Holy crap…I'm living in Mongolia!

mongolian holiday

Selenge Stadium - site of our local Naadam festival

Selenge Stadium – site of our local Naadam festival

Сайхан Наадаарай! That’s pronounced ‘say-han nadarai’ and is Mongolian for Happy Naadam everyone! (Actually, it means ‘Have a good Naadam!’ but Happy Naadam seems to roll off the tongue more easily, so that’s how I’m choosing to translate it here).

Last week we had our own modest Peace Corps Fourth of July celebration. This week, the Mongolians showed us how it’s really done, with one of their most important holidays of the year. It’s hard to explain what Naadam is precisely, other than to say it’s a general celebration of manliness. The exhaustive research I conducted (read: looking up Naadam on Wikipedia) suggests that Naadam has been celebrated for centuries, at times coinciding with religious observances and at other times being used as a form of military training. According to a book I’m reading about Chinggis Khan, it may even have been celebrated by the great ruler himself, in some form or another.

Today, Naadam is a fully secularized holiday, officially commemorating the creation of the Mongolian state in 1921 (again, according to my rigorous investigative reporting via Wikipedia). The national festival is held in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and is televised. Think Macy’s Day parade and the SuperBowl combined, if the Macy’s Day parade involved a show of military might, and the SuperBowl was like a five-day Olympics centered on Mongolia’s holy trinity of national sport: horse racing, wrestling, and archery. (According to my khasha family, the official observance was extended from three to five days this year, by order of Parliament.)

In addition to the national festival, every aimag (province) and soum (town) hosts its own festival. Festivals in the larger aimags last one to two days, while the soum festivals are usually one day only. The dates are varied, with wrestlers, riders and archers traveling from aimag to aimag, like itinerant musicians. Only the most famous, accomplished athletes are invited to compete in UB.

As Sukhbaatar is the capital of Selenge aimag, I got to participate in one of the larger festivals in the country. My guess is that my experience differed slightly from the Naadam of Chinggis Khan’s day, but you be the judge. Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Naadam, T-1 day: Get outfitted in traditional Naadam costume. My khasha mom and sis took me to a local shop that specializes in the deel (traditional Mongolian robe) and khantaaz (traditional Mongolian vest). As the temperature here in Selenge has been soaring, along with the humidity, I offered up a quiet prayer of gratitude that my family suggested I try a khantaaz. A couple of my fellow volunteers were rocking full deels over the two days, and my understanding is that they’re still in a hospital somewhere recovering from heatstroke. See us below in our Naadam finery; at this point, it was still early and our anti-perspirant was still working:
    My khasha sister, Bolooroo, and me in our Naadam outfits

    My khasha sister, Bolooroo, and me in our Naadam outfits

    The Sukhbaatar crew in our Naadam finery

    The Sukhbaatar crew in our Naadam finery

    We all felt pretty smartly dressed I have to say….but we’ve got nothing on the locals when it comes to fashion. Although the Naadam outfits we saw ran the gamut, with many teens, for example, showing up in cutoff jeans and Converse high-tops, for others it was clear that Naadam is a see-and-be-seen event. I spied a number of families who’d coordinated their costumes, arriving in hats and heels and bright fuchsia, turquoise, magenta, or golden deels that glimmered like jewels in the hot sun. Seeing them cross the fields among the horses, it occurred to me that this is what the Kentucky Derby must be like—that is if the Kentucky Derby were attended mostly by Asians, with a few token white people from out of town, and if it offered a smorgasbord of fried food and dairy products. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on the food to come. In the meantime, I’d like to just mention that the photo below of the young girl in her jeans and khantaaz, guiding her grandmother—who is clad in a matching, full-length deel—across the field, is my favorite image of the entire festival.

