Mongolia Travel Guide
Introduction to Mongolia
Mongolia is a heady mixture of endless blue skies, fragrant mountain forests, vast barren deserts and boundless grassy plains. The landscape is unbroken except for sporadic white ger encampments, sparkling clear lakes and gently meandering rivers. One of the few remaining rarely travelled and consequently unspoilt travel destinations, Mongolia is fast becoming a favourite amongst adventurous travellers.
Lying at the very heart of central Asia, Mongolia encompasses an area of 1,164,116 sq km (603,908 sq mi) and is rated as the 15th largest independent country in the world. It is also the most sparsely populated with a total population estimated at just 2.9 million people. Bordered by Siberia to the north and China to the south, east and west, Mongolia is a landlocked country. Unsurprisingly, in the past, Mongolia has been heavily affected by the communist influence of its neighbours, but is now striving to establish a free and democratic government for the people.
Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, sits in the north of the country. Unbelievably it is estimated that over 1 million people live in the capital, constituting 38% of the country’s population as a whole.
The Mongolian people, made up of 20 distinct ethnic groups, are humble, warm and hospitable. Guests are welcomed into the family home and are made to feel extremely welcome. A third of the Mongolian population still follow a traditional nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle in accordance with the region’s ancient traditions. Families move around the countryside following their herds and grazing animals on the vast, boundless steppes.
Environment of Mongolia
Mongolia presents a landscape of great interest to modern day environmentalists, conversationalists and biologists. It is not only home to many endangered species, such as the Snow Leopard, Long-Eared Jerboa and the Wild Bactrian camel, it also enables the study of an increasingly rare phenomenon, the untamed natural grasslands.
About 80% of the Mongolia exists at an altitude in excess of 1000 meters above sea level, the average for the region being 1580m. This ranges from the lowest point, Khukh Nur at 560m to the highest, Tavan Bogd in Bayan Ulgii Aimag at 4374m. Landlocked, at the heart of central Asia, Mongolia is subject to an extreme continental climate. During the long subarctic winters temperatures can drop as low as -34°C (-88°F), particularly in January and February. Sheltered from rainclouds by the mighty Himalayan Mountains the area is deprived of water, giving rise to the vast expanses of the Gobi desert. Despite the hardships, travellers and locals alike, rejoice that the country achieves an average of 260 sunny days a year. The skies are often clear and cloudless, so Mongolia has been forever dubbed, ‘the land of blue sky’.
In ‘the land of blue sky’ rivers and lakes remain frozen from January until May making transport and travel by boat impossible. The lakes are so clean and clear that you can peer down through feet of frozen ice and see the lake bed meters below. Of course where Mongolia is home to some of the deepest lakes in the world, this is only possible in the shallows.
Statistically the landscape of Mongolia has been summed up as 52% grassland and 32% desert. The remaining 16% of the country is composed of a mixture of polar and alpine (5%), crop and settlement (1%), interrupted woods (3%) and major forests (7%).
A visit to any of the regions in this large and unspoilt country is going to provide the adventurous traveller with many unique and interesting environments to explore.
Regions of Mongolia
For ease, Mongolia can be divided into five distinct regions according to culture and geography, these are the Northern, Central, Southern, Eastern and Western regions. Officially the country is divided into 22 unique provinces, (known locally as aimags), with one city or town acting as the local administrative centre. Ulaaanbaatar, as the capital city, is classed as a special municipality and is governed independently of any other aimag.Things to see and do in Mongolia.
The Mongolian People
Many visitors to Mongolia expect the country to be inhabited by a single ethnic group; this misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. The people of Mongolia are in fact descendants of twenty different ethnicities.
80% of Mongolians belong to the Khalka ethnic group and can be found, spread far and wide, across all the regions of Mongolia. The second largest ethnicity is that of the Kazakhs who make up 6% of the total population. Of Turkik origin most Kazakhs are to be found inhabiting Bayan-Ulgii Aimag in the extremely isolated, far west of Mongolia. The remaining 14% of the population is made up of the Barga, Bayad, Borjigin, Buriad, Dariganga, Darkhad, Daur, Durvud, Dukha, Khoton, Khorchin, Myangad, Uuld, Torguud, Tuvans, Uriankhai – Altai, Uriankhai and Zakhchin.
