Woody Packard

Words + Pictures


Identify Tourists With A Simple Test
In Ulaanbaatar, Naadam is the biggest public event of the year. Traditionally it is a celebration of the "three manly sports"—archery, wrestling, and horse racing—but it also includes ankle bone shooting, which you might compare to marbles, played while standing, with parts of a sheep's skeleton flicked from a small trough, instead of using glass spheres shot from the ground. While ankle bone shooting may not seem particularly manly, horses are raced by small boys and the open-chested costumes worn for wrestling came about in an effort to prevent a repeat of the historical embarrassment of having a woman wrestling champion.

There are still little aimag or regional Naadams across the country where these sports are the focus, but in Ulaanbaatar, the Big Naadam, the program includes dancing, music, fireworks, outdoor theater, and much more. Events are spread across several locations both in the city and several kilometers outside to the west, where the horse racing is held.

While Tsaagan Sar, in February, is a time for family and friends, Naadam, in early July, has become the time for tourists. Many Mongolians choose to stay away because of the crowds, but there are still plenty of natives. There are also many, many foreigners, for whom Naadam is their first glimpse of Mongolia. As at Tsaagan Sar, most shops and restaurants are closed for the holiday, giving the streets of Ulaanbaatar the feeling of a city occupied by lost and hungry white people.

We took in the brief opening ceremonies in Sukhbaatar Square on Saturday morning, where the ceremonial horsehair flags are brought out of the Government House and carried, by horse of course, to the Naadam Stadium just south of the central city. In the afternoon we hiked to the stadium to see some wrestling, long hours of eliminations and re-pairings that ended, the next day, with a champion. Mongolian wrestling is not like our wrestling, which is governed by a sense of fairness that takes size and weight into consideration when matching contestants. Here, small people need not bother, for this is a sport dominated by the massive. There are no weigh-ins. The only weight class is Unlimited. That's not to say that the unequal nature of some match ups goes unnoticed—when a little guy wins, the crowd still roars.

The next day we took advantage of an invitation from Judy's colleague to go to the horse races. She explained that she was going on the second day of Naadam, when the best horses would race. With her brother driving, and her mother, Dugarmaa picked us up promptly, early by the Mongolian standards to which we have easily adapted, and we headed west out Peace Avenue, left at the Darkhan split, and west to the Naadam fields. Aside from a few city streets in Ulaanbaatar and short sections in Darkhan and Erdenet, the road to the Naadam races is the only four-lane road in we have seen in Mongolia. During Naadam it is partially or totally closed for traffic that goes against the flow—toward the city in the morning, away from the city in the afternoon, when at least three and sometimes all four lanes are packed with spectators eager to get home after a tough day at the races. Even lanes that are not officially closed become occupied by impatient drivers, who pull out into oncoming traffic, forcing those cars off the road.

Judy and Dugarmaa, Naadam Parking
The clear weather from the day before was being pushed out, chased by stiff winds that picked up dust and sand thickening the air with a brown haze. At the Naadam field, cars broke from the paved road to criss-cross the hillside away from the official parking area (with paved lanes between parking rows) toward the unofficial parking area a half mile closer, jockeying for the best position for the hike over the hill and down to the race's finish line. Along the way were food vendors, (mostly huushuur, a traditional flattened dumpling that is fried) t-shirts, carnival rides, and shooting galleries. The dust gave everything a surreal look, not least because everyone was under a strain to actually be enjoying the celebration. Tourists with expensive cameras struggled to keep them covered, people with hats walked with one hand on their heads. Exposed skin that was not perfectly dry turned the accumulated dust dark, decorating the corners of eyes, noses and upper lips on foreigners and natives alike.

We were too late for the start of the race (as in a previous trip to the races) and are still uncertain where it begins. But after thirty kilometers, it would end where the crowd was starting to accumulate, around some bleachers and a roped off area. In the past we were able to see a cloud of dust as racers on horses and observers in SUVs barreled across the steppe. Today it was all dust as spectators, on foot and horse, moving toward the finish line were our only clue that the racers were approaching. The closer to the actual finish, the deeper the crowd, so we opted for a spot where there was still a possibility to see horses, even if we didn't see them cross the line—placing us a quarter mile away from the finish and still little chance to elbow our way in for a view until the front runners had passed and the crowd started to thin. Finishers, along with a few riderless horses and the many vehicles that had ridden with the race, continued beyond twenty minutes, when we headed across the hill to find our car.

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Carrying the Flags


Wrestling Field

Targeted Advertising

Wrestling Fans


Fireworks, Egg Vendor

Fireworks, Texting

Shark, Naadam Fields

Boats, Trampoline

Student Drivers

Tropical Slide

Selling T-Shirts




Wind Protection

Horse Rides