    Naadam fashion on parade

    Naadam fashion on parade

    My favorite image of Naadam

    My favorite image of Naadam


  • Nadaam, Hour 1: Jump in a taxi at 10:30 AM and head to Selenge stadium. Upon arrival, I realized that my years of doing the Puyallup (or any other state/county fair for that matter) had prepared me well for this. It’s basically eating and drinking, interrupted by occasional visits into the stadium to watch the games. Just outside the stadium, people everywhere have set up small tables and tents to sell cold drinks, and beyond the square, dozens of families are selling khuushuur, the fried meat dumpling that is the official food of Naadam. What’s different from the Puyallup, though, is that the khuushuur vendors have all set up gers out of which to sell their fare, and people are pulling up not only on foot but on horseback. My khasha mom warned me not to eat the khuushuur, saying the meat might be questionable and that she’d rather make khuushuur for me at home than see me get sick at the stadium. Having avoided getting sick thus far, I wasn’t about to take her advice lightly. Luckily, however, it turned out that the host family of our fellow PCT, Robbi Jo, had set up shop. This met with my host mom’s approval, and ger #45 became Naadam central for our group. In addition to eating my fair share of khuushuur, I also tried airak, or fermented mares milk, for the first time (pictured below in the cup and in the recycled Coke bottle). Airak is pretty strong, and the best I can describe it is that it tasted like drinking a juice made from parmesan cheese. I drank a full cupful, but have to admit I held off on a second serving.
    Fellow PCT Robbi Jo in front of her khasha family's khuushuur ger. Also pictured: our respective khasha sisters.

    Fellow PCT Robbi Jo in front of her khasha family’s khuushuur ger. Also pictured: our respective khasha sisters.

    Khuushur delicious. Airak an acquired taste. :-)

    Khuushuur delicious. Airak an acquired taste. 🙂

  • Naadam, Hour 2: Head into the stadium to enjoy the opening ceremonies. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves here:
    Selenge Naadam Opening Ceremony

    Opening anthem….

    Selenge Naadam Opening Ceremony

    …and parade

    Selenge Naadam Opening Ceremony

    Mongolian ‘royalty’ on horseback

    Selenge Naadam Opening Ceremony: Musicians playing traditional horsehead fiddles

    Musicians playing traditional horsehead fiddles

    Selenge Naadam Opening Ceremony

    Dancers in traditional costume

    Singers and what looks to be Mongolia's version of Psy, close out the ceremony

    Singers and what looks to be Mongolia’s version of Psy, close out the ceremony

  • Naadam, Hours 3-10: We stayed at the stadium for about six hours on day one, and put in another four the following day, watching the wrestlers and the horses. As it turns out, I like horse racing…who knew? It was pretty tough to not shout with excitement as these kids, as young as six years old, came galloping in from kilometers away. Fans lined either side of the field behind fences, and began cheering as soon as the first rider was spotted like a dot in the distance. From the determined first rider to those looking haggard, willing their horses to keep going, it made for my favorite event of the games. Not to mention it was awesome to see a lone little girl, decked out in pink silks, keeping pace with the other boys in the race. I hope to see even more girls riding in the future.
    Riders as young as six years old compete, racing anywhere from 10 to 25 kilometers

    Riders as young as six years old compete, racing anywhere from 10 to 25 kilometers



    The victor doing the traditional victory lap; he appears to float with outstretched arms, representing the strength of the eagle

    The victor doing the traditional victory lap; he appears to float with outstretched arms, representing the strength of the eagle

All in all, it was a great first Naadam. Unfortunately, given all the competing activities, not to mention the heat, we didn’t make it to the archery competition. A little disappointing, but something for me to look forward to next time—I’ll get to celebrate Naadam twice more before my Peace Corps service ends in August, 2016. By then, I should be a pro.

Сайхан Наадаарай!

Сайхан Наадаарай!








PS: For those of you planning visits with your kids in Summer 2015—consider July. It’s wicked hot, but Naadam is definitely something you should experience!

3 Responses to “mongolian holiday”

  1. Stephanie Billmayer

    Joanna! I am so excited to read all about your new life! So happy for you. Sounds like you are adjusting well, gracefully and honestly (knowing that there are good, bad, lonely and fun filled moments waiting for you). Congrats on picking up the language so quickly! Grateful I had the chance to get to know you before your journey began so I can hear all about it. Best of luck in all you do. I look forward to read your very well written and entertaining blog.

    • jlf

      So good to hear from you Stephanie…and thanks so much for commenting! Definitely looking forward to keeping up with you and also hearing about how things are going on your end. 🙂

  2. jamesrapsonms

    Happy Naadam, Joanna! Very cool to see the pics and read your descriptions of this celebration. I love seeing the way you are entering into the culture with a blend of wide-eyed innocence and savvy adult wisdom – seems like a great combination.


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