Traditions, costumes, dialects and customs differ between each of the groups and although plainly obvious to other Mongolians, often go unobserved by international visitors. Tours and events are frequently arranged to educate tourists about the proud heritage of the many tribes who inhabit Mongolia.
Further information about each of these tribes is available from the Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism.
The Mongolian Language
The most widely spoken language is Mongolian; however English and Russian are increasingly popular as second languages. There are many dialects of the Mongolian language, differing by region and tribe, but the official one is known as Khalkha.
Mongolian script is called Vaghintara and is written vertically, it is now taught at school from a very early age as an attempt to revive traditional heritage. In 1945, under the influence of Russia, Mongolia adopted Cyrillic to replace Latin script.
Mongolian language courses are few and far between but can be arranged in Ulaanbaatar. A number of free courses are also available on the internet, however these are largely untested.
A third of Mongolians follow the old Nomadic traditions, moving camps 2 – 4 times a year and following their livestock to fresh new pastures. Typically, the Mongolian people maintain herds of horses, yaks, sheep, goats and Bactrian camels. However two notable exceptions are the Tsaatans who maintain their lifestyle by raising reindeer and the Kazakhs who hunt using golden eagles.
Mongolians hold horses in the highest regard; they have after all, relied on them for centuries to maintain the daily way of life. Horses are allowed to roam semi wild as herds on the Mongolian steppe and herdsmen watch over them offering protection against wolves on the plains. Horses are raised and looked after by the men and milked by the women. They constitute the only source of the Nomads favourite drink, airag, a kind of alcoholised mares milk.
The daily routine of a nomad is one of animal husbandry milking, shearing and combing their herds to maximise productivity. For example, to create a reasonable quality airag, mares must be milked at least six times a day. The symbol of the nomadic herdsman is a pole-lasoo known as an uurga. The uurga is a rope loop fixed to the end of a long wooden pole. The herdsmen ride out on their mount using the uurgas to gather herds and capture fresh horses.
The changing climate of Mongolia, has led to a number of successive harsh winters. Large numbers of livestock have perished in the cold and the traditional nomadic lifestyle is under threat. There has been a recent surge in migration, from the countryside to the suburbs, as Mongolians are taking up fixed abodes and pursuing a modern lifestyle.
- Horses: Airag and transportation.
- Yaks: Meat, leather and milk. Dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese.
- Sheep: Meat and milk, skins, wool and felt.
- Goats: Mongolia is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cashmere.
- Two humped Bactrian camels: Meat, milk, wool, riding and transportation.
Nomads of the Mongolian steppes live in white gers, known as yurts in Turkish and Russian. When a couple is married, their family buys them the lattice work and the family band together to create the felt covering. Gers are perfectly suited to the hard conditions of nomadic lifestyle providing shelter from cold, wind, rain and sun. A central hearth heats the ger efficiently in winter months and is used to prepare food for family, friends and guests. In the desert where firewood is hard to come by, dry dung can be used as fuel for the hearth. In summer months, ventilation is provided by raising the outer covering allowing air to flow and maintain a cool climate.
Easily dismantled in under an hour, the structures are designed to be collapsible and light. Together with family belongings, gers can be transported on 6 camels, though these days it is commonplace for a family to hire a truck.
Consisting of a number of lattice fences, joined with rope to create the circular outer wall, the gers are approximately 1.5m high. Roofs and walls are covered in felt blankets and an outer sheet of linen to provide protection from the elements. The floor is made of felt laid upon a raised wooden floor. Although the latticework is bought from Mongolian traders, felt coverings come from the family flock and lashings are created from yak and horsehair. Gers have beautifully designed doors that face south, towards the sun. This allows Mongolians to rise and great the new day and offers protection from the prevailing north-easterly wind.
Male quarters are on the west side of the ger and female quarters in the east. Hence males enter and proceed clockwise around the hearth to their allotted position; females enter and proceed counter-clockwise. Guests are usually shepherded to a seated position in the north-west of the ger with host families sitting in the north-east. In a home stay ger, the bed for the host and hostess are usually found in the female quarters (west), guests will take up residence in the male quarters (east). The most sacred area of the ger can be found on the northern side, opposite the door, where the most important family and religious artefacts are kept.
