Naadam: A mix of the ancient and the modern

Naadam in Darhad. (Photo by Robert Peck)

No one knows for sure when Naadam began. Some historians claim it dates from the time of the Hunnu or Hun Empire (3rd century B.C.). Some say it served as a sort of training program for the troops of Ghengis Kahn as they prepared to conquer the world.

In any case, the once spontaneous gatherings in which nomads come together to eat, drink, and pursue the “three manly sports” of horse racing, wrestling, and archery, was formally declared Mongolia’s national holiday in 1922. The July 11 date, though not always adhered to, was chosen by the government to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the capital from occupying Chinese troops in 1921.

The biggest Naadam celebration is held in Ulaan Bataar, because it is the most accessible to the largest number of people. That Naadam is organized on a vast scale and attracts visitors from around the world. This year’s celebration in the capitol involved more than a thousand wrestlers and as many horses, all competing for national glory and millions of tugrugs (tens of thousands of dollars) in prize money.

I have purposely come to celebrate Naadam in Renchinlhumbe in north-central Mongolia, far away from the spectacle in Ulaan Bataar, both because I think the smaller, rural gatherings are more personal and interesting, and because it is through Naadam that I hope to reconnect with the herders I met here in 1994.

Renchlinlhumbe has grown since I was last here. Several bad winters (in 2002 and 2009 especially) caused many local herders to lose their livestock and move into town. Despite its growth, the town still has the rough, frontier feeling that I remember. There are no paved roads and the buildings are all either hand -made wooden structures or wood and felt gers, surrounded by an assortment of wooden fences.

During Naadam, when the population here mushrooms from hundreds to well over 1,000, the endless toing and froing of people, horses, motorcycles, and cars, quickly creates a dusty haze that pervades the entire town and concentrates in the rough wooden fenced area that is set aside for Naadam competition.

When Renchinlhumbe’s wrestlers face off against each other, or when thirty or forty horses with their young, mostly saddleless riders come galloping in from 30 kilometers in the grassland beyond the town, the place seems to move back in time, even as it becomes electrified with the energy of the here and now.

For all of its ancient tradition and timeless ritual, I am constantly reminded that this is a contemporary event, not some medieval reenactment. The scene may look ancient, but here and there I see riders pulling cell phones from their brightly sashed robes to chat with friends.

One of the things that make Naadam here different from the one in Ulaan Bataar is that the vast majority of spectators are also participants, or related to them. Most are still nomadic herders who have taken a few days from their relentless schedule of animal care to see old friends, cheer for family member, or test their skills in the fierce but friendly competition of the wrestling ring.

Both men and women dress in traditional dells, and move astride festively decorated horses with the easy grace of people who have been riding horses since before they could walk. Most live within a few hours ride from here. They will spend a night or two in Renchinlhumbe, then return to their herding life in the country.

In a newly mobile Mongolia, there are some who are from outside of the valley as well. Quite a few have driven from Moron, the aimag capital, 140 kilometers to the south. You can spot them because they are the ones dressed in Ralph Lauren, Ives Saint Laurent, and Ferragamo fashions. Some of these sophisticated urbanites step through piles of yak dung in fishnet stockings and high heels.

I love these contrasts, for they are what makes Naadam a living part of Mongolian life. Here in the Darhad Basin, where once there were no tourists, these urbanites and sprinkling of foreign faces have joined mine. Fortunately, they - we - seem not to have affected the event, nor is that likely to happen any time soon.

Not only will time, distance, and difficulty of travel keep outsiders away, but Naadham in Renchinlhumbe, as in so many remote parts of Mongolia, is all about the people who live here. Others are welcome, but of little consequence to the participants unless, as in my case, they bring something relevant to daily life. The photographs I have brought back to Renchinlhumbe after so many years, have changed this Naadam for many (see previous blog about “meeting friends”).

As a group of horses thunder past me in a cloud of pulverized dust, their riders whooping with the sort of enthusiasm no orchestrated event could ever achieve, I realize that I am experiencing something that comes from deep within Mongolia’s soul.

Cell phones, satellite TV, climate change and a whole range of other influences may be affecting Mongolian life, but these changes have not yet changed the people’s close connection to the land and the traditions that they have developed over the centuries. It is nice to think that the records I made here of a Naadam almost two decades ago, have only enriched the meaning of the event for its participants.

Their warm welcome and thanks have certainly enriched the experience for me.