Photographing the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar

I’ve been asked a lot of late why I’ve been racing around Asia desperately for the past couple months without taking any sort of break. The answer, of course, as to why I have, is the Nadaam Festival here in Mongolia.  Though I’m not usually one to travel around certain events or festivals, after hearing about the “Mongolian Olympics”, it seemed wise to push to make it happen.  Thus, for the past couple of months, I’ve been sticking to the strictest schedule I’ve followed in years.  To be honest, it has been stressful, and I’m exhausted.  But, I made it to Nadaam and it really was one of those things you’d really only do once in your life.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

The truth is, though, that it was all a little bit underwhelming.  Sure, it was extremely interesting to see.  The opening ceremonies were cool, and watching the wrestling, archery, and ankle bone games on the first day was really cool.  It was also a lot of fun to get grab some local Mongolian grub and fermented mare’s milk in the tents outside.  Overall, it was a really interesting introduction to Mongolia.  Of course, it wasn’t all good.  On the second day of Nadaam, we headed out to the horse races.  Only the bus ride over was hell.  We must have stuffed 150 people into a bus, with no sense of order, cue, or manners, then the bus got lost on the way there and we ended up having to walk some 40 minutes.  We ended up getting there too late and missing the end of the race.  Still, I managed to get some photos.  And I learned an important lesson: no matter how old the Mongolian lady may be, she’ll still punch you in the face and knee you in the balls to get onto the bus first.

Anyways, here’s a bit of a video on my process for photography at the event.  There is more info on Naadam, as well as some photos from the festival, below.


About Naadam

As I mentioned in the intro, Nadaam is a bit like the Mongolian Olympics.  The main events of the biggest Nadaam take place at the start of July.  In Ulaanbaatar this year, they took place on the 11th, 12th, and 13th of July.  The only tickets you actually need to purchase would be to see the opening and closing ceremonies or to watch the wrestling.  Those events take place in the stadium.  Outside the stadium are some free events to watch like the ankle bone games and the archery.  There is also a fair-like environment outside the stadium which is fun to wander around and people watch.

There are also horse races outside of Ulaanbaatar which are a pain in the ass to get to.  The best thing to do is to hire a car to take you there and back.  The bus system they set up for the event is horrendous.  Be sure you check the times of the races before you go as well.  The horses race about 25km and it takes about 2 hours to complete.  Thus, if a race starts at 11am, you’ll want to be there about 12:30pm to see them all cross the finish line.

If you’re hoping to see a smaller Naadam event in one of the rural parts of Mongolia you can do so.  However, the dates for the countryside versions aren’t the same as the main festival.  Most of them actually happen in June and the start of July.  This is due to the fact that most of the smaller districts hold their events and then send their champions off to Ulaanbaatar to take part in the main events.  That being said, I did hear of some Naadam festivities happening as late as August.  Truth be told, it’s a bit of local knowledge that isn’t widely spread as to the times of these smaller festivals.

Getting Tickets for Naadam

It’s a pain to get tickets for Naadam in advance.  The tickets go on sale a month in advance and there are often massive lines to get them.  The best option, as a tourist, is to contact a local tour company and request they purchase some in advance for you.  Of course, this means you’ll have to pay a re-seller’s fee.  We paid $25 for our tickets well locals pay about $5.  That said, some of the tourists we met that bought tickets from re-sellers right before the opening ceremonies paid as much as $70.  We got our tickets through Danista Nomads Tours and Hostel, and they went above and beyond to make sure we got our tickets for the stadium events.

All that being said, you don’t need tickets to enjoy Naadam.  You can see the archery, ankle bone games, parade, and horse races all for free.  The only thing that the tickets cover are things that happen in the stadium: opening ceremonies, wrestling, and the closing ceremonies.  Don’t stress if you don’t get tickets.  In fact, I’d say that the tickets aren’t even worth it if you have to scratch and claw to get them.  You’ll still see nearly everything without them.

Photographing Naadam

I had imagined this to be easier than it was. In the stadium, we had seats way off on the edges so it was hard to get cool images of the opening ceremonies or wrestling.  Even using a 70-200mm lens I felt like I couldn’t get close enough to the action.  Outside the stadium at the free events, it was really easy to photograph the events.  The archery allows you to get a couple feet from the archers, and out at the horse races there are loads of interesting people to photograph.  Most are really open to having their photo taken as well, as they seem to be in the festive spirits.

Anyways, I hoped to get more keeper images than I did, but I popped off a couple I’m happy with in the end.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

At the opening ceremony. Far from the action, but still cool.

Military standing watch.  They got in on the dancing later on.

Military standing watch. They got in on the dancing later on.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

The rains started, and it made for a cool photo of the crowds.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

One of the few groups of people in the parade that got close enough for me to properly photograph.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

And when the wrestlers run into the stadium, it means Naadam is officially underway.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Outside the stadium, the archery was awesome to see.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Participants aren’t just young chaps and ladies.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Love the reaction on this guy’s face after shooting his arrow.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Extreme concentration.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

The look of a dead-eye archer.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

The female archers had some skills. Seemed more dead-eye than the men.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Man playing an old song for us outside the stadium.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Out at the horse races.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

Shot with a super-wide lens at 11mm. Probably broke every single photography rule on the planet, but it still works.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

My favourite portrait from Naadam. So glad this guy agreed to be photographed.

Naadam Festival Mongolia

And that does it from Naadam!

Post-Naadam

After Naadam ended, we left on an 8 day trip through Southern Mongolia.  Being a travel photographer in Southern Mongolia is a treat, and I’ve got some cool stuff for you from the rest of this country, so stay tuned!


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi, Brendan van Son
    I am so glad you’ve been in Mongolia, where my birthplace is during the Naadam and photographed it. I’m so sorry about your experience about taking a bus, I know how bad it was very well. But i think most easy way to poking around ulaanbaatar or Mongolia is having a friend who lived there or making a friend with local guys who speak in English if you travel there for the 1st time. Since almost every thing is happening in different way, first time visitors may want to hear lots of experience from one who live there or much more experience about traveling there. For example, if you have a camera and you are a traveler, you don’t have to stick with your seat all the time in stadium where the wrestling take place. You can go almost every where around where the parade line is to get better shot. During the wrestling you could get close as much as where the security personnel is standing.
    Your travel to southern provinces are more than just beautiful. You have the gift from god to see and capture the nature scene.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Erden!
      Love the advice, and I’m sure that other people will be glad to read your tips on it all too!
      I had such a great time at Naadam, and even got to take in a local event too last week. Will definitely make it back to Mongolia at some point, such an interesting country, and the people have been very hospitable!

      Post a Reply

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