In ‘modern’ Mongolia, some gers come with accessories such as windmill generators and satellite dishes to provide family entertainment.
Culture and customs of Mongolia
Mongolians are a naturally humble people, polite and tolerant of guests. Embarrassment or confusion will frequently be concealed behind a warm smile. Mongolians do not like to talk about unpleasant things, believing this can only result in trouble for those concerned. Don’t like flying? A Mongolian would say, don’t fly!
Polite to the end, Mongolians are loathe to say bad things about family, friends or guests, if an issue must be raised, it is done so in the least offensive way possible maintaining dignity and good manners. Praise and good will are evident across the Mongolian steppes. A patriotic and proud people, Mongolians sing fervently about their country, lifestyle and livestock. All in all, the difficulties of Mongolian life, have given rise to a positive outlook, which is necessary for continuing survival in such a harsh environment.
There are some important rules to follow, that can make a home stay in a traditional Mongolian ger a more enjoyable experience for both you and your hosts. The following are important observations derived from Mongolian superstitions and tradition. Try to bare them in mind, but don’t worry or look uncomfortable in the presence of your hosts, they will worry and your experience may be diminished.
Avoiding social faux pas
- Don’t lean against the supporting columns of the ger. They are there for stability.
- Don’t whistle inside a ger, you could cause a wind storm.
- Don’t linger in the doorway, after all it could be cold outside, stepping on the doorway is considered bad luck.
- Don’t stamp out a fire, extinguish it with water or burn rubbish on it; desecration is considered a sin and an insult to the household.
- Don’t point your feet towards the family hearth, another person or put them up on furniture, it is considered to be very offensive. Likewise don’t take off your shoes and place them onto chairs or furniture.
- For the ladies, don’t sit with your legs crossed in a ger, it is considered to be extremely rude.
- Don’t walk in front of an older person as it is considered disrespectful.
- Don’t turn your back to the altar and religious objects to the north of the ger (except when leaving).
- Don’t take food from a communal plate with your left hand. Dirty, yuk!
- Don’t touch other people's hats, bad spirits are passed this way.
- Don’t hold lengthy conversations in your own language in front of hosts who do not understand it, it’s just good manners right?
- Don’t write anything in red ink, its rude.
- Don’t point a knife at anybody, if presenting knives or scissors to somebody offer them handle first, this is a great lesson to take home as less people are killed that way!
- Don’t spill milk or dairy products, it is considered to bring bad luck and it smells. If the worst happens dip your fingers into it and touch them to your forehead.
- Don’t walk across an area where women are milking yaks, its impolite.
- Don’t walk over a lasoo pole (uurga).
- Don’t approach a horse from behind, or the right hand side, you may get kicked. Always mount and dismount to the left of the horse.
- When drinking tea or other beverages, try not to stand up unless absolutely necessary.
- Don’t leave books, papers, and valuables on the floor.
Be the best guest
- If you are offered food, accept it graciously with your right hand, try to take at least a sip, or a bite even if you are full. This is considered good manners. You do not have to eat it all, just try it, whatever you do, don’t refuse it unless you really have to.
- Hold a cup by the bottom, not the rim, its hygienic.
- Try to keep shirt sleeves rolled down. With short sleeves try not to expose your wrists to your hosts.
- Accept items such as food, drink or snuff with the right hand, the left hand is used only to support the elbow. You may use both hands, upturned, if an item is heavy. Items should also be picked up with both palms facing upwards.
- Passing a snuff bottle is considered a formality. If you are offered snuff and don’t want to snort it, open the holder and just take a whiff. Leave the bottle cap off and return the bottle to the owner before it is passed to another person.
- Leave anything that may be considered a weapon outside the ger.
- Always place hats with the open end down. A man's hat and belt should never be placed on the floor, and should not touch other hats or belts. Again, think of the evil spirits!
- If you knock anybody or kick their feet as you walk by, immediately shake their hand. Use your right hand of course!
- Try to follow the etiquette of vodka drinking, even if you don’t intend to drink any. Dip the ring finger of your right hand into the vodka, flick a drop of vodka to the sky, to the wind and to the ground. Vodka is considered sacred and the tradition appeases the Tengri spirits.
