One of the hard things about coming back to the developing world after spending time away in easier and more comfortable places like Europe (although given the news lately, I should probably come up with a better word than “easy”) is the fact that you are coming back to the developing world with all of its challenges, frustrations, and stresses. We encountered all of these struggles and frustrations more or less head on the first few days after coming back, which made us realise how easy it was to get used to being in Europe where the language barrier isn’t as high, things work like they are supposed to, and life is pretty comfortable.
But it also made us realise that it is these things we appreciate about being here in the developing world so that we can learn about our host country culture and customs even if walking down the street with two kids in the desert heat while locals yell at us and we desperately navigate around broken vodka bottles, drunk people, and other aspects of social and physical disorder, it’s still our home and we are still excited to keep on learning more about it.
Cue in the relief and excitement of Naadam. Yes, we returned to Mongolia just in time for the Mongolian holiday of Naadam.
Naadam is a traditional festival dating back to the 13th century, you know, the time when no one wanted to mess with the Mongols taking over the world.
You can think of Naadam as the Mongolian version of the Olympics per se with 3 main sport competitions: wrestling (men only), archery (men and women), and horseback racing (men, women, and children – in fact kids are the favoured jockeys since they are so light…and no, saddles are not a mandatory thing here).
The entire festival spans 3 days and is celebrated all over Mongolia. Each district hosts its own version of the games.
The National Stadium in UB is home to the detailed choreographed and hugely anticipated Opening Ceremony which officially opens the games. The Mongolian President as well as a number of local VIPs attend, so naturally, we had to be part of that as well.
With this year’s ASEM conference (Asia-Europe Meeting) happening around the same time (in UB of all places), and a huge number of tourists and business travellers suddenly flocking to UB (seriously, who are all these white people on the streets and restaurants these days?), securing tickets to the Opening Ceremony was not so easy but with some luck and a great local resource, we were able to secure great seats even if they were directly in the sun and it was one of the hottest days. Yes, the sacrifices we make for you readers to learn about Mongolia…I know. We should deserve some sort of prize for that.
We headed over to the Stadium on foot since traffic has been more or less shut down with this ASEM business happening (seriously, it’s been an interesting traffic/police experience here lately) and the kids did remarkably well for walking the 2+km there and back … in the heat.
Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, we arrived well before the Opening Ceremony which was perfect for us to explore the surrounding area of the Stadium. We know we were in the right place when we saw the camels.
Walking around the grounds was a sight to be seen! Hundreds of vendors selling all the Mongolia merchandise you could ask for. Of course, we had to do some shopping for head beads and Mongolia hats – ’cause they are awesome.
Since we arrived early, we also secured excellent front row seats to watch the archers practice before the games officially began. And just in case you wanted to play with a local vulture, you could do that too.
Shockingly, the Opening Ceremony commenced before it was supposed to (what?!) so we headed to the inside of the Stadium and loved the fact that we had front row seats.
As I understand, the Opening Ceremony is different every year but many versions of these types of ceremonies recount Mongolian history – as did this year’s version which was produced by the State Drama Theater.
It was quite the show with a ton of people actively participating (in all seriousness, it must have been a substantial percentage of the UB population that had active roles on the field). While we didn’t follow every little detail of what was happening, one thing was clear throughout – DO NOT MESS WITH THE MONGOLS. Seriously, how fierce are those fighters?
And yes, there are tons of pictures because it was definitely not a short event – we certainly got our money’s worth …. after about 2 hours of the sweltering heat, we still couldn’t stop watching all that excitement because it was just so cool – it literally felt like a scene out of “Games of Thrones” (not that I’ve watched it …. I know, I am probably the only person who has yet to see this show).
We knew things were coming to an end when we saw the current Mongolian flag being carried across the field (fun fact, the flag changed during every fight/take over/unification during the empire so there were lots of flags on horses during the ceremony to take in). And yes, that is a space ship you see there – you know, to commemorate that yes, Mongolians have been to space.
By that time, it had been well over two hours and while we were intrigued to see the men wrestle, we were more than ready to find a cold bottle of water and to stretch our legs.
We walked the grounds some more – taking in the smell of the khuushuur (meat filled pockets) – and found the tucked aside hall were men were playing another traditional game – ankle bones or shagai. It appears there are multiple ways of playing this game but one thing is clear – it’s a men’s game…. no women players allowed.
After we cooled off with some cold water, we headed back to trek the 2+ km home but not before securing awesome water spray guns for the kids …. you know, with ladybug water tanks for them to carry on their backs.
The kids made use of them as soon we got home and everyone commented on how much fun we all had despite the heat and the crowd. The kids loved their new Mongolia wear and when it was time to go out for dinner (we essentially skipped lunch unless, of course, you count ice cream as a main meal), I was not in the least surprised when Luca insisted on wearing this:
So yes, an awesome Naadam Opening Ceremony experience. I am definitely in for going again next year!