Once we’d decided we were going to travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway we did a quick bit of research and saw that the Naadam games were happening around the time we were looking at going. They looked fun and very different, so we planned our entire trip around them.
Before deciding on going to Mongolia, I’d never heard of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival. But, having now experienced the wonder that is these cultural games in Mongolia, I’d highly recommend timing a trip to Mongolia with Naaadam.
Not sure what Naadam is, or hoping to go to Naadam in Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar but not sure about the details? Here’s your guide to how to visit the Nadam Festival in Mongolia.
What is Naadam?
The Naadam Festival is the only one of its kind in the world. An expression of nomadic culture, it is the celebration of national independence and is a combination of arts and sports.
At the heart of the festival are the three manly sports; the wrestling, horseracing and archery. Even these sports combine artistic elements such as singing, dancing and performing. You’ll see many Mongolians dressed in amazingly colourful traditional costumes throughout the festival.
The festival is so important that while the sports only take place over a couple of days, Mongolian’s get a 5 day Naadam holiday over which to enjoy the celebration. Since Naadam happens in the dry, sunny month (July), Mongolians take the opportunity to travel to the countryside, camp out with their friends.
Some regions and villages outside of Ulaanbaatar hold their own mini-Naadam festivals on different dates, but usually still in the month of July.
Everyone is so looking forward to Naadam that after each Naadam, Naadamers moan that next Naadam is too long to wait. Don’t be one of those moaning about next Naadam being too long to wait!
What’s the history of Naadam?
Mongolia has a long military history and the legendary Genghis Khan who hold a massive empire. Khan’s army was made of groups of 10 soldiers and each group was led by a selected man. These leaders were chosen based on their strength, movement and flexibility through wrestling, eye-sight and hand orientation through archery and patience and bravery through their horse training and racing skills in public competitions.
On top of this, these three sports – wrestling, archery and horse racing – were held in organised events before and after major battles. Later on, these events were given the name “Naadam” which is the still the name of Mongolia’s national festival today.
What sports happen during Naadam Festival?
There are three main sports during the festival of Naadam, as well as opening and closing ceremonies. Here’s a little more information about the sports.
One of the Naadam games I was the most excited to watch, Mongolian wrestling is a unique combination of traditional sports and cultural elements. It’s one of the three main sports of the Naadam Festival in Mongolia and has 1000s of years of history in Mongolia.
One of the main difference (of which there are many) between western wrestling and Mongolia wrestling is that there are no weight classes. There’s also no wrestling arena, wrestlers compete in a field (or within the stadium), at the same time as each other. When the fight between one pair has been chosen they retire from the field until every fight on the field has been won.
There’s also a pretty unique uniform too. The costumes consist of boots, a four-sided soldier hat and a shoulder vest with snug shorts. The shoulder vest is said to have come into play as a way to stop women from entering the sport. Women were apparently competing in the Naadam wrestling and so the shoulder vest was brought into force wrestlers to bare their chest and therefore judges could tell if there were women or not.
Mongolia is home of the world’s longest and (toughest) horse race: the“Mongol derby”. This horse race even has a spot in the Guinness World Records!
Most people in Mongolia learn to ride horses from a young age and the horses in Mongolia are a lot smaller and sturdier than traditional racing horses elsewhere.
The Naadam horse race is the longest and most exciting race of the whole year for Mongolians. The participating horses are divided into 6 categories depending on their ages and the distance they race varies too. 2-year-old horses race for 10-12km, stallions race for 23km and 7-year-old horses race for 25-26km. There’s no horse racing track like you’d see in the west. Instead, they race through the fields and over the hills for the specified distance. The horses’ jockeys are usually aged 5-13 so they’re very young.
During the Naadam Festival, from 10th to 12th of July, around 180,000 horses race throughout the country.
Archery is another of the three Naadam sports. In the past, bows and arrows were used for hunting and then as a weapon during battles. Around the 11th Century, men were encouraged to practice archery as battle preparation and nowadays it’s common to see it in sports competitions.
Where is the Naadam Festival held?
The main Naadam Festival is held in and around Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The wrestling, opening and closing ceremonies and the archery are held within the National Stadium of Mongolia complex. The horse racing is outside of the city in a huge, dusty field area (Khui Doloon Khudag) and there are public buses put on to take you there.
When is the Naadam Festival, Mongolia?
The festival is from July 11th – July 15 in 2020. Most Mongolians celebrate their Naadam somewhere between 10th – 12th July. However, if you’re visiting outside these days then you might still be able to experience Naadam as other provinces have different dates.
How to get tickets for the Naadam Festival in Mongolia
It’s difficult to buy tickets for Naadam in advance if you’re a tourist travelling to Mongolia. However, once you’re in Ulaanbaatar you should be able to get hold of tickets fairly easy; just expect to pay more than face value. Your host at your guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar or your hotel concierge should be able to help you get Naadam tickets.
You can also book a Naadam Festival tour through several different tour companies (see below).
You only need tickets for the wrestling and opening/closing ceremonies. The archery and horse racing events don’t require a ticket.