- If guests visit your ger offer them a cup of tea or some candy, its polite to do so.
- Upon entering a ger, guests should move in a clockwise direction, taking a perch to the north-west.
- If offering a cigarette, you should also offer to light it. Two people may light a cigarette from one match, but three is strictly forbidden.
- If giving cigarettes as gifts, matches should also be provided.
- If you are given a gift, such as food, in a container which must be returned to the owner, never return it empty. Put in a return gift such as candy.
- Start conversations by asking about family, livestock or health, before getting down to the matter at hand.
- Mongolians touch each other much more than westerners, you may see them frequently holding hands or hugging, even with people they do not know.
- Mongolians will not normally introduce friends in their company to friends who they come across.
- Mongolians will often visit and enter a friend house without calling out, this is not considered ill manners.
- When Mongolians arrive at a ger, they will often yell, "Nokhoi Khori!" (Hold your dog!) Most gers are protected by semi wild guard dogs. This can be a great way to avoid expensive evacuation bills and rabies shots.
- Sitting at the corner of a table is believed to bring a lonely life; do you really want people to feel sorry for you?
- If a cat crosses the path of a Mongolian, superstition dictates that they must spit three times.
- A shooting star means that somebody is dying, Mongolians will spit over their should aand say ‘It’s not my star!’
- Food, drink, cigarettes and other items placed on a table in front of a group are considered to be communal items, ripe for the taking.
- Mongolians greet each other by saying ‘Sain bainuu?’ (How are you?), the correct answer is ‘Sain’ (fine). Customs do not permit a negative answer, later in the conversation you may talk about your problems. Greeting people in this way, more than once is considered a waste of time.
Religion in Mongolia
Tibetan Buddhism became popular in Mongolia in the time of the great Khans, late 16th century. By the 1920’s a third of all males in Mongolia were Buddhist Monks.
In 1921 communism took control of Mongolia, and promoted a policy of atheism. Violent purges were carried out. During the late 1930’s tens of thousands of monks and believers were slaughtered. Most monasteries and religious objects were destroyed. Buddhism was all but wiped out in the country. One operating monastery remained in Ulaanbaatar, (Gandan monastery). Ironically the culling of Buddhism in Mongolia led to a steady growth of shamanism, as a decentralised religion.
Since the establishment of a democratic government in 1990, Mongolians now enjoy freedom of religion and Buddhism is making something of a revival. Buddhist monasteries are emerging across Mongolia and Buddhism has become the prevalent religion of the area.
Shamanism is the western term for the ancient spiritual beliefs of the Mongolian and Siberian regions, although, Mongolian and Siberian shamanism are quite distinct from one another. Shamanism in Mongolia is more commonly referred to as Tengerism.
The central belief of Tengerism is that all things, (plants, animals, rocks and water included), have spirits. There are 99 sky spirits that must be worshipped, the supreme spirit being the ‘Eternal Blue Heaven’. Followers of Tengerism believe that all of the spirits must be respected and cared for, to maintain a healthy balance of environment. Having a similar ideology to Buddhist Kharma, followers of Tengerism believe in the principal of Buyan, whereby a person assumes an overriding responsibility for his or her own actions.
Shamans are chosen by the spirits at birth, although this is not evident until sometime later when the chosen one is either struck down by a mysterious illness, or struck by a bolt of lightning. Sadly these happenstances are often life threatening events. If survived, the subject comes under the scrutiny of a local shaman who will assess their suitability for the job. A shaman is required to maintain balance in their community using blessings, protection rituals, hunting magic and divination. They may also be called upon to cure spiritual ills such as possession, curses and soul sickness.
Further information can be found from the Circle of Tengerism – Educating the western world about Shamanism.
Music and singing
Music has formed an important part of Mongolian culture, particularly in the countryside. Families and friends will gather to sing songs about the environment, lifestyle, patriotism and animals. Guests, visiting a ger, will frequently be encouraged to sing a song, it is considered rude to refuse.
Mongolian throat singing is the traditional technique, known locally as Khoomi. Sounds are produced from very deep in the throat creating an odd yet melodic form of song.
The horse head fiddle (morin khuur), supposedly sounds like a wild horse neighing. Played with a bow, the fiddle has two strings. The headstock is intricately carved into the head of a horse.
