The 21st Tourism Nadam, an annual cultural festival in Inner Mongolia and the most important on the vast prairies of the region, is preparing for its famous colorful opening ceremony Sunday on the grasslands of Gegentala, 128 kilometers away from Inner Mongolia's capital, Hohhot.
"Compared with last year, the festival will add more activities for tourists to take part in, including milking sheep, making dairy products, building yurts and enjoying crafts and the grass is much better than last year, because we've had more rain this year," Yao Wenjun, chief of the tourism promotion department of Inner Mongolia Tourism Administration, told the Global Times.
According to Yao, about 10,000 people will take part in the opening ceremony and 50,000, including local herdsmen, farmers and tourists from home and abroad, are expected to participate in seven days of colorful festivities.
"Summer is the best time for visiting the grasslands, when the blue sky and white clouds are high above the extensive green grasslands dotted by Mongolian yurts and herds of sheep, cattle, horses and wild flowers," Yao said. "More importantly, visitors can take part in Nadam."
Nadam means entertainment and get-together in Mongolian, explained Bamenghe, professor of folkloristics at Inner Mongolia Normal University. He said that the term appeared just after the founding of New China (1949) and has come to represent a very important cultural and entertainment event for the Mongolian ethnic group. "It is a great opportunity to showcase the culture and customs of the prairies," Bamenghe said. "There is also a trade fair for exports and domestic trade."
The festival itself can be traced back to ancient times and is show of nomadic life, hunting and sacrifice, according to Aoqi, director of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Center at Inner Mongolia Normal University.
Nadam has been held on the Gegentala grasslands since 1990. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the grasslands belonged to the 15th generation of descendants of Genghis Khan (1162-1227).
"Nadam today still preserves lots of traditional customs," Yao explained. "During the opening ceremony on the first day, nine Mongolian soldiers dressed in typical Mongolian-style amor will stand holding a suluding (Mongolian lance). The symbol of Mars, with black representing power and white representing peace, will stand before the lines of all of the participants."
A sacrificial ritual will begin the opening ceremony, Yao said, carried out by a respected local elder, who will burn incense to exorcise ghosts, give offerings to the God of War and God of Fire, then lead people in singing traditional songs. The ritual is completed by the man putting an arrow and dairy products inside a lucky barrel while walking around the sacrifice ritual table.
"This is to pray for success and happiness," Bamenghe said. "With the coming of summer, the grass growing well promises prosperity of the grasslands for the whole year." Apart from the colorful opening ceremony, the festival will host a range of traditional contests including wrestling, archery and horse riding, as well as visits to local herdsmen's families who hold bonfire parties every evening.
According to Li Guang, a local guide on the Gegentala grasslands, more than 60 riders, 100 wrestlers and 50 archers will join in the competitions over the festival, most of them from local herdsmen's families.
"In the records of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Nadam was held as an annual gathering of Mongolian chiefs to award the heroes and punish the cowards, with competitors lining up for three traditional Nadam activities [wrestling, archery and horse riding]," Bamenghe said.
Horse races of 2 kilometers, 3 kilometers, 5 kilometers and 10 kilometers are all scheduled to take place, with the riders also demonstrating their skills, like standing in one stirrup or lying outstretched on their saddles while galloping all the way.
"The Mongolians love horses and horsemanship and they are referred to as the nationality on horseback," Bamenghe explained.
"Wrestling is also important for Mongolian people, who regard the best wrestlers as heroes, for in the past Mongolians had to battle with wild animals on the vast grasslands and only those with strength survived the harsh environment," he added.
For those without riding, wrestling or racing skills, the evening bonfires are a great way to enjoy the festivities.
"During Nadam, the daytime is quite busy, full of flags and horses. I prefer to watch the sunset on the grasslands, the lower sky becoming orange and you can feel the peace and satisfaction at that time, then the parties will start, bringing a joyous atmosphere," commented Yun Hongmei, a Mongolian who lives in Hohhot.
Traditional songs usually accompany the evening festivities, including the "Urtiin duu" or "long song" of Mongolia that was inscribed on UNESCO's representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Mongolian dances also have distinctive characteristics, with light steps, fast moving shoulders, twisting wrist movements and a quick rhythm. "Andai Dance," "Wine Cup and Bowls Dance" and "Chopsticks Dance" are widely recognized as the most typical Mongolian-style dances.
"The culture of the long song is connected with a slow pastoral lifestyle, which is quite different from today's fast-moving society," Bamenghe commented. "The spirit of Nadam is changing through the years with the transformation of society. It is more like a tourism festival nowadays, but I hope the essence of traditional culture can still been preserved by the participation of local Mongolians and tourists together," he said.