Nadaam: A Two-Day Festival of Butt Slapping

“Do you know the origin of the Chinese words 拍马屁 (literal: slapping the horse’s butt; meaning: flattery)?” Nathan asked us with a big smile while we were watching horseracing at countryside Naadam festival in Mongolia.

Right when the horse finished the race, the owner will slap the horse's butt and also comb the hair to get rid of the sweat.
Right when the horse finished the race, the owner will slap the horse’s butt and also comb the hair to get rid of the sweat.

Nathan is the historian, trivia master, and joke creator of our family. His favorite book is “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader”, which is a collection of interesting facts ranging from insects to food to history. It is the perfect book to read while using the toilet to pass time.

“In the past, people slap a horse’s butt as a recognition that it is a good horse. But sometimes, people slap a horse’s butt even though it is not a good horse just to please the horse owner. Thus the term 拍马屁 came to mean flattery.”

“Ahh…now it makes sense,” we were pleasantly surprised.

To get ready to enter the match, each wrestler slapped the front of their thigh twice and their own butt once.
To get ready to enter the match, each wrestler slapped the front of their thigh twice and their own butt once.

Nadaam (meaning Game) is Mongolia’s largest and national-wide annual sporting event consisting three main events, horseracing, archery, and wrestling lasting of the course of two days. With the help of a colleague, we found a minibus taxi to take us 30 kilometers to Bugat Sum in the Bulgan Province. Unlike the national or provincial Nadaam fesitival, the Sum or District level festival is small but intimate as almost everyone there participate in the three sporting events in one way or another, rather than just watching. Our group was the only tourist the entire two days there. There was naturally no place to stay for tourists so we camped out in tents on the hill next to the sporting arenas.

As the countryside Nadaam is only for locals, we could only stay in our tents.
As the countryside Nadaam is only for locals, we could only stay in our tents.


“Why is everyone rushing towards that hill?” Olivia asked.

“The horses must be crossing the finish line!” I shouted while running towards the finish line at the same time.

All around us, the locals were either galloping their horses, riding on 4×4 jeep, or running towards the finish line like ants converging at the top of the ant hill.  Far in the distance, we can see horses galloping towards us, with vehicles following and cheering on the horses and riders. Unlike western horse races of 2 km, in Mongolia, the horse first walk 20km out of the town and then race another 20km back into the town. At first we were confused why every race were raced by young boys riding the horses, thinking that eventually teenagers and adults will also be racing in later rounds. But when at the end of the 2nd day, the riders were still boys, we realized that the horse race was really about the winning “horse” and not the rider. Boys were used because they are lighter.

The horses races for a long 20km race across the prairie.
The horses races for a long 20km race across the prairie.
When the winning horses crossed the finished line, everyone rush to slap the butts of the horses.
When the winning horses crossed the finished line, everyone rush to slap the butts of the horses.
After each race, the winning horses parade through the stadium with pride.
After each race, the winning horses parade through the stadium with pride.

“Look, everyone is rushing towards the winning horse and slapping its butt!” The children exclaimed.

It was a funny scene to see the way the locals surround and congratulates the winning horse by slapping its butt, almost like touching a good luck charm. It felt like they were giving recognition and encouraging the horse through their action. It really brought alive and gave us a mental image of the words 拍马屁.

Mongolian wrestlers wears tight fitting brief and chest exposing bolero over their stout bodies and beer bellies.
Mongolian wrestlers wears tight fitting brief and chest exposing bolero over their stout bodies and beer bellies.

However, we were even less prepared to witness the slapping of butts during Mongolia wrestling at the Nadaam. We tried to hide our comical laughters and expressions so as not to be disrespectful to this highly regarded sport, but it was futile.

For first time watcher like us, Mongolian wrestling was a juxtaposition of extremes. We saw 32 tall, heavy built, beer belly, stout legs grown men, wearing tiny, tight, cotton, bright blue, red, or pink brief with tiny tight bolero jacket that covered just the arm and shoulder but exposed the chest. Before each wrestling bout, the wrestlers went through a shamanistic ritual of graceful dances imitating rising falcon by flapping their arms and tip toeing their steps as they danced in circles like elephants doing ballet dances. Each wrestler had a corresponding attendant that wore traditional Mongolian outfit and carried the cap of the wrestler.