The yatga is a traditional Mongolian instrument, they are commonly found with 21 strings, however other variants are also popular. The body is a long wooden box angled downwards at one end and laid across the knees. The strings are plucked with the fingernails of the right hand. The left hand is used to vary the notes produced by the strings.
Sport in Mongolia
The ‘three manly sports’ of wrestling, horse riding and archery are celebrated at the Naadam festival. A description of each sport can be seen on our Mongolian festivals page.
Football (soccer) is played in Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet and Darkhan and basketball is becoming increasingly popular. The National Stadium in Ulaanbaatar plays host to sporting events in the capital and has a capacity of 20,000 fans. Recently, the countries first golf course has opened a short distance outside Ulaanbaatar.
Originating in Pakistan, Yak polo is becoming increasingly popular in Mongolia, four games are held weekly with some talk of a national league in development.
Education in Mongolia
Education in Mongolia is in the process of shifting from a ten year system to eleven years. Eight of these school years are free and compulsory for all nationals, with a school entrance age of six years old. Attendance and adult literacy rates are high, estimated at 97% and 98% respectively.
The school year begins on 1st September, and a number of language themed schools exist for those interested in committing to teaching English as a foreign language. Hopefully this will be covered in more detail at a later date when I hope to write about TEFL opportunities throughout Asia.
There is currently a high demand for English teachers in Mongolia and a degree is not always a necessity. In Ulaanbaatar and some larger cities, there are private schools and a number of dedicated foreign language schools. The most common foreign language schools concentrate on Russian, Chinese, English and German teaching.
A Brief History of Mongolia
The Mongol empire was founded by Genghis Khan in 1206. By the end of the 17th century it became incorporated into the Chinese Qing dynasty. The Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911 following a period of revolution, Mongolia was quick to declare independence. After years of struggles its independent constitution was established in 1921 and gained international recognition in 1945. In 1990 Mongolia adopted a democratic government, bringing religious and personal freedom to its people.
The Mongolian government is a parliamentary republic and a unitary state. Mongolia is governed constitutionally as a single unit, with one constitutionally created legislature. Political power is administratively divided into 22 provinces and a special municipality, the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.The Mongolian constitution can be viewed online here.
The national currency is called the Tugrik, all major foreign currencies can be exchanged at banks and licensed exchange centres in Ulaanbaatar. Credit cards are accepted at larger hotels, some restaurants and supermarkets.
About 20% of the country lives on less than US$1.25 per day in an economy that is based upon a tradition of agriculture, livestock breeding, and mining (mainly gold, coal and copper).
Books on Mongolia:
Books on Mongolia seem few and far between, but here are a selection I managed to get hold of to review:
Mission Mongolia – Two men, one van, no turning back.
Author: David Treanor
ISBN: 978 1 84953 059 0
Paperback: 320 pages
Publication Date: 5th July 2010
Publisher: Summersdale Publishers ltd.
Review: Mission Mongolia
Mongolia Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky
Author: Carl Robinson
ISBN: 978 9 62217 808 3
Paperback: 536 pages
Publication date: 16th March 2010
Publisher: Odyssey Publications
Review: Mongolia Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky
Mongolia: Travels In The Untamed Land
Author: Jasper Becker
ISBN: 978 1 84511 649 1
Paperback: 344 pages
Publication date: 20 March 2008
Publisher: Tauris Parke Paperbacks
Review: Awaiting review.
Films about Mongolia:
Again, films on Mongolia are few and far between, but here are a few.
Mongolian Ping Pong (2005) 102mins
Rating: Not Rated
Director: Hao Ning
Language: Mongolian with English subtitles
Filmed in: Inner Mongolia
Review: Mongolian Ping Pong
The Story of the Weeping Camel (2004) 87mins
Director: Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni
Language: Mongolian with English subtitles
Filmed in: Inner Mongolia
Review: Awaiting review
The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005) 93mins
Director: Byambasuren Davaa
Language: Mongolian with English subtitles
Filmed in: Inner Mongolia
Review: Awaiting review
Mongol – The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan (2008) 120mins
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Language: Mongolian / Mandarin with English subtitles
Filmed in: China, Inner Mongolia, Kazakhstan
Review: Currently under review.