Mongolia's Naadam Festival

The worst part of Mongolia is the unrelenting country hospitality. Most Mongolians beyond the city limits of Ulaan Baatar live a simple agrarian lifestyle. Across the rolling, unfenced grasslands buildings are rare and people live it the large round tents they call gers and we call yurts. There are some cars but there are many more horses and traditional costume including red robes and pointy round hats remains everyday attire. It's an idyllic scene but wherever you stop you are invited into the family ger and given fermented mare's milk. It tastes like a tangy but pleasant yoghurt drink. Beware - unaccustomed digestive tracts will be still burping it up five hours later.

Mongolia is the large landlocked country sandwiched between China and Russia. It used to be much bigger - especially when Genghis Khan ruled the world. What was known as Inner Mongolia is now part of China and some of Outer Mongolia has been absorbed into modern Russia. Mongolia today is going through much the same pain of rebirth as Russia. It is so distinctive that it must be on the wish list of any adventurous traveller seeking the truly exotic. Like Bhutan and Papua New Guinea, its peak tourist period is for the main festival. That's Naadam, a national celebration occuring throughout the country but most spectacularly in Ulaan Baatar, the capital. It takes place over two days each July and it's on next week.

This is the time when the country folk put on their finery and come to town. The spectators are a significant part of the overall spectacle. Of course, there's a big entrance parade and interminable ceremonies but once the competition starts Naadam goes back to grass roots: horse racing, wrestling and archery. It's all broadcast live on national radio.

As every healthy Mongolian lad wants to try for the title as the Lion of Mongolia, it's a good thing that local rules appear to dictate that each wrestling round lasts about as long as a Mike Tyson fight. I missed the crowning as I'd moved over to the archery where striking garb seems de rigeur and the level of skill is more immediately apparent. Men and women compete (from different distances) and an ever appreciative audience cheers every hit - and very few contestants miss.

That evening we attended a cultural show in town. The standard of performance by the two male contortonists and a traditional orchestra was remarkably high but the most memorable was the "throat singer". The sound this man produced deep in his throat was melodic but completely inhuman.

The next morning we were just two of the thousands standing outside town trying to pick dust from of our teeth. These hills were the venue for the horse racing but a naturally nomadic culture had turned it into a temporary village of colourful gers and even more colourful families and contestants. The races are not held according to any rules supported by the AJC. Indeed, the start of each race was rather unfulfilling as the great mass of riders simply disappeared over the hill in a welter of dust and sweat and confusion. Then we'd wait - and wait - because some of the races are held over 50 km. Eventually, the crowd would stir and a few minutes later one or more riders would gallop into view and across the finish line. Many of the horses came back without riders and a family who let us share the view from the roof of their 4WD told me that the youngest riders are about four years of age and it was not uncommon for horses to drop dead at the finish line. Fortunately, all the horses we saw were lathered but alive.

In true socialist style, Ulaan Baatar produces hot water from a central factory that must have been running low by the time we all washed the dirt off for the evening's festivities. We'd heard there was to be a big concert in the main square. In fact there were many. Even though the square is very large, the opera and traditional theatre performers were distracted when the heavy metal band put in a late but very loud appearance. But as most of their audience was occupied buying ice creams and trinkets, exchanging alcohol and catching up with friends, any in performance shortcomings went unnoticed. Naadam was over when the authorities turned the lights off and we all went home. It was not before time - by then there was an opera concert at one end of the square and an oompapa band (in lederhosen) at the other, plus three rock bands - all playing at the same time.

Like many others we left Ulaan Baatar the next morning with the sound of a musical smorgasbord still ringing in our ears. Naadam had been a rewarding glimpse into a rich and ancient culture that lives on in this hospitable land.

Check-in

Nomads is a well organised travel company in Mongolia. It is best found on the Web at www.nomads.mn/naadam_festival.htm.

In Australia Nomads is represented by Hugh Hallard at Russia & Beyond, 191 Clarence St, Sydney, Phone 9299 5799 or (1-800) 637 756.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd