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Raucous crowds, the sound of hooves clattering – for local residents in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Naadam Festival is, by all means, the most magnificent event of the year. 

Ethnic Mongolians hold the five-day festival on the fourth day of the lunar month of June annually, paralleling the harvest season in the grassland.

Naadam, also known as “Nair,” means entertainment, and gambling in ancient times, in the Mongolian language, which shed light on the Mongols’ spiritual pursuits for freedom and power through a series of featured events.

Short for the local term “Eriyn Gurvan Naadam,” Naadam refers to “The Three games of men” – horse racing, wrestling, and archery – that are all ancient military arts showcasing athletic prowess and skills.

It was included in the first batch of The National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China on May 20, 2006, and then inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2010.

The riotous festival, by essence, is far beyond a bunch of sports competitions but also serves as a spiritual feast celebrated by the nomads who have had to withstand harsh environments – droughts and severe cold.


A requisite part of warrior culture

The tradition of Naadam can be traced back to the 12th century, with a long history that may date farther back than the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) when the first instance of the Mongolian term for "three manly games" was recorded.

According to documents, Naadam originated with Genghis Khan’s establishment of the Mongol Empire. The clan leaders and soldiers, before or after military campaigns, used to gather together and participated in the games to show their power and prowess.

Genghis Khan (1162–1227) believed that the fighting will of his warriors were aroused through competing with each other, a fierce force thus fully prepared to fight for victory.

What’s more, the macho-fixated events are held as the ceremony celebrating the new territory successfully conquered after uphill battles, and sometimes as the inauguration of a clan leader or a khan.

In the earlier time of Genghis Khan’s empire, these typical manly games were unofficial sports, from which only one type of competition, often wrestling, would take place at each event and usually only include warriors.

It was during the Yuan Dynasty that wrestling, horse racing, and archery were set by the rulers as three basic skills the Mongolian males must handle, which then became an official military and sports fixture.

Meanwhile, all of the featured events had been integrated into a big festival, which all of the Mongolian nomads were allowed to participate in, and since then, the Naadam Festival had enjoyed overwhelming popularity.

The biggest festival (National Naadam) is held in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, during the National Holiday from July 11 to 13, in the National Sports Stadium.

At the opening and closing ceremonies of the Naadam Festival, there are impressive parades of mounted cavalry, monks, dancers, musicians and athletes that take place.

Once the introduction ceremony is over, the games start.


Inner Mongolia Desert Naadam Festival

On July 14 2016, I witnessed the grand opening ceremony of the first Inner Mongolia Desert Nadam Festival ever, featuring traditional Mongolian sports and desert-based activities. It kicked off at Baogutu desert tourist area, in Naiman Banner, Tongliao city, in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous

This desert, the closest to Beijing and the largest and most beautiful in northeast China, is the unique desert to host the three Mongolian sports arts including Bohk (wrestling), horse racing and Mongolian archery, as Naiman local government has vigorously started attracting people with the introduction of investments to alleviate the poverty in this area.

That's why, over the three-day events, traditional Mongolian sports such as wrestling, horse racing and archery are featured alongside camel racing and a series of desert ethnic weddings.

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