so you secured your Naadam tickets (or even if you didn’t — spoiler [and surprise!], the only thing you need a ticket for is the wrestling matches — read on) but don’t know what to expect? well, i did all the discovery for you (i hope). learn from the error of my ways.
oh, a brief mention, before i forget, of infomongolia.com — there are schedules for all cultural and sporting Naadam events there, but they’re only published a couple days beforehand.
first day of Naadam, July 11
if you can, get a ticket to the opening ceremony on the first day. i wish i had one! note that these are harder to come by, but if you can’t go, it’s broadcast live on TV (as are the rest of the games). (as an aside, the style of dancing you see in the video below is the biyelgee; if you’re interested in it, watch this great UNESCO video [which has bad sound, but worth it].)
held on the first night of Naadam (july 11), it’s a FREE(!) extravaganza that takes place in Sükhbaatar Square. all online sources — and even the official program i got — said it was to start at 8 PM (and end at 10), but it didn’t start until a little after 9 (and ended past 11). (i did overhear a guard tell someone else it was scheduled for 9.) i don’t want to make predictions about next year, but i suppose if you want to get a good spot, stick to the published time.
this year (again, don’t want to speculate about what happens every year, since i don’t know), they turned the square into a big ol’ dance party. DJs spun techno and trance tunes, sometimes accompanied by live bands — a trumpet and trombone duet, a trio of shanzes (thanks Wikipedia), and a string quartet. it ended with a pretty cool projection and laser (ha yes, laser) show onto Government Palace, as well as lots of fireworks. if you don’t want to stay up (or get squished in a crowd), you might be able to see some acts practicing before sunset:
sidebar: two tips for UB
- cross the street in two parts — you [prolly] won’t get run over. this applies whether you are jaywalking or at a zebra-striped pedestrian crossing, where it’s unlikely cars will stop for you. wait until traffic clears (err, clears enough) on the side closest to you and jog to the center of the street, wait there until traffic going the other way clears and jog to the sidewalk to complete your crossing. everybody does it, even on (especially on) busy Peace Ave.
- the city has free wifi in high-traffic areas thanks to a set of KEWIKO FREE hotspots, and there’s also a dedicated one at Sükhbaatar Square that has “SB” in its name. if you’ve hustled your bustle often enough up and down Peace Avenue like i have, you’ll notice they’re about every other block in the main drag. once you connect to the hotspot, you’ll see a login screen in Mongolian — there’s a single button. just click that and you’re connected. no fuss, no muss. you’ll also see KEWIKO WIFI hotspots, but i think you have to buy a pass in a store to use them. they are, however, more prevalent (including at the National Stadium) and reliable, from what i can tell. if you don’t need to be connected all the time, you might think about foregoing your local SIM and just using this service, free or paid.
second day of Naadam, July 12
the National Stadium is totally walkable, about 20 minutes or so from Sükhbaatar Square. just go straight down the main road (Chinggis Khan Avenue, the one with the KFC, same road you go down to get to Zaisan) leading from the southwest corner of Sükhbaatar over Peace Bridge, and you’ll see the stadium to your left (if not the tons of people heading into it). there is also a bus stop in front of the stadium, so you could take public transit, but if you’re up for the walk, no point in bothering with the bus system.
ignore what Google says if it tells you to go all the way around and not use Peace Bridge. you most definitely can.
there is a morning ticket and an afternoon ticket; you can’t go in the morning with an afternoon ticket and vice versa. likely you will get both if you got Naadam tickets at all, although see my recommendation below for thoughts on this. on the ticket is a section number (секц). find the gate on the outside of the stadium that has the same number, and enter there. note that the morning ticket says 9:00. that’s when doors open. no point in getting there earlier.
only part of the stadium has covered seating — sections 1 through 5 and 14 through 18. i don’t think you can, as a visitor at least, pick what section you get, but if you’re in a not-covered section, bring an umbrella if it’s sunny. it will be HOT.
note that other than the opening ceremonies, it’s pretty much wrestling that takes places in this stadium. the entire day is one round after another. i don’t know how the brackets work, but i overheard from two guides that the entire competition starts out with 512 wrestlers, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of rounds. a lot of repetitious rounds (i’m spoiling my recommendation!).
