Trans Siberian Railway: Naadam and other goings-on in Ulaanbaatar

After our 10 day excursion in Central Mongolia we were back in Ulaanbaatar for the remainder of our time in Mongolia.

I had spent some time in Ulaanbaatar back in 2011 on a study abroad but its changed significantly since I was last there. It was really interesting to be back in Ulaanbaatar and see first-hand how much has changed since 2011. For one thing, me and my friend kept calling the square downtown, Sukhbaatar Square. And for DAYS, we were confused why no one knew what we were talking about. Some of our conversations would go a little like this, “Hey. Let’s meet at Sukhbaatar Square?” “Uhh… You mean the square with the Chinggis Khan statue?” “Yeah… Sukhbaatar Square.” “Uh… I don’t know what that is but if it’s the one with the Chinggis Khan Statue, I know which square you’re talking about.” Turns out the name of the square was changed in 2013 to Chinggis Square. So all the tourists that we encountered didn’t know the square by the old name hence the constant confusion. Second of all, the city is now huge and sprawling. There are tons of new shiny apartment buildings and developments on the outskirts of town. There are also seemed to be a lot more international food options than when we were there last. There were less people wearing traditional Mongolian dels. And way more hostels and tourism industry services than the last time we were there. When I was there in 2011 there were I think 2 existing hostels. Now they’re a ton supplying the demand of incoming foreign tourists.

So my friend and I wanted to be in Ulaanbaatar to experience what Naadam, Mongolia’s National Festival, would be like. Naadam is a traditional festival that consists of competitions in wrestling, archery, horse racing, and this ankle bone game (not sure the proper name of this game).

Naadam happens once every year and the main celebration occurs in Ulaanbaatar but there are local celebrations that take place in towns all over Mongolia around the official dates of Naadam. In 2015, Naadam fell on July 11-13.

My friend and I went to a local Naadam celebration in Karakorum which I mentioned in this past post. What we gathered was that it was basically the Mongolian equivalent to a state fair but better. There were lots of fried food, games, booths, and most importantly, competitions of archery, wrestling, horse racing and ankle bone competition.

The celebration in Ulaanbaatar took place over several days compared to the celebration in Karakorum which only lasted for about a day. The celebration in karakorum was also much more intimate where the “stadium” was just some bleachers and chairs set up around a dirt area. All the events were also within walking distance of each other while in Ulaanbaatar, the horse racing occurs just outside of the city. The week of Naadam, in Ulaanbaatar, there are events going on at Chinggis Square every evening including: music performances, dance performances, and fireworks.

On July 11, Naadam kicked off with an opening ceremony. I had heard that you should get tickets in advance but we got ours fairly last minute through our tour contact whom we booked our 10-day Central Mongolian trip with. I also talked to other foreigners who basically bought their tickets off random people in the street the day or two before Naadam and they ended up being legitimate tickets. Prices range from around $15-$30-ish if I’m remembering correctly. The problem with buying tickets last minute though, was you can’t really choose where you’ll be sitting. My friend and I ended up getting seats in chairs that were on these little raised platforms on the arena ground which meant that we had no sun cover. It was HOT in Ulaanbaatar at this time so sitting out in the sun for several hours was a bit miserable. These seats were not set up like stadium seating either so we were several rows behind other people which made it difficult to see. The opening ceremony consisted of several performances that highlighted Mongolian culture and history. After the opening ceremony, the competitions began. Wrestling was inside the arena and archery and the ankle bone game was on grounds outside of the arena.

All the competitions are pretty casual on day 1 because they’re doing elimination rounds. For example, for wrestling, you’ll see several groups of people wrestling with one referee to each group announcing winners. So you’re just watching a ton of people wrestling at once and there’s not really anyone being highlighted. You can just go from competition to competition as you like. Outside of the arena there were a ton of booths set up with games, things being sold, and food. We ate khuushuur (a typical naadam food), and browsed the booths for souvenirs. Events went on all day. My friend and I were super beat from the heat and sun though so we ended up going back to our hostel early and rested until the concert at Chinggis Square in the evening.

