Make a dash for Mongolia

Wrestlers at Naadam Festival Mongolia

Every year from 11-13 July Mongolians gather in the thousands to display their mastery in horse racing, archery and wrestling.

The history of Naadam, the festival of manly sports, stretches back centuries to when it was an annual sacrificial ritual honouring various mountain gods.

The opening ceremony is a blaze of colour, with hundreds of soldiers in bright uniforms and Mongolians dressed in Chinggis-style warrior outfits parading around Parliament House – this ancient ceremony is a photographer’s dream and a traveller’s privilege to witness.

In a scene that conjures images of Genghis Khan stirring his warriors into battle, over a thousand horses and jockeys gear up for the big event – the final race. This is one event of the festival that competitors don’t take lightly. The atmosphere is electric. Preparation will have taken months and the elevated position the winner automatically attains is enough to keep spirits and competition high.

Competitors vie for pole position and Kath Burt was amongst the spectators jostling for the best view of the finishing line…

“While travelling across the grasslands of Mongolia during June and July, I repeatedly saw nomadic herders training their horses for the races of Nadaam Festival. Each horse would be dressed in a brightly coloured jacket during the training session, so that it would get used to sweating during the race. So it was with great anticipation that I headed down to the Yarmag in Ulaanbaatar on the first day of the festival to see the horse races take place.

Prior to the race the young riders (aged from 6 years upwards) would be warming up their horses and singing local tunes to calm themselves and bring good fortune for the upcoming race. Each contender, wearing brightly coloured silk outfits with matching hats, would ride across the grassy expanse to the starting point. All lined up and jostling for position it could be anyone’s race. The course runs over a 10km area, so it was hard waiting in suspense for the first sign of riders returning to the finish line.

It wasn’t long before, far off in the distance, I could spot the flashing lights of the lead vehicle travelling alongside the first riders. Gradually they came into view with whips cracking and riders bouncing on bare backs, dust and sweat flying everywhere. As the first rider neared the finish line a lump rose in my throat – I could feel the suspense as though this was my own child winning the race! A cheer rose up amongst the crowd as he crossed the line and I knew this was a travel experience I’d remember for a very long time!”

Mongolia is a seemingly forgotten land of raw beauty, vast landscapes and unforgettable people. Even if your trip can’t coincide with the Naadam Festival, your nostrils will be flaring and you won’t want to miss a moment on Wild Mongolia – an incredible 15-day journey through a remote pocket of Asia!

Photo: Naadam Festival, Mongolia, by Jenny Piche

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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