A Travellerspoint blog

The Festivals of Mongolia

While living in Mongolia, I rapidly discovered that Mongolians love to celebrate and there was no better way to join in the revelry than to attend one of the major festivals held during the year. Each festival gave me a taste of Mongolia’s unique culture and heritage, and the chance to explore a land of rolling steppe, snow-capped mountains, pine forests, bottomless lakes, and arid desert at different times of the year. Once Covid-19 borders are reopened, and you are going to visit Mongolia, try and time your visit to any of these festivals.

Nadaam Festival – Summer

Nadaam opening ceremony

Nadaam opening ceremony



The summer Nadaam Festival or Eriin Gurvan Naadam, is a national holiday celebrated each year exhibiting the traditional “three manly sports” of wrestling, archery and horse riding. It is a high energy, colourful event held in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and in provinces and small towns throughout the country.

The festival can be traced back in history to the quriltai, the great clan meetings that were the social event of Mongolians in medieval times when matters of leadership, pasturage, war and peace, and who had the fastest horse, were settled.

Nadaam is celebrated every year for three days, commencing on the 11th of July which is Mongolia’s National Day.

The Nadaam festival celebration involves much pomp and ceremony. The festivities are opened by a guard of honour evoking images of Chinggis Khan’s cavalry crossing the steppes. The guards enter the Nadaam Stadium on light coloured horses, wearing red and blue uniforms carrying the State Nine White Banners, the traditional horse hair banner carried by Chinggis Khan to symbolize peace.

The President’s official opening speech and tributes are followed by a spirited parade of musicians, motorcyclists, actors in traditional clothes, equestrian displays and dancing.

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After the opening ceremony, the three manly sports begin.

Wrestling is a national obsession in Mongolia. The wrestling competition starts with men of varying size and muscle entering the stadium grounds wearing blue or red silk shorts, a red, long sleeved vest tied with a wee string, leather boots and traditional hats. Before a tousle, the contestants spread out their arms and perform a dance that imitates the flight of an eagle. The men battle - the loser being the wrestler who falls first. The winner of each bout again performs the eagle dance and the competition continues until the last man is left standing.

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Archery features both men and women, all dressed in their finest silk brocade dels, the traditional costume which looks like a bath robe tied with a colourful waistband. A wall of targets is arranged, 75 metres away for men and 60 metres for women. Using their best strength, concentration and skill, the winner is the person who hits the most targets.

Given the reverence Mongolians have for horses, horse racing is a highlight of Nadaam and takes advantage of the wide open space of the steppe. Anywhere from 300-500 horses take part in the races which cover a distance between 15 and 30 kilometres. The short, squat, muscular horses gallop over the green grass of the open plains, jumping over any natural barriers. The jockeys are usually boys between the ages of six to 12, their legs gripping the sides of the horses, sometimes with no saddle.

Horse race during Nadaam

Horse race during Nadaam

Cultural performances featuring the morin khur (the horse head fiddle) and throat singing (khoomi), national folk and dance ensembles, ankle bone shooting competitions, historical dramas and art exhibitions also feature during the Nadaam holiday season. Lashings of airag, fermented mare’s milk, a favourite beverage of the Mongolians, are consumed by participants and observers alike.

Altai Golden Eagle Festival – Fall

Eagle hunters

Eagle hunters

The Altai Golden Eagle Festival is held during the first weekend of October in the remote, western province of Bayan-Ölgii about 1,200 km west of Ulaanbaatar. This province is the home of the Kazakh eagle hunters and about 70-80 eagle hunters participate in the event.

The eagle hunters, known as bürkitshi, gather together to celebrate their hunting heritage and to showcase the co-ordination, speed and strength of their highly trained, and greatly prized golden eagles.

The contestants parade around in their hunting regalia of fur pelts and fox fur hats sitting atop groomed horses, both man and beast adorned with traditional Kazakh embroidery. The hunters balance the eagle, some with a wingspan reaching over two metres and weighing up to 5 kg, on their arm which is clad in a very thick leather glove. To allow a rider to carry an eagle, a special wooden stand (a baldak) is fitted onto the saddle to support the rider’s arm.

Kazak eagle hunter

Kazak eagle hunter

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The entrants compete for categories such as the best looking eagle and owner, and picking up a red rag off the ground while the horse gallops at great speed.

