A packed stadium watches on as heavyset men in tight shorts, knee-high leather boots and pointy hats compete for supremacy.
Add generous helpings of tasty dumplings, washed down with neat vodka and local Chinggis beer and you have Mongolia’s Naadam Festival – spectator sport with a difference that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The colourful annual event with ancient roots features the more traditional disciplines of wrestling, archery and horse racing.
Held annually in the capital Ulaanbaatar during the National Holiday from July 11 – 13, this is Mongolia’s most loved and widely celebrated festival.
Mongolia’s shabby capital is a ramshackle collection of cracked pavements and Soviet remnants, a curious East-West mish-mash where traditional ger huts compete for space with a chaotic urban sprawl.
Situated on the route of arguably the world’s most famed rail journey – the Trans-Siberian, UlaanBaatar is also a popular jump-off point for tourists making the epic trip.
Along with the capital, other cities and towns across Mongolia also hold their own, smaller-scale Naadam celebrations.
Although getting anywhere outside the capital can prove challenging for the independent traveller.
Steeped in nomadic traditions, Mongolia is a vast and impenetrable country.
Paved roads are almost non-existent and public transport is patchy at best.
Catching a lift with one of the mini-vans that ply Mongolia’s rough and dusty interior is a matter of turning up and…waiting.
There’s no timetable to speak of - at least not one that anyone is adhering to – and even if a van does show up, passengers inevitably face a lengthy wait until all seats are filled.
That said, escaping the hustle and bustle of Ulaanbaatar is well worth the time and effort.
From desert expanses, vertiginous mountain valleys and desolate plains, Mongolia’s remote landscapes are as unforgiving as they are beautiful.
The Naadam festival has been staged in one form or another for centuries – originally as a test of warriors’ courage and strength.
It has been running in its present form since 1921 in commemoration of the People’s Revolution that brought independence from the Soviet Union.
Festivities get underway with an elaborate opening ceremony featuring dancers, athletes, horse riders, and musicians in an exciting cultural display.
After the ceremony, the competition gets underway.
Both the wrestling and archery events feature a seemingly endless stream of entrants in various categories, making it almost impossible to keep track of who’s winning what.
In fact, those used to a more high-paced, edge-of-your-seat sort of sporting competition may be left wondering when the real action is going to start.
Meanwhile, the second day of competition brings the bizarre sight of toddler-aged jockeys in colourful silken jackets racing around an open field – although as usual no-one’s really sure who the final victor is.
But then again, that’s all part of Naadam’s unconventional charm.
the Experience Network