Before wrestling, each wrestler circles their attendant imitating the flight of falcons.
Before wrestling, each wrestler circles their attendant imitating the flight of falcons.
Before the each wrestling round, all the fighters dances like a rising falcon in a strangely graceful manner.
Before the each wrestling round, all the fighters dances like a rising falcon in a strangely graceful manner.
Mongolian wrestling is done in pairs and all at together.
Mongolian wrestling is done in pairs and all at together.

Every once in a while, the attendant slapped the butt of his wrestler to “encourage” the wrestler to keep going, as some bouts can last 30 – 60 minutes of just tugging and arm locking. When one of the wrestler won by forcing his opponent down on to the ground, the winning wrestler would help the losing wrestler off from the ground. The wrestler that lost then ducked under the outstretched arm of the victor as his butt is slapped by the winner as a sign of encouragement.

“That is so cute!” our couchsurfing friend Kerry giggled every time a butt was slapped.

Each pair wrestles with their attendants holding their hats and encouraging them.
Each pair wrestles with their attendants holding their hats and encouraging them.

For the two full days we were there, we were immersed in the local Mongolian culture and the archers even taught Jonathan and the 3 children archery after the match was completed. Every person, old and young alike and even toddlers, that sat in the observation benches were welcomed traditionally with a sip of mare’s fermented milk airag  (2% alcohol) and presented with a plate full of milk curds, goat cheese, sugar cubes, and fresh cream. When taking from the plate, we were asked to first tap the sides of the plate with two fingers. After one sip of the mare’s fermented milk, we can not pass the bowl to the next person sitting next to us. Instead, we need to hand back the bowl for the server to fill it again and presented individual to the next person. Especially in the morning, when the fermented milk was cold from the cool morning temperature, the fermented milk was very refreshing and quenches our thirst from the hot dry wind. One sip was simply not enough! Once Annie secretly took several sips until the bowl was more than half empty. The server saw it but returned a gentle smile as if saying I understand.

The must have foods during Naadam are milk curds, goats cheese & cream, and mare's fermented milk.
The must have foods during Naadam are milk curds, goats cheese & cream, and mare’s fermented milk.
The Mongolian custom is to individually hand a bowl of mare's fermented milk for a sip to the guests.
The Mongolian custom is to individually hand a bowl of mare’s fermented milk for a sip to the guests.
Annie loves drinking the mare's fermented milk in the morning when it is still cool from the cold night.
Annie loves drinking the mare’s fermented milk in the morning when it is still cool from the cold night.

While waiting for the opening ceremony, several Mongolian elders sat behind us. We observed that they greeted each other first by giving one firm hand shake then each took out a snuff bottle from his ornately decorated bag and exchanged snuff bottle with the other person. After each sniffed at the other person’s snuff bottle, the process is repeated again with another elders. The smell of each bottle was distinct. I was fascinated because earlier we had seen these snuff bottle displayed at the National Museam but we did not expect to see them still being used. It reminded me of how our dog Paz also recognized and greeted different dogs around the apartment complex by sniffing their butts!

An elder handed each of us his snuff bottle to sniff despite we had no snuff bottle to exchange with him.
An elder handed each of us his snuff bottle to sniff despite we had no snuff bottle to exchange with him.

To our surprise, one elder raised his hand for a traditional handshake and handed me his snuff bottle to sniff. The smell was aromatic with a mix of spices. I felt honored to be treated with such respect from an elder.

The snuff bottle is intricately made from precious stones.
The snuff bottle is intricately made from precious stones.

The two days of countryside Nadaam was an enriching experience for us. Although the custom of slapping butts of grown man and horse was strange for us, but the action of “encouragement” is something that I find very commendable and will remember to heart.

The sunset over the countryside Nadaam was magical.
The sunset over the countryside Nadaam was magical.
Archery is the only sport where Mongolian girls can also participate.
Archery is the only sport where Mongolian girls can also participate.
After the archery competition, the archers taught Nathan how to shoot like Mongolians.
After the archery competition, the archers taught Nathan how to shoot like Mongolians.
We witnessed beautiful sunset over the countryside Nadaam venue.
We witnessed beautiful sunset over the countryside Nadaam venue.

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