by the way, you are allowed to leave the stadium and reenter as long as you have your ticket with you. don’t lose it!
i was not sure how to get to the archery part, or if that was even available to us as stadium ticket holders since it was clear once i got there that it was just wrestling at that particular venue. (i wasn’t the only one confused; i talked to a couple who also didn’t know how the archery worked.) luckily a security guard spoke English and he told me it was quite close AND FREE. tuns out you take the path that leads away from gate 5 at the stadium and in no time (really, like 20 seconds) you’re at the archery field. you can either stand alongside it or go into the covered bleachers. again, FREE. you don’t need a ticket to access the Naadam grounds or this event, even the final round. (again, schedules are online at that infomongolia site, or in the programs handed out when you go to the wrestling arena.)
oh, and if you don’t think Naadam is a big deal, consider this: it’s on pretty much every TV everywhere, and this mob of press descended on the female archery winner:
there is no shortage of food — booths take up almost every square foot of available land around the stadium. the hard part is picking a place, since it seems like so many of them serve the same thing. one of the most popular items is this:
i asked the lady at the kiosk where i sat down what this was. her reply? “Mongolian food.” heh. well, super cheap and available everywhere, it’s deep fried dough with a layer of meat inside. some people put ketchup on top. i paid 3500₮ ($2.41) for two and a coke, and i have a feeling the coke was the more expensive of the items. ah, thanks to wikipedia, i can report that this is a khuushuur. the ones i got were fresh from the fryer, so very HOT. not to be eaten when you’re in a rush!
oh, a good time to mention the facilities. there are a couple of restrooms, 200₮ (14 cents, which seems to be the going rate; same as the one at Sükhbaatar Square, but these are slightly less gnarly). in either case, you will want to practice your hovering skills if you’re a lady or need to go number 2, and BYO TP.
i was afraid i’d miss something so i got there at around 8:45 — but the stadium gates weren’t even open yet. throughout the first round of wrestling, the stadium was less than 10% occupied. it didn’t get full until the afternoon rounds. however, wrestling is wrestling, and unless you really like it, after my experiences today, i suggest something like this for day 2 of Naadam, assuming next year’s schedule is similar:
arrive at the stadium around 12 or 12:30 and go directly to archery. watch from the side for a bit, then head into the stands. it’s pretty crowded in there so grab any open seat or watch like a hawk for one to open up.
watch archery until it’s complete (the final round is pretty cool with all the judges on the far end of the field), then go to the stadium for the afternoon session of wrestling, staying for a round or two (or more, depending on how you like it), maybe grabbing a khuushuur between venues if you’re hungry.
this way, you’ll only need one ticket, the afternoon one. you might be able to bargain a slightly lower price than if you were to get both, although the afternoon ticket is pricier than the morning one, so it likely won’t be that big of a deal. again, if you really like wrestling, stay the entire afternoon session and you can watch some award ceremonies too, i think. (i left a little after 3, before the first round of the afternoon session was over.) likewise, if you really like archery, get there earlier for more of that.
alternately, you could also see wrestling in the morning when it’s cooler and finish off with archery, but from what i saw today, you get a better feel for how wrestling works with a larger, more energized crowd. if you don’t have tickets at all, it’s worth stopping by just for the archery and to get a feel of what Naadam is like.
also, maybe it’s just me, but i actually got really tired watching the wrestling. maybe it was out of boredom, but i think a lot of it has to do with (and this may be terrible) the “new age music” they play in the background. to be certain, it’s most definitely not new age music, but i heard the original Mongolian song sampled in this Enigma song several times, and Enigma (and to some extent “world music” as a whole) = relaxation music for me. so even without the beats and production, this had a lullaby effect on me.
to wrap up, there’s no better time to visit Ulaanbaatar than Naadam, when there’s so much going on. i’ve also heard reports that Naadam festivals that take place out in the countryside are amazing as well. no matter how you Naadam, i wish you a happy one!
sidebar: those numbers you’ll see what appear to be random numbers on Naadam billboards and on your ticket, one in the two-thousands, one in the high hundreds, and one in the nineties (or maybe low hundreds depending on what year this is. they indicate anniversaries that Naadam is commemorating.