By Patricia Senge
A festival celebrating a variety of a country’s traditions is considered rather rare in European countries. However, for the three million inhabitants of Mongolia, “Naadam”, the lively Mongolian traditional festival, is a customary part of the mid-summer and is seen as one of the most interesting national holidays that has been celebrated for centuries.
This festival brings around big crowds in Mongolia, where throughout three days locals compete in three different games held around the country: Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. Aside from the sporting events, parades take place.
This year, the Mongolian Youth Federation together with ASEF (Asia Europe Foundation) were participating in the Ceremony to honor the State Banner of Mongolia at Central Stadium. Most of the participants did not know what to expect during the parade, so a rehearsal was organized two days before the event.
When we arrived at the stadium, we were surprised and excited about the colorful traditional clothes, camels, horses and the traditional music playing during the rehearsals. While the Mongolians knew what to do during the parade, we stood around, looking at each other rather cluelessly, not knowing what was going to happen.They instructed us to “Build four rows with an arm length to the person in front of you.” At first the excitement about the magnitude of the stadium and the need to capture it on pictures for Snapchat and other platforms was comparably bigger than the concentration to march just as accurate as the groups before and after us did. After an hour of intensive practicing, we finally managed to march around the track, waving our national flags. However, during the rehearsal the thousands of seats were empty and we did not expect the atmosphere to be as magnificent once the seats were filled and the ceremony started.
It was July 11 when the participants of the 7th Model ASEM were standing in front of the filled arena. Thousands of people in colorful traditional clothes, proudly raising their Mongolian flags were gathered both inside and outside the stadium. The international group of young participants raised each their own national one to demonstrate the diversity of the group. At the same time, they were all wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan “ASEF Young Leaders”, to portray the unity and cohesion among the youth of the 51 ASEM countries.
After waiting for a while, the group finally started moving and entered the immense stadium. Thousands of people were cheering, clapping and laughing. ASEF’s young leaders were waving back with their national flags blowing in the wind. It was an unbelievable feeling, which even increased as the president of Mongolia, who was watching the entire parade from the side, waved back at the group. Mongolian traditional dances were performed in the middle of the field that is commonly used to play football.
What seemed to be a chaotic, cheerful and an unsolved puzzle with thousands of people forming an unmanageable crowd, was actually well organized as each participant knew exactly where to go and what to do next. When the parade stopped and turned to the crowd to wave to the audience, rockets were shot in the air and skydivers with Mongolian flags were landing in the middle of the field. Oscar Boije, the project executive of the education department of the Asia Europe foundation, showed his gratitude towards the Mongolian partners: “The fact that ASEF and the participants of the 7th Model ASEM were invited to participate in the Opening Ceremony of the festival was indeed a grand gesture from our Mongolian partners. Our participants were very touched by the enthusiasm of the audience and I am sure that this was an experience, which none of us will relive or forget.”
Just after the march of the group, Wrestlers entered the field. One of the biggest and longest wrestling competitions was about to start and rumor has it that the winner of the competition will not only be wealthy and highly regarded, but receive a seat and mandate in the Mongolian parliament as well. The wrestling competition went on for three days until the winner was announced. Simultaneously, one of the longest horse races in the world took place on July 12. The race was a cross-country event with races between 15 to 20 kilometers. It was a drive of about one hour out of Ulaanbaatar to reach the countryside, where thousands of Mongolian traditional tents called the Yurts were set up. Around half the population of Ulaanbaatar came to see the young jockeys, usually about 5 to 13 years, racing their horses. Traditional Mongolian food was sold in most of the Yurts, while others showcased the culture of Mongolia with games, music and art. The audience was sitting next to the finish line, waiting for the horses to arrive, while others, were even standing just behind it. In my personal opinion, it was very dangerous as the horses were wild and still in a gallop when running through the masses of people. People were beside themselves with joy, cheering on the horses and clapping their rumps. Without meaning to, we discovered ourselves standing in the way, not knowing whether to go right or left as horses were passing us from both sides.
“Naadam” is an interesting and beautiful festival that portrays the traditions of Mongolia. I firmly believe that celebrating the heritage and traditions strengthens the Mongolian community and is an interesting and exciting event a traveler can experience when visiting the country. Throughout the three days, the small population of the huge country between China and Russia showed the Model ASEM participants how beautiful and fascinating Mongolia can be.