How much do Naadam tickets cost?
The host of our guesthouse was a great help in getting us Naadam tickets. She found us two tickets for the opening ceremony for 160,000 MNT ($60USD). Face value they’re about $25US each so $30 each wasn’t much higher.
I’d highly recommend getting tickets for the opening ceremony of the Naadam Festival. It was full of dancing, animals, singing and acrobatics. It was as if we were watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics!
Naadam festival tours
If you’re interested in booking a Naadam tour the following agencies are recommended by the government of Mongolia:
You can also book online in advance with these companies:
What else happens during Naadam?
It’s not all about the sports, there are plenty of other events happening during the Naadam festival. There are ceremonies such as the National Flag raising ceremony, the Inauguration Ceremony of the President of Mongolia a ceremony which shows respect to the Statue of Chinggis Khan and a wreath-laying ceremony to the Statue of D.Sukhbaatar. There’s also the ceremony of the dispatching the “Yesun Khult Tsagaan Tug” or the “Nine White Banners.” During this, 9 white flags travel to the stadium and guards watch them for the entire festival.
On top of this, we saw a fashion show of traditional Mongolian dress from all over the country, a Naadam party and fireworks.
If you’re not able to get tickets to the Naadam Opening Ceremony, 2019 was the first year that it was put on a second time at the National Amusement Park.
And, outside of the city, there’s plenty going on at the horse race fields of Khui Doloon Khudag too. There’s the horse racing and also a horse circus show, parachute landing show, hot air balloons and horse parades.
In general, it’s just a fun area to wander around. A lot of people camp for the weekend in their gers and I was surprised at how big an event it was.
How to get to the Naadam events?
The wrestling, opening and closing ceremonies and the archery all happen around the National Stadium of Mongolia. This is in walking distance from Sukhbaatar Square which a lot of the main guesthouses in Ulaanbaatar are near to. I’d advise walking to the stadium if possible as the traffic in Ulaanbaatar is pretty bad over Naadam.
The horse racing event is held outside of the city. The easiest way to get there, if you haven’t rented a car, is to take the public bus. The bus leaves from just outside of the stadium and costs 1000MNT each way. The traffic on the way to the racing was awful and what’s usually about a 40-minute journey took close to 2 hours so plan accordingly.
How to get to Mongolia
The main ways people get to the city of Ulaanbaatar are by flying into Chinggis Kahn airport, or by getting the train to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing. We took the second option and caught the K23 train from Beijing to UB.
Flights to Ulaanbaatar
International flights arriving in Ulaanbaatar arrive at the Chinggis Khaan Ulaanbaatar Airport. Aeroflot flies from Moscow and Air China flies to Mongolia from Beijing. You can also fly from Turkey and Korea.
If you’re travelling to Mongolia from Canada, the USA or Europe you’ll normally have to make a stopover.
I always use Skyscanner to find flights when I travel. They make it super easy to compare different options and find cheaper flights.
Train to Ulaanbaatar
You can get the Trans Mongolian train to Ulaanbaatar from Russia and China.
Mongolia visa information
If you’re from the UK you need a visa to enter Mongolia which costs around £50. Currently, citizens of the US and Canada do not need a visa but be sure to check with the Mongolian embassy in your country before travelling.
Where to stay in Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar is full of guest-houses with super friendly hosts. During our time in Ulaanbaatar, we stayed at 2 guest houses and at the first we had the most helpful host we’ve ever met on our travels.
Most hostels and guest houses also run their own tours if you’ve yet to book anything.
Hostels in Ulaanbaatar
There are lots of guesthouses and hostels in Ulaanbaatar which offer budget accommodation for your trip to Mongolia. Many of them will help you out with a transfer from the airport of the Ulaanbaatar railway station to the hostel.
- Sara’s Guest House: We stayed at Sara’s Guest House for most of our trip to Ulaanbaatar. Sara was immensely helpful with getting us cheaper tickets for Naadam, getting a SIM Card and where to eat nearby. Plus the price is hard to beat making this the best guest house in Ulaanbaatar! Book here & see prices.
- Danista Nomads Tour Hostel: Another highly recommended hostel in Ulaanbaatar is Danista Nomads hostel. There are single-sex dorms available here as well as single and private rooms. Very close to the monastery. Book here & See prices.
- Khuvsgul Lake Hostel: Here there’s a restaurant, gym, American breakfast and a kitchen in which you can prepare your own meals. See prices.
- Zaya Guest House: Zaya Guest House rooms have a TV, some have a seating area and there’s a coffee machine in the room. They look stylish too! Book here
Hotels in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar hotels are few and far between but there are some. However, you should expect to pay a lot more compared to what you get for the hostels.
- Grand Hill Hotel Ulaanbaatar: Rooms here come with a private bathroom, fridges, kettles and AC. The rate also includes breakfast. See more here.
- Grand Hill Hotel Ulaanbaatar: Rooms with private bathrooms come with a bathrobe and free toiletries. You can even choose your own pillow and enjoy views of Bogd mountain. Rates & booking.