Mongolia’s annual Naadam Festival is a centuries-old tradition. “The three manly sports” that Genghis Khan considered essential for any Mongol warrior—wrestling, archery, and horse racing—are showcased at the country’s largest celebration.
Yet, Naadam is not as it once was. The modern spectacle feels increasingly like a performance for tourists and foreign dignitaries. Today many locals retreat to the country’s vast rural plains to watch the events on television with their families, while thousands of international tourists flock to Mongolia for the 3-day festival each July. And while many come to experience its unique cultural showcase, some argue that the sports themselves—the historic crux of the events—have become secondary to the performances. More and more, bigger efforts are put towards the grand opening ceremonies and creating a carnival-like atmosphere.
Travelers keen to experience a truly authentic Naadam Festival will not be disappointed, however. They simply need to know where to look. In the weeks leading up to the headline event in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, several of the smaller surrounding provinces host what locals refer to as “Mini Naadam.” In the absence of bright stadium lights, admission prices and national media coverage, these grassroots events truly capture the Mongol spirit. They are hard to find, but impossible to forget. Often tucked between towering mountains and rolling expanses of green hillsides, they can easily missed. But when you find one—well, you’ll know.