July 12. Horse racing competitions. Most of the horse racing competitions occurred on this day. You’ll need to arrange for someone to take you out to where the horse races are. Most hostels have some sort of arrangement that you can book. Be warned that you’ll have to wake up pretty early to watch the horse races. My friend and I opted to not do this since we saw horse races in Karakorum and felt pretty fulfilled with what we saw. I hear that the races in Ulaanbaatar are quite crowded so you’ll have to be careful with pickpockets and claim your space if you want a space next to the finish line. In any case, there are events going on in Ulaanbaatar if you decide to not go to the horse races. The closing ceremony occurs either on this day or the 13th which doesn’t require tickets. I didn’t go to the closing ceremony but I’ve heard it’s pretty anticlimactic since it’s mostly just announcing the winners of the competitions.

All in all, I preferred the Karakorum Naadam celebration over the Ulaanbaatar one. I enjoyed the opening ceremony performance, besides being hot and sweaty the whole time, but there were just so many people. I’m not one for crowds so I wasn’t so hyped to stand in crowded areas to watch events. Events are also broadcasted on television if you don’t want to or can’t be at all the competitions. Either way, Naadam was pretty amazing to see a piece of Mongolian culture up front. It’s Mongolia’s biggest festival so lots of local Mongolians are excited to be there. Many people dress up and bring their families to enjoy the festivities.

After Naadam, my friend and I still had several days in Ulaanbaatar. We were pretty tired from our 10 day trip and Naadam so we spent a lot of our time relaxing in Ulaanbaatar. After Naadam, the city’s foreign tourists mostly empty out which was pretty nice. My friend and I spent our time in cafes, hiking, and shopping.

If you want to shop, there are plenty of souvenir stores in Ulaanbaatar including: Mary and Martha (which sells fair trade goods), the 5th floor of the State Department Store, and Tsagaan Alt Wool Shop. If you have extra time, definitely check out the black market (Naran Tuul market). You can basically anything from tires, to horse saddles, to wool socks here. It’s an outdoor/indoor market. Even if you’re not looking for anything in particular to buy, it’s fun to walk around.

The State Department Store is probably the best thing in Ulaanbaatar. Everything you need is inside this store. Need groceries? Go here. Souvenirs? 5th floor please. Want a cashmere sweater? They have those here too. Need a SIM card for your phone? Top floor has some options. I’m not kidding. They have everything here.

As far as general tips go. Be super careful with your things and walking around at night. Ulaanbaatar is becoming increasingly safer but people get pick-pocketed frequently. We even witnessed a girl getting her passport stolen so watch out for your things especially in crowds. I was also told to be careful walking around at night. Especially if you’re an Asian woman, particularly a Mongolian-looking woman, with a white man. There’s some animosity between interracial couples so there have been some cases of men getting harassed by Mongolian men. I felt safe in Mongolia but there was one night when I was walking around with a male friend who’s white and we definitely got a lot of stares and double-takes which made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

If you need a sim card while in Mongolia, I believe they’re less than $20 which includes 4G data. I just needed a copy of my passport and was able to get a sim card from Unitel on the top floor of the State Department Store.

If you’re interested in hiking, there’s an accessible trail in Ulaanbaatar that is either a taxi cab ride away or a bus ride away. It’s a pretty easy hike and gives you a nice view of the city at the top. I’m not sure exactly where we went when we went hiking since we tagged along with some people so this isn’t very helpful but it’s city bus accessible and there’s a little resort-y type area with permanent gers next to the beginning trail. It’s well known by locals so I would ask around and someone should be able to point you in the right direction.

As for food. If you want to eat like a Mongolian, expect lots of mutton. Mongolian fare is the cheapest but not the tastiest in my opinion. I’m not a fan of mutton so eating Mongolian food is tough for me. If you’re in Ulaanbaatar though there are plenty of international food options. My friend and I really liked this Korean and Chinese restaurant near the State Department Store. If you’re looking at the front of the State Department Store, the Chinese and Korean restaurant are on the store directly right of the State Department Store.

For accommodations, my friend and I stayed at UB Guesthouse. The staff was friendly and helpful and they made sure people were quiet at night time which is important if you’re sleeping in a dorm room full of people. It’s also in a good location.

Mongolia is amazing so you should definitely make a trip there. I’ve been there twice now and would love to go back. While I don’t like the food much, the views and natural beauty make up for it. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve been.



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