, though with different rules. Bows are made of sinew, wood, horn, and bamboo and are strung with bull tendon. They deliver 20-40 arrows in every contest, as cheerleaders egg on the competitors with traditional folk songs.
Drive Through One of the Most Deserted Places on Earth
Driving through the bare Mongolian countryside is an adventure on its own. Without much cell reception, GPS signals, or street signs, you’ll often find yourself to be the only person on the road. Chances are you will see more camels and horses than people during long road trips, as Mongolia has about 3 million people and is twice the size of Texas.
The landscapes change as you go from the Siberian Altai mountains in the west and the planet’s oldest lakes in the northwest, to the vast expanse of the fossil-rich Gobi Desert in the south. The Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs) area of the Gobi is home to some of the largest dinosaur fossils discovered in the world. Temperatures drop to −40°F in winter and rise to 122°F in the summer, making it hostile for human life.
Sleep Like the Nomads
Over 30% of the population of Mongolia still live like nomads, dwelling in traditional nomadic tents called gers, herding sheep and camels and moving every few months. Gers (aka yurts) are made from felt, poles, lattice, and cloth.
Outside of Ulaanbaatar, tourists can only find accommodations in ger hotels or camps. You may choose to carry your own camping gear as most locals do and set up tent along the way, or stay in one of the more luxurious individual gers that are equipped with comfortable beds and private baths equipped with rain showers and flushing toilets. They also have international restaurants, bars, and meeting rooms on the premises.
Eat Like a Carnivore
The Mongol diet is based primarily on the meat they raise. Fruits and vegetables are very rare. Enjoy hearty full-fat meat soups with noodles, steamed or grilled meats (known as Khorkhog and Boodog), as well as Khuushuur — fried dumpling stuffed with beef or lamb.
It is customary for guests to be offered Süütei Tsai (hot tea made with milk and salt), along with Aaruul (fermented dried cheese) when they enter a home or shop. The milk may come from camel, horse, sheep, yak, or cows. At special events, they may offer Airag, fermented mare’s milk that’s also the national liquor of Mongolia. Remember, it’s rude to refuse any food and drink offered by the host!
Make Some Tunes with Your Throat
The first time you hear Mongolian throat singing, it may sound like an angry animal growling. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing like Tibetan Buddhist monks do, and use local instruments such as the horse head fiddle, drum, and gong to create all kinds of music. The Naadam Festival is especially good time to enjoy the local songs and dances as performers open and close the games.
Have you been to Mongolia lately? Tell us about your trip in the comments.