Public Holidays & Special Events
The following public holidays are celebrated in Mongolia, but not necessarily with a day off work: 1 January, New Year’s Day (Shin Jil); 13 January, the adoption of the 1992 constitution (normally not a day off); Lunar New Year (Tsagaan Sar), a three-day holiday in January/February; 1 June, Mother & Children’s Day; 8 March, Women’s Day (not normally a day off); 11 to 13 July, National Day, mainly celebrated as the Naadam Festival; and 26 November, Mongolian Republic Day (not normally a day off).
Naadam Festival
The Naadam Festival showcases Mongolia’s finest in the three ‘manly sports’ of horse racing, archery and wrestling (though females participate in the first two). The festival is the biggest event of the year for foreigners and locals alike, and is held all over the country, normally between 11 and 13 July (the anniversary of the 1921 Mongolian Revolution).
In country centers close to Ulaanbaatar, Naadam festivals may be held the week before, or the week after, the major festival in Ulaanbaatar, because some people like to attend both the local and national celebrations. The quality and number of sports and activities at Naadam festivals in the countryside will be lower than in Ulaanbaatar, but at a country Naadam, you are more likely to get better seats, witness genuine (non-touristy) festivals, and, possibly, make up the numbers of a wrestling tournament!
On or about 9 August, another Naadam festival called a Small (Baga) Naadam is held.
Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar
The highlight of the tourist season and the main draw card on most tour programmes is the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, known as the eriyn gurvan naadam, after the three ‘manly’ sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing.
Wrestling, archery and horse racing are held during the first and second days. Very little happens on the third day, so get drunk the day before and use it to recover from a hangover like everyone else. During the three days, few restaurants and shops are open, and virtually no one works. Accommodation can be scarce, and prices often higher than normal.
Day one starts at about 9 am with a fantastic, colourful ceremony outside the State Parliament House at Sukhbaatar Square. Hundreds of soldiers in bright uniforms play stirring warlike music on brass instruments, and Mongolians dressed in Chinggis-style warrior outfits parade around the Square, then circle Parliament House before marching to the stadium.
The opening ceremony, which starts at about 11 am at the Naadam Stadium, includes a show of Mongolia’s military might, as well as impressive marches of monks and athletes, and plenty of music. The closing ceremony, with more marches and dancing, is held at about 7 pm on day two. (In 1996, the closing ceremony was cancelled because the final round of the wrestling took over four hours to finish!)
The first round of wrestling, which starts at about noon on day one in the main stadium, is the more interesting and photogenic. Later rounds can get boring – most Mongolians don’t bother returning to the stadium until the final rounds on the second day. If the wrestling gets too much, you can start whistling like the locals do, walk around the outside of the stadium and watch the Mongolians (which is far more interesting than a lot of what is happening in the stadium), and watch the changing of the guards.
Archery is held in an open stadium next to the main stadium. The judges, who raise their arms and utter a traditional cry to indicate the quality of the shot, are often more entertaining than the archery itself. But watch out for stray arrows!
The horse racing can attract well over 1000 horses (so watch your step, because this is a lot of dung!). (During the festival, you may see dozens of horses being herded down the main streets of Ulaanbaatar, as it they were on the steppes.) The horse racing is held at the village of Yarmag, about 10km along the main road to the airport – it is very easy to spot. The atmosphere is electric, and there is always plenty to watch. You can even pitch your tent at the ‘tent city’ at Yarmag, but don’t expect any privacy whatsoever, and watch out for drunks.
The best and busiest time to watch the horse racing is the final race, late on the second day, but you will be hard-pressed to see what is going on or take any good photos because of the crowds. Get there really early for the final, go to other races on both days, or walk up a few hundred metres along the track where the crowds thin out.
Tickets to the stadium and to the archery and horse racing are free, but foreigners pay US$12 for the opening ceremony and US$8 for the closing ceremony. A ticket does not usually give you a seat number, so get there in plenty of time for a good position, especially for the closing ceremony, when good seats may have been taken during the afternoon.
You can find plenty of warm drinks and khuushuur (meat pancakes), as well as ice cream, bread and some of the best fruits you will ever see, around the outside of the stadium. Take an umbrella or hat, because most seats are not under cover, and it will either rain or be hot.
Tsagaan Sar
Mongolians have been celebrating Tsagaan Sar for thousands of years, although it may have been held during the summer (possibly in August) when Chinggis was roaming the steppes. Now held over three days in January or February, Tsagaan Sar celebrates the end of winter and the start of spring, with plenty of eating and drinking vodka and airag (which has been frozen through the winter).
During the first day, the fattest sheep is killed, and hundreds and hundreds of steamed meat dumplings called buuz are made. The tail, which is the most prized part of the sheep, is kept until the end of the celebrations. The days are filled with traditional songs, greetings called zolgokh , where younger people give their respect to the older generations (the younger person gently places his or her forearms under those of the elder), and visits to other gers and, these days, to monasteries.
Ovoo Worship Festival
The ovoo is a shaman shrine to ensure auspicious riding across the vast distances of Mongolia. Traditionally, the ovoos are places for libations, ritual offerings of airag and vodka, accompanied by songs telling of the beauty and power of the land.
An Ovoo Worship Festival is mostly a small-scale, unofficial event held in rural areas. Monks say prayers, people give offerings, and afterwards, there is feasting and some traditional sports like horse racing. The rituals are held to celebrate the end of winter and pray for good rainfall, plentiful grass for the livestock, and abundant fish and animals for hunting.
The festival, once prohibited and denounced by the communists as feudal, has been revived since the democracy movement of 1990.