the Naadam festival

Known as Eriin Gurvan Naadam – the Three Manly Games – the Naadam festival is a regular feature on summer time holiday. In a tradition dating back thousands of years, the official two day event features wrestling, archery, and horse racing and ranks as Mongolia’s biggest public festival. There are also highly competitive ankle bone tournaments during the festival.

When countless smaller versions are held throughout the country, Naadam’s biggest event takes place for three days in the days capital of Ulaanbaatar starting every 11 July, Mongolia’s National Day, when Soviet – backed troops “liberated” the capital from the occupying Chinese in 1921.

Wrestling not only tests the strength of the wrestlers, but also teaches the athletes to handle both victory and defeat gracefully. Losers of wrestling match must perform the ritual by taking off his “zodog” (top) and go under the right arm of the winner honouring the victory of his opponent. The winner runs toward the state flag and performs a kind of dance as a sign of his victory.

Archery is said to require an orderly mind and precision, features both men and women, usually in mixed teams of 10. Dressed in traditional costume, contestants each shoot four arrows at 360 round leather targets with grey, yellow or red rings. Judges standing near the targets – 75 metres (260 feet) away for men and 60 meters (200 feet) for women – signal each shot.

Many Mongolians believe that horse racing, which features races up to 27 km long, brings good fortune. Ankle bone shootings builds endurance and stamina. Winners of the horse races and wrestling matches are praised with traditional chants and are awarded titles and medals.

The festival is a time of great celebration and Mongolians dress up for the part – donning their specially designed deels and ornaments.

The Golden Eagle Festival

The most spectacular event in Mongolia during the autumn takes place in the far west, in Bayan-Olgii. The people in this area are mainly Muslim Kazakhs and they still practice one of the Asia’s oldest arts, the use of eagles for hunting. The festival takes place at the beginning of October on a date that – like many things – is subject to change.

Golden Eagle festivalIn this land of eternal blue sky the autumn sun provides a photographer’s dream, with the Kazakh hunters sporting their finest embroidered jackets, fur overcoats and colourful fur-lined hats. Kazakh minstrels and singers, known as akyns, compete in joyful public contests called aytis, verbally and musically starring with each other to show the greatest wit and improvisational skill. And all around the food and drinks flows; as a visitor, be sure to try everything offered at least once – this festival is a fantastic chance to try many traditional Kazakh dishes.

At the main event, the hunting eagles are not fed prior to hunting and ride on the arms of the hunters, supported by a piece of wood jutting from each rider’s saddle. The hood is removed often at a gallop and the eagle soars up into the sky, scanning the terrain below for its prey. Eagle hunting festival includes many other varied events, enabling the Kazakhs to show off their prowess not only in hunting but also in horsemanship, strength and bravery, including the sport of “kokbar” (known in southern Central Asia as buzkashi), a sort of horseback rugby where two teams of horsemen compete to grab and win possession of a headless sheep or goat carcass then carry and throw it over the opposition’s goal line; auderyspak, or wrestling on horseback to try and unseat your opponent; and the traditional game of skill and daring called kumis alu or “pick up the coin”, whereby a rider must, while galloping at full speed, bend low over his mount’s back to grab a coin from the ground. Of course horse racing also takes place, which can often involve a few private financial transactions.

For the visitor, attending the Eagle Hunting Festival is an opportunity of a lifetime to be awed and inspired by a centuries – old culture that lives close to and in harmony with the natural world within an epic landscape.

By Peter Oetzmann

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