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Wrestling, archery and horse-racing: Mongolia's 'three manly games'

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Naadam is Mongolia's annual sporting competition celebrated each year on the country's independence day.
  • Wrestling, archery and horse racing events take places across the country
  • "Naadam" means "celebration" and "games" in Mongolian

(CNN) -- Grapple fans should head to Mongolia each year on July 11.

It's the day the country celebrates its independence, but also the beginning of something equally important: country-wide competitions to discover Mongolia's top wrestler.

The wrestle-fest is part of "naadam", the annual celebration of traditional Mongolian sports -- wrestling, archery and horse-racing -- that captivates villages, towns and cities across the country for three days.

The grand wrestling competition held in the capital Ulaanbaatar is only open to those with a national ranking. But at a local level men, women and children, some as young as four years old, take part in the events.

Everyone loves horse racing in Mongolia, it's our national sport.
--Battsetseg Erdenekhuu
RELATED TOPICS
  • Asia
  • Mongolia
  • Sports
  • Ulan Bator

Sporting traditional garb, the reason for the wrestlers' frontless shirts comes from a folktale. It tells of a woman who was disguised as a man and won the wrestling event. To avoid any deception again, wrestlers from then on had to compete bare-chested.

While there is plenty of machismo on show, and despite the fact that the festival is often referred to as the "three manly games," women can compete in the archery competition and girls can ride as jockeys in the horse racing.

"Everyone loves horse racing in Mongolia; it's our national sport," says Battsetseg Erdenekhuu, who works as a guide for adventure tourists in Mongolia.

The annual event has become one of the biggest attractions for tourists visiting the country. Erdenekhuu believes that despite the influx of visitors the games are still as authentic as they have ever been because of their importance to local communities.

"For the main games of wrestling, archery and horse racing, it's still very traditional," she says. "For the naadam opening ceremony in Ulaanbaatar, because more tourists come just for that, it's a bit touristy as there are different shows held just for them."

Local and regional competitions are held across the country, with anyone able to compete in the events. Competitors and competition organizers usually spend around two months training and practicing before the events begin.

Like most celebrations anywhere, food is just as important for the festivities, with deep-fried meat dumplings -- "khuushuur" -- the most popular dish. "Naadam with no khuushuur is not a complete naadam," says Erdenekhuu.

As a celebration of Mongolia's nomadic past, the games will undoubtedly persist, believes Erdenekhuu. But she worries that the fast pace of change in the country with the current boom in mining could diminish the type of life the games commemorate.

"Visitors to the countryside and naadam will find it's still very authentic," she says. "The city is different. Nomad life is very authentic but I'm sure its going to change in a few years."