Lonely Planet Mongolia, 8th edition

HORSE RACING is the centrepiece of the annual Naadam festival held each year in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and largest city (pop.1.4 million) during the country’s national days, 11 and 12 July. The races are dangerous, long-distance events, says the 8th edition of Lonely Planet Mongolia. “Jockeys—traditionally children between the ages of seven and 12 years—race their horses over open countryside… Distances range between 15km and 28 km… Riders and spectators rush to comb the sweat off the best horses…a song of empathy is also sung to the two-year-old horse that comes last.”

The other main events are wrestling (“no weight divisions”), archery and ankle-bone shooting. This last has participants “flicking a square-shaped projectile made of reindeer horn at a small target (about 3m away) made from ankle bones. It’s a sort of Mongolian version of darts.”

Beyond the competitions, naadam (the word means “games”) is about “eating a lot of khuushuur (mutton pancakes) and emptying a bottle or two of vodka… Around 9pm on 11 July, half of Ulaanbaartar piles into Sükhbaatar Sq for the biggest party of the year. Light shows, fireworks, music and family fun.”

Naadams are held throughout Mongolia. “The most traditional festivals happen in villages such as Khatagal in northern Mongolia,” says the guidebook, and are “ultra-photogenic—with all wrestlers, archers, jockeys and festival-goers set against stunning backdrops.” Khatagal, “a scattering of colourful roofs, dirt alleyways and wooden houses” also has “some of the best budget accommodation in Mongolia.”