Have you ever been on a holiday and stumbled upon a local festival that left you wishing you had more time to plan and experience the festivities? If so, welcome to my world. I get very excited about festivals for various reasons: I learn more about local culture and customs, I get to see activities that don’t happen the rest of the year, and I experience a real event that is not necessarily just focused on tourists. In other words, my experience is more enriching and fulfilling. For this reason, I have decided to put together a list of the best Mongolian festivals and celebrations. Hopefully, this will help you lock in dates for your trip in Mongolia and schedule daily activities and excursions.
During my time in Mongolia, I have been lucky to attend many festivals but I have not been to all of them. In order to put together this post, I have my own experiences to share but also the experiences of those who I have asked and who have given me some insight. This Mongolian festival list is organised by date but please understand that exact dates can and do vary in any given year.
MONGOLIAN TSAAGAN SAR
When: Last week of February, the date changes slightly every year.
Where: all over Mongolia
What it is about: Tsaagan Sar stands for “White Moon” and it is the Mongolian New Years’ Celebration. If you are familiar with its Chinese counterpart, both festivities have the same origin but take place on different dates. Tsaagan Sar is a family celebration, there are no public events really, and it focuses on families visiting relatives and friends for a few days. There is an actual schedule to visit your relatives in order of importance. Everybody visits their elders first, leaving friends for the last days.
Why you should experience it: Being able to participate in Tsaagan Sar is quite special because it means that somebody has invited you to their home. It’s the equivalent of bringing someone for lunch on Christmas day. This is quite a culturally immersive experience because you get to participate in the dynamics of a Mongolian family reunion.
I have never participated in a family reunion during Tsaagan Sar, but my husband did in his first year in Mongolia. He was invited by a coworker to visit some of his relatives. In the house, he was offered buuz, a meat dumpling that is the star dish of this holiday. For context, a few days before Tsaagan Sar family members gather at someone’s house and prepare around 1000 buuz in 3 days. You heard right. They divide the prepared buuz between different family members so that they can serve them during the Tsaagan Sar days when they get visitors in their house. Anyway, going back to my husband eating buuz, he ate a comfortable amount of buuz and drank a considerable amount of vodka. When they left the house, he was told that it had just been the first stop and they were heading to the next family to repeat it all over again. The day ended in a food coma.
If you don’t know anyone but still would like to celebrate Tsaagan Sar, there are some ger camps that organise Lunar New Year celebrations for foreigners to take part in it.
Tip: bring a small gift to the house you visit or some money.
THOUSAND CAMEL FESTIVAL
When: 6th and 7th of March
Where: Dalanzagdad (South Gobi)
What is it about: This Mongolian festival is all about raising awareness of the endangered two-humped Bactrian camel and increasing their numbers. The Bactrian camel is endemic to southern Mongolia and some parts of northwest China. Most Mongolian camels are semi-domesticated and belong to a herder family. There is only a small amount of Wild Bactrian Camels, which are a different species, in a protected area near the China border. Mongolian camels are essential to families who live in the Gobi because they are one of the only animals able to withstand the crazy range of temperatures between -40 and 40 degrees Celsius. Mongolian camels are used as a means of transportation and a source of wool, milk and sometimes meat. There are several competitions like races and beauty pageants (very common in other animal festivals) but you can also witness unique activities like camel polo or families preparing camels for a caravan.
Why you should experience it: Have you ever seen a Bactrian camel in a winter coat from up close? They are magnificent creatures. Also, it gives you a different perspective of the herding nomadic culture of Mongolia with camels as the main herd animal.
Tips: Do not attempt to touch an unsupervised camel, especially an adult male, you could get hurt.
When: beginning of March
Where: Lake Khuvsgul, Khusvgul province
What it is about: The Ice Festival was created to promote tourism in Khusvgul during winter. There are different activities such as horse sledding, archery or ice skating, and you can even be witness a shaman ritual in the evening. Being an ice festival, there are ice sculptures too, but to be honest, they are not the highlight of the event, at least when I visited. while you walk around, try some of the food from the food stalls and some hot khormog, or camel fermented milk.
Why you should experience it: The festival takes place on a frozen lake and the scenery is incredible. You will likely get to meet the Tsaatan people, an ethnic group from that area who herd reindeer. It is a magical place and I highly recommend it, despite the extreme cold.
Tip: bring proper footwear and or heating pads, it is extremely cold.
NAURIZ SPRING CELEBRATION
When: 22nd of March, spring equinox
Where: Bayan Olgii and Khovd provinces, mostly, where most Kazaph people live.
What is it about: this celebration is not only celebrated by the Kazakh population in Mongolia but also in other countries in Central Asia or the Middle East such as Kazakhstan. It is a spring festival that resembles a New Year celebration and, like Tsaagan Sar, it revolves around visiting family and friends and eating lots of food in the process. Bayan Olgii celebrates a parade in the city centre and a performance in the theatre. I have never had the chance to experience Nauryz so all the information I am giving you comes from some people I know.
Why you should experience it: It is a unique experience to learn more about other ethnic groups and their culture in Mongolia.
Tips: Just like Tsaagan Sar, bring a little gift if a family is inviting you to celebrate with them.
