Alongside the pomp and patriotism, one thing that is common to independence day celebrations across the world is the kitsch factor. There should be a Eurovision for national parades. Mongolia would be a serious contender.
Right now, the country is celebrating its 98th year of independence from China with a good deal of panache. The five-day festival is known as Naadam, or the “three games of men,” and showcases traditional Mongol nomadic culture. The three main events are wrestling, archery and horse racing — women are now allowed to compete in the latter two, but wrestlers still have to wear open chested jackets to “prove their gender”. Across the country competitions are held to find the best athletes, who then head to Ulan Bataar, the capital, to take part in the national celebrations.
I’ve spent the past two days exploring Naadam’s festivities — beginning with the traditional costume celebration. Hundreds of people gathered on the main Sukhbaatar square, dressed in outfits from the different regions of the country. Mongolian traditional dress is stunning, and the atmosphere was great — groups of friends taking selfies of their great outfits, older men and women proudly displaying the clothes they wear every day while the younger generation dressed up for the occasion in their best traditional outfits, or designer adaptations of traditional outfits — made of army print, or with a short skirt rather than the modest ankle length.
The official start of the celebrations was marked by an opening ceremony mixing dance, song, contortionists, a military parade and a parade of camels and yaks. Then begins the wrestling — 500 men battling it out to earn the title of “Lion of the Nation.” In a nearby field is the archery.
The third event, horse racing, takes place out in the countryside, 40 kilometres from the centre of town. It took us 2 and a half hours to get there by bus, stuck in snail like traffic, as everyone headed out there. It was worth it though — the atmosphere was like a music festival, with tents everywhere and everyone in a great mood. The horse racing itself is almost secondary — although it is impressive to see the jockeys arrive at full speed. The race begins 11 kilometres across the hills, and so at the festival sight, you see only the arrival, where jockeys and horses alike look ready for a good sleep. The jockeys are all kids - between the ages of 7 and 16. In Mongolia, everyone knows how to ride a horse, and they are impressive riders, often competing bareback and bare feet.
Further along, yurts serve up meaty pancakes and stew, along with fermented mare’s milk, the local drink of choice. You can win a rabbit by throwing darts at balloons and a pack of washing powder if you manage to break a cow’s calf bone in two with your bare hands. Women read your fortune by throwing four ankle bones onto a table and seeing which way up they are turned.