Upon arriving in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately set plans in motion to head south for the Gobi. The last regional Naadam festival was being held in Mandalgovi, and we didn’t want to miss it.
With the help of Corey, a kickass Peace Corp member we befriended via Couchsurfing, we arranged for a ride from the Black Market. Fourteen adults, two children, and a week’s worth of inventory for the local supermarket bounced south along cross-country tracks, crammed into a ghetto Russian van. Corey later informed me that we had been lucky–there were no goats.
Mandalgovi (Мандалговь) is the capital of Dundgovi (Дундговь) aimag (province) and is located on the northern border of the Gobi Desert, approximately 300 km south of Ulaanbaatar. With a population of roughly 10,000, it is considered a large city, ranking within in the top 30 most populated cities in the country.
Here, the last of Mongolia’s regional Naadam festivals was to be held. Naadam (Наадам), literally “games”, is the country’s main holiday–three days of celebration and festivitiesheld in summer that highlight the Three Manly Games of Naadam: long-distance horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Vaguely reminiscent of the Tibetan horse festival we attended in Tagong, Naadam is a bigger affair–attracting people from all over the aimag–and felt more like a state fair, with commercial food stands and game booths.
As you’ve probably already figured out, Naadam is a male-dominated event. Women are allowed to participate in archery only. Occasionally, young girls are chosen as jockeys for horse racing.
Wrestling is the pinnacle event and also Mongolia’s most popular sport. There are no weight categories, and bouts are untimed, ending only when one wrestler touches the ground with any part of his body excluding his hands or feet, thus losing. Tournaments are single elimination, lasting nine or ten rounds spread out over the three days, and pairs are determined by wrestlers with the best records and/or greatest fame choosing their opponents. All this seemed to lay the foundation for a skewed system favoring the biggest, fattest man standing, but I was assured that technique was essential, and that smaller wrestlers had indeed become champions.
The traditional wrestling outfit consists of embroidered…er…shorts (shuudag) and a tight, open-front shrug (zodog), which came into use (as legend would have it) after a champion wrestler was discovered to be a woman. *GASP*
Each wrestler performs a ceremonial dance before his next bout, announcing his entrance and honoring the spectators, judges, and games. Mimicking a bird in flight, I dubbed it the “eagle dance”–a surprisingly delicate and graceful note amidst an otherwise brutish grunt fest.
As bout after bout, round after round of winners and losers were determined, the roar of the crowd only increased in strength, and I found myself cheering louder, too.