When: July (second week, for Ulaanbaatar. Weeks before and after Ulaanbaatar Naadam for other parts of country)
Where: everywhere in Mongolia, but main celebration in Ulaanbaatar
What is it about: Naadam, recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, is the biggest festival in Mongolia, and the official name is “the three games of men”. The three Mongolian sports are archery, horse racing and wrestling. Despite its name, women do participate in archery, and girls, in horseracing. Most of the events in Ulaanbaatar take place at the National Sports Stadium, which is 30 minutes away south of Sukhbaatar Square. The opening ceremony and the wrestling competition take place inside the stadium and you need a ticket to attend. You can see the archery and ankle bone shooting competitions in the adjacent area for free. The horse riding competition takes place out of the city. I have never been to one and I do not intend to because the amount of traffic you have to endure to get a spot is not worth it for me. I prefer the horse races in the countryside.
Watch this video of travellers at the 2019 Naadam in Ulaanbaatar
Why you should experience it: it’s the biggest and probably oldest festival and the ambiance is incredible.
Tip: go to a rural Naadam for an off-the-beaten-path experience.
When: 23rd of July
Where: Orkhon Valley, Bat Ulzii soum, Uvurkhangai province
What is it about: this is the least-known of all the animal-related Mongolian festivals but I am sure no less interesting. Furthermore, it takes place in Central Mongolia, a short and easy road trip away from Ulaanbaatar. This festival aims to introduce yak herder nomadic lifestyle to the public and promote their products. The type of activities that you will be able to experience here is very much the same that you will see in other animal festivals, like lasso competitions, beauty contests and races. Yaks are endemic to some parts of Central Asia and China and I find them very intriguing animals because to me they look like ancient cows. They are nicknamed “skirted cows” due to the hair hanging and making it look like they are wearing a skirt. Mongolians use yaks for transportation, they can be ridden or used to pull carts; they can also be used for food and wool. I love Mongolian dairy products and if you ask me Yak milk is the most delicious to make cheese and curds. Yak wool is also one of my favourite yarns when I buy winter clothes. It is one of the warmest and cheaper in comparison to the famous Mongolian cashmere.
Why you should experience it: As a friend puts it, “the fact that there is a festival for yaks” is worth experiencing. Also, the location at which it is held is one of the most beautiful spots in Mongolia and a Unesco Cultural Site well worth your time with or without a festival in place.
GOLDEN EAGLE FESTIVAL
When: First week of October
Where: Bayan Olgii province
What is it about: Every year, eagle hunters from all over the region ride their horses and participate in different competitions that show the skills of both eagle and hunter. Eagle hunting is a traditional falconry practice typical of Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Xinjiang, a province west of China, and Bayan Olgii in Western Mongolia. In Bayan Olgii, most of the eagle hunters live in Sagsai, a village west of Olgii, the capital city of Bayan Olgii province. At the Golden Eagle festival you will see different tournaments such as eagle calls and fox tug of war, and also other non-eagle-related competitions like camel races or couple horse racing. This is probably one of the most well-known Mongolian festivals within the travel community and you will notice professional photographers from different magazines fighting for a good spot on the rocky hill where eagles are released for competitions.
Why you should experience it: You will learn about Mongolian Kazakhs, their culture and customs. It’s like being in a different country within Mongolia.
Tip: Watch The Eagle Huntress documentary (2016) and then try to find her in the crowds! It’s been a while since the documentary was filmed but if she is there you’ll recognise her because she will be surrounded by lots of photographers.
THOUSAND HORSES FESTIVAL
When: 1st week of November
Where: Batnorov soum, Khentii province (birthplace of Chinggis Khan)
What is it about: It’s the biggest horse gathering in Mongolia and a unique display of horse riding skills. The event takes place east of Ulaanbaatar in the middle of the steppe and it can be really cold, especially if it is windy. The first day is all about horse-related activities, like lasso contests and family outfit parades. Besides that, there is also a weird but fascinating bone-breaking competition in which people use their fists to break an animal bone (sheep, perhaps?) karate style. It was quite a sight. On the second day, there was a dog race that we didn’t get to witness due to the unbearable cold and schedule uncertainty. The Mongolian hunting dog, referred to as Taiga dog, is a breed I did not know existed until I came to this festival. It is super skinny and I do not understand how they are able to survive in the harsh Mongolian weather. Interestingly enough, there is no horse race during this Mongolian festival.
Why you should experience it: Mongolian nomadic life cannot be understood without horses and Mongolians are very proud of this animal. You will be able to witness the range of skills that every person in the countryside has as part of their unique lifestyle. This includes the ability of young children to ride horses.
Tips: Dress warmly, and bring heating pads for hands and feet if you can, the festival takes place in the middle of nowhere with only a couple of tents and your own vehicle as shelter.
In conclusion, most Mongolian festivals are closely related to their nomadic roots and countryside lifestyle and I personally find them beautiful to observe. It is mindblowing to stop for a moment and think that in modern times there is a large population of people in Mongolia who still rely on their animals to subsist. I hope you found this list of Mongolian festivals useful and it can help you plan your experience in the country on a much deeper level. Let me know if you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you.