It’s the most epic time of year for Mongolians and one of the oldest traditions: the Naadam Festival!
Naadam is like Christmas and New Year to the Mongolians. Days before the festival, Ulaanbaatar was buzzing with Naadam fever and reached a bewildering climax. It was a sight to witness everyone dressed in their finest deel (дээл: traditional attire of Mongol tribes), prepared lots of food and airag (Айраг: fermented horse’s milk) and spend the days out in the sun with friends and family. I am lucky to be able to experience the main event in Ulaanbaatar and a smaller scale but equally amazing event in Kharkhorin.
Read More: An Essential Guide For Independent Backpackers In Mongolia
What is Naadam?
Naadam (Наадам), also known as “the three games of men”, is the biggest traditional festival held in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Every Summer, men compete in Mongolian jaw-dropping wrestling, spine-tingling horse racing and unbelievably accurate archery in the city’s multipurpose National Sports Stadium. Today, women also participate in the archery games and girls in the horse racing. Through this event, the Mongols prove that they’re man (or woman) enough to be the descendants of their notorious and illustrious hero Genghis Khan.
When is Naadam Festival?
This 2-days festival is held in Ulaanbaatar on mid-July yearly in National Sports Stadium. Most businesses in the city close during these 2-days, and it’s a 5-days national holiday for all Mongolians. The outskirts of Mongolia will be holding their own small-scale Naadam Festival events throughout July, although the exact dates usually aren’t confirmed until mid-June or early July.
This is a peak tourist season in Mongolia so be sure to book your accommodation (especially in Ulaanbaator) well in advance. Some of the most popular guesthouses are fully booked for the whole month of July.
How much is Naadam Ticket?
Locals pay about US$5 – US$9 for a seat, but tourists pay around US$20 – US$25 per person, and that’s if you get very lucky to buy it from officials. Tickets are valid for both days, it’s not possible to purchase a ticket just for a single day.
The stadium has 18 sections but one third of the sections are covered by a roof. Apparently, it is not possible to request a seat in a specific section beforehand (blue sections are for tourists). Each ticket has allocated a specific seat so it’s not true if someone tells you that you have to be there early to secure a good seat.
Where to buy tickets on your own
If you don’t wanna join a tour, there is currently no way to purchase your ticket online or to buy “just” the ticket to the opening ceremony from a tour operator. Here are some of the ways that I had tried or heard from the locals.
Official places where locals get theirs
There are 3 places where you can queue up for the tickets: Central Stadium, National Wrestling Palace and Central Cultural Palace box office. Tickets sale usually start about one-week before the festival. If you think you can start queuing from early morning, you are so so so wrong! I started to queue at 8.30 pm the previous night till next day noon, and I still can’t get the tickets! I was so near to the gate when i queued, but as morning arrived, families started pouring in and very soon I was being pushed so far off I couldn’t see the gate anymore. Nevertheless, it was an experience that I can tell you now: spend more money and get your tickets somewhere else.
From guesthouses/ hotels
Most of the guesthouses sell Naadam tickets with a day-tour package (around US$120 – US$180 with transportation and lunch). Others who do sell the tickets without tour that I had asked are: Golden Gobi Guesthouse, Taiga Guesthouse and Sunpath Guesthouse. However, they charge a premium price, but it shouldn’t cost more than US$60 per person for a 2-days ticket. You may email a few guesthouses at least one month before arriving in Mongolia to pre-book the tickets.
If you desperately want to watch the ceremony and do not mind paying more, this is the best way. Very often, it is possible for them to find tickets very last minute through the contacts they have. The day before Naadam, my Couchsurfing host (who also own a guesthouse) managed to get me tickets from some forum for US$45!
From Tourist Information Offices/ Post Office
There are a lot of Tourist Information offices in Ulaanbaatar. Similar to guesthouses, they do charge a higher price instead of selling the official ticket price. Tammy got her ticket at post office for US$48 it was just for the opening ceremony.
From a Scalper/ Black Market
I did not try this but I did hear from locals who mentioned that there are ticket scalpers outside National Stadium and Sükhbaatar Square before the event start. The price may varies from US$50 to US$100. However, there is always a risk with buying tickets from scalpers that they may turn out to be fakes, so please beware!
Where to celebrate Naadam for free?
All that being said, you don’t really need a ticket to enjoy Naadam. You can see the archery, ankle bone games, stage performances, and horse races all for free. The events that the ticket cover are happening in the National Stadium: opening ceremony, wrestling, and the closing ceremony. So, don’t depress if you can’t get tickets!
Sükhbaatar Square (Сүхбаатарын талбай)
On this central square several cultural events are held, ranging from changing guard ceremony, costumes parade, concerts, throat singing contests to the final firework at the end of the Naadam Festival. The wrestling finals are aired on a big screen in Sükhbaatar Square, so you didn’t miss much too!
National Sports Stadium (стадион)
The archery competitions is just next to the Stadium which is free to enter. There isn’t much seats to watch the archery. Even if you get a seat, you can’t really see the target unless you brought a binoculars.
Khui Doolon Khudag (Хүй долоон худаг)
The horse racing is located approximately 40-kilometers from Ulaanbaatar. There are supposedly free shuttle buses that transport people from the city to the racetrack from Misheel EXPO (Мишээл EXPO) and Dunjingarav (Дүнжингарав) parking lots but we can’t find any bus. Anyways, the traffic was so bad there’s no point taking any transport.
The regional festivals are usually free of charge or just a small fee, and enable you to get much closer to the action. Different towns and regions will hold their festivals on different dates, so it is advisable to do your homework before travelling out of the Capital. Though I didn’t get to watch the big scale horse-racing in Ulaanbaatar, I managed to catch an equestrianism in Kharkhorin.
Experiencing the Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony of the Naadam Festival is the most important event in Mongolia. It attracts the most press attention and the stadium is usually full as this is the main event everyone wants to see. The ceremony is a colourful event, displaying a variety of processions, historical re-enactments, athletic performances, military parades, ethnic dances and songs before the games begin. It reminded me of opening of the Olympic games – must less modern but just as spectacular.
Officially the ceremony starts at 9 am on 11th July and lasts a good 2-hours, however do expect some delays. When I was there it only kicked off around 11 am. The president of Mongolia will be there to open and close the games. Once the dancing and parades have finished, the wrestlers line up to enter the stadium ready for the first round of the Games.
Outside the stadium
There was a super huge market stalls with tons of food, games, clothes, accessories and anything you can think of. You can even try out traditional costumes and take pictures with nice backdrop for 10,000 MNT (US$4).
Things to Take Note:
- Expect to be pushed around and find yourself surrounded with true-mongol-attitudes! Embrace the culture and push them back!
- Beware of pickpockets! Make sure to always carry your belongings close and in front of you.
- Look out for drunkards, especially if you are a female and travelling alone.
- The event is held during the hottest month of the year, so remember to drink up, apply sunscreen and bring a cap/hat/sunglasses.
- Whether you attend the festival in Ulaanbaatar or other provinces, commentary will only be in Mongolian.
- Wear comfy walking shoes. Traffic in Ulaanbaatar will be chaotic during the festival, so it is best to travel by foot. The Stadium is about 30-minutes walk (2-kilometres) from Sükhbaatar Square.
- It is okay to ask locals to move away if you want to take a photo or if they trying to cut in before you.
- The locals are always happy to pose for your photos in their traditional attires. Ask politely and thank them.
- Once you are in the countryside, there are no road signs directing you to the exact location of the Naadam celebration fields. You have to check with your host from guesthouse.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!