The annual dates for the National Naadam Festival are always July 11 to July 15. While this information is hard to find online, the National Naadam Festival Opening Ceremony is always held on the morning of July 11, marking the beginning of Mongolia’s biggest holiday. The Opening Ceremony is held in Ulaanbaatar at the National Sports Stadium and notoriously, it’s been difficult for tourists to get tickets unless they book with a local tourist agency.
During this time, businesses will be closed and locals will be on holiday for around two weeks time. Ulaanbaatar becomes a quiet capital as the government goes on break and hard-working locals take advantage of having this time off work.
This is when they visit with their extended family in the countryside, watching wrestling tournaments, horse races, and archery competitions take place across the countryside. If you’re in Mongolia during these dates, it’s hard to miss the Nadaam festivities, they take place everywhere!
For anyone new to Naadam, the biggest and most watched festival is the National Naadam Festival, which is held in Ulaanbaatar at the National Sports Stadium. The opening ceremony is a ticketed event, with tickets being hard to come by. Keep reading for more information on this historical and cultural festival in Mongolia, as well as tips and things to know about attending.
Naadam dates back more than 800 years to the days of Chinggis Khaan, or Genghis Khan as we more commonly call him in the Western world.
It was during the Great Khaan’s days when he used these three manly sports, wrestling, horse racing, and archery to keep his warriors in shape between battles.
Mongolia celebrated the 800 year anniversary of Naadam in 2006 and in 2010 UNESCO listed the festival as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Modern Mongolia continues to recognize Naadam as the biggest and most important festival during the year. Locals attend celebrations with friends and family and remote corners of the country become campsites for families escaping city life to get back to their traditional roots.
Because Naadam is deeply connected to the Mongolian people and their ancestry, it’s considered one of the most important festivals of the year. It’s a time when they celebrate their ancestors, their traditions, and their unique heritage. There is no other festival in the world quite like Naadam. Just like there are no other people in the world quite like Mongolians.
Over the decades the festival has transformed from militaristic training in the days of Genghis Khan to a national holiday and honored celebration of independence.
I host a Naadam tour each year if you would like to experience this unique Mongolian festival for yourself →
Mongolian wrestlers aren’t just big, they’re a big deal. Considered heroes in the regions they’re from – especially if they take home victory – these gentlemen are the closest things to gods Mongolians have. In fact, it’s said that Chinggis Khan considered wrestling the most important way for his soldiers to keep in strong physical and mental shape.
Mongolian wrestling is easy to understand as there’s no time clock but touching the ground with anything other than a foot loses the match.
There are three ways to see Mongolian wrestling during Naadam. The first is during the Soum Naadam, where wrestlers in a soum (village) compete against each other to represent their soum at the regional level. This takes place in early July, before the national festival.
Once a wrestler wins their soum’s tournament, they then go on to represent their soum in the Aimag Naadam. This is where wrestlers compete to represent their aimag, or province.
The winner of this tournament will then head to the last and biggest tournament, the National Naadam in Ulaanbaatar, to represent their aimag and go for the title of champion, a prestigious title that follows the wrestler for life.
There are three different types of archery practiced in Mongolia, but for simplification purposes, we’ll only tell you about the most practiced type, Khalkha Kharvaa.
Over the course of two days, female competitors compete by aiming 20 arrows at a 60-meter target while male competitors compete by unleashing 40 arrows at a 75-meter target. The target is a small leather cylinder laid on the ground in rows of two and three, with two red cylinders marking the center of the target.
Each target counts as one point only when it has moved a certain distance from its original position and the competitor with the most points wins.
Ask anyone and they will all tell you that Naadam’s horse races are the most exciting events to see at the festival.
There is at least one race of stallions, called azarga, and at least three, but more typically five, races for geldings. The length of the race is dependent on the horse’s age, with a distance of 15 kilometers for horses two years of age and 30 kilometers for horses over six years, for example.
The first thing anyone watching these races will notice is that the jockeys are always children, boys or girls, aged 6 to 12 years old.
The second is that the sweat of the winning horse is considered a sign of happiness. Spectators will rush to the winning horse to get it on a cloth they will then place on their family altar.
While women are now found competing in archery and small girls can be found racing horses during the festival, women are still not allowed to compete in the wrestling tournament.
It’s a great honor for anyone to compete in any of the competitions, especially the National Naadam.
Tickets for the National Naadam Opening Ceremony are extremely hard to come by. There are limited seats available at the National Sports Stadium and more tourist companies than seats available try to secure spots for their guests.
The ticketing process has been changing in recent years but it’s still sadly a very confusing process. Tickets aren’t released until two weeks before the Opening Ceremony and while they’ve been trying to move the process online, it’s unclear if that’s been the case.
If you’re unable to get tickets to the Opening Ceremony, don’t worry, it’s broadcast on national television, which is how most locals watch it.
Only the Opening Ceremony requires tickets and Naadam is otherwise free to attend. In the instance you don’t secure Opening Ceremony tickets, don’t worry, you’ll still have the chance to see Naadam all across Mongolia.
During the opening ceremony, horses and their jockeys, archers, and wrestlers, are all introduced to the crowd, with dancers performing a biyelgee (traditional Mongolian dance) while singers lending their talents and patriotism to celebrate the occasion.
Much of the ceremony revolves around horseback riding, with the symbolic transfer of Chinggis Khan’s “nine horse tails” moving from Sukhbaatar Square to the stadium where the National Naadam is held.
Khuushuur, the traditional Mongolian food made of ground meat (typically mutton) that’s then wrapped in dough and deep fried can be found around the stadium, making for a great Mongolian street snack during the day.
Bowls of airag, or fermented mare’s milk and the national drink of Mongolia, will also be found everywhere you look during this time, it is a celebration, after all.
For travelers visiting Mongolia during the Naadam Festival, expect higher rates at hotels, packed tourist attractions, and inflated tour guide and driver rates. That’s because this is by far the busiest time for tourism in the country – not just with outside tourists, but with local tourists as well.
The entire country shuts down for a two week period, meaning banks are closed, the government is on a summer break, and most businesses won’t open their doors. This can even include museums, restaurants, and tourist attractions. During this time, expect life in Mongolia to be all Naadam, all the time.
Despite this, Naadam is still one of the best times to visit Mongolia for the cultural experience that Naadam provides as well as the agreeable weather – temperatures in Mongolia in July Average: 22°C – 32°C (or 71°F – 89°F).
Additionally, Mongolia is safe to visit during this time. As always, just be aware of your surroundings.
Author: Breanna Wilson
Hi! Sain uu! I’m Breanna, an American travel writer and adventurer living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for more than 5 years. I’ve written for and been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN, Forbes, and the New York Times, among others. Read more of my Mongolia travel articles here.
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