The competition determining the best eagle at hunting prey entails the eagle and its handler sitting atop a 200m rocky precipice overlooking a vast, treeless land surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Altai Mountains. The hood is carefully taken off the head of the eagle and its owner calls from the open ground below. The eagle is released, flying fast and low following the slope of the crag and can reach a speed of up to 150 mph when diving for its prey, in this case a rabbit skin dragged behind a specially trained horse.

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Eagle hunters are predominately men, but this tradition was challenged by a 13 year old eagle huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv who won the competition in 2014.

Lake Khovsgol Ice Festival – Winter

Sled race on Lake Khovsgol

Sled race on Lake Khovsgol

The Lake Khovsgol Ice Festival, held in March each year, is an opportunity to experience the unforgiving but stunning winter scenery of Mongolia. Although a tourism event, it is also a social occasion for the families of the local nomadic herdsmen and Tsaagan reindeer people to catch up, barter and celebrate the onset of spring.

Lake Khovsgol is one of the most ancient and deepest lakes in the world. It is located about 600 miles to the northwest of Ulaanbaatar and is the largest body of freshwater in Mongolia. At 130 km long and up to 40 km wide, it is surrounded by the larch and pine covered Sayan Mountains. People dive in the lake in the summer, but no one has yet to reach its maximum depth of 262 m.

The festival opens with speeches and traditional music. The Mongolians wear fox fur hats and their finest sheep lined dels tied with bright silk sashes. The tourists are kipped to the hilt in their warmest down jackets, and woolen hats and gloves.

Although the ice on Lake Khovsgol is so clear that you can see the stones on the bottom of the lake in the shallow depths, looks are deceiving. The ice is up to five metres deep making it strong enough to support people, horses, cars and trucks.

Artisans make use of this feature by creating elaborate ice structures such as ice slides, sheep, bulls and fish from blocks of ice cut out of the lake using a chainsaw.

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A horse race is held in the morning, the horses with their young riders galloping across the frozen ground with ease. Later, horses dressed up in their finest wood and leather harnesses race against each other as they pull a traditional wood sled across the lake, the horses coping with the slippery ice by having small spikes driven into their hooves.

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Pop up shops with local crafts including fox fur hats, can be found along the edge of the lake. Visitors are also entertained by dog sledding, a skating competition and men wrestling on ice.

At the end of the day, a shaman ceremony is held in front of a large bonfire with everyone gathered around for the warmth. Conveniently, small cups made from ice, just large enough for a shot of vodka, magically appear to warm the cockles of the heart.

Festival of the Ten Thousand Camels – Winter

A line up of camels

A line up of camels

The Festival of the Ten Thousand Camels is the largest camel race held in Mongolia drawing Mongolians and overseas visitors alike to the southern Gobi Desert. The two day festival is held in March in the outskirts of the township of Dalanzadgad, some 550 km to the south of Ulaanbaatar.

The Gobi Desert, covering a third of Mongolia, is a stony, scrubby land of extremes. The temperatures can reach a searing high of 40oC in the summer and dip to a freezing -40 oC in the winter. The domestic two-humped Bactrian camel is well adapted to the punishing climate of the Gobi. The camel festival celebrates the indispensable role of the Bactrian camel to the lives of the Gobi nomads and also brings awareness to the country’s declining population of this animal.

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The festival features camel races, a camel polo competition and a “beauty” parade for the selection of the best looking camel. The shaggy haired, cud chewing camels plod along in a line being judged on their flowing beard of hair at their throat and neck and other physical features known only to the judges.

Beauty converts to speed and endurance during the camel races where the camels lumber 15 km across the flat, windswept landscape of the Gobi, sometimes reaching a speed of 40 km per hour when at a gallop.

Camel race

Camel race

A camel rodeo and polo competition, performances of traditional Mongolian music and dance, a costume competition and tasting of camel milk entertain the crowds. One amusing event is watching a displeased and highly peeved camel being lassoed by a team of four feisty women in their full length dels. The long thick fur under the camel’s throat and neck is sheared and the hair is then twined into a camel hair rope while the clock is ticking.

Lassoed camel - Camel Festival

Lassoed camel - Camel Festival

Posted by IvaS 08:22 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

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