What Makes Mongolia So Special?
Many thing about Mongolia makes this country so special. This is a short summary to read before your travel in this beautiful country.
Mongolia is a country with pristine wilderness. Its culture untouched by Western influences has preserved its nomadic heritage and the people are known for their unfaltering hospitality and warmth. Mongols have been living the same nomadic lifestyle for centuries. With their traditional gers, which are easily taken down and moved, they herd their animals across the steppe. The nomads move about 4 times a year for fresh pasture.
Severe weather conditions have occurred in the past years, responsible for the death of thousands of livestock. This resulted in a growing number of people moving to the city. Ulaanbaatar’s population is over 1 million, out of a total population of about 3 millions. The ger, however, is not exclusive to the countryside. Outside the center of all towns are sprawling ger suburbs, where people live in gers enclosed in a yard (hashaa). In cities where there are few jobs for unskilled workers, nomad-turned-city dwellers turn to herding as their only way to make a living. Consequently you will find cows, goats and sheep freely roaming in the streets.
The family is central to Mongolian culture. There are usually three, but sometimes as many as five generations living under the same roof. Growing up this way leaves Mongolians with little concept of privacy. It is considered inappropriate to knock on the door of a ger before entering, and visitors will always be offered tea and a small snack before any discussions takes place. Children help their parents from an early age. The boys usually help with the herding and the girls will help in the ger: cooking, cleaning and serving the guests.
Mongolian culture is based on an infinite number of customs and traditions. Inside the ger, for example, visitors have to move clockwise after entering. And they are seated in the northwest section (the door always faces south). The back of the ger is the place of honor and usually reserved for special guests and elderly people. Mongols have an immense respect for their elders. Tea and food are always served with the right hand supported at the elbow by the left hand (or both hands if the dish is heavy), and received in the same manner – without touching the upper rim of the bowl. If food is offered it is considered rude to refuse it, but it’s ok to have a taste and hand it back if you’re not hungry.
Out in the countryside vegetables are scarce and meals usually consist of nothing more than boiled mutton and boiled or fried noodles with a healthy dose of fat to keep you warm in the winter! As you approach the towns, noodles may be replaced with rice. And potatoes and onions will come into the equation. Milk and dairy products are consumed in huge quantities. As a positive result of this most Mongolians have sparkling white teeth, but on the negative side they also have their fair share of kidney problems. It is possible to find food for vegetarians but don’t be surprised if people look at you in a strange manner.
This combined with the lack of vegetables and a high consumption of salt – which goes in everything, including the tea – does not make a healthy diet. Thankfully, vegetable-growing projects are becoming popular in the countryside. But they are limited to areas with suitable soil and adequate water mainly based in the north and central regions. In Ulaanbaatar vegetables are readily available, both home grown or imported from China. The majority of families, however, cannot afford to buy vegetables other than potatoes, onions and carrots. Fruits are also readily available during the summer months, and are very popular with children.
The traditional Mongolian food is called a ‘guanz’ and is available all over the countryside, at the side of the roads and in towns. Only some dishes of their menu will be available (sometimes only one dish), and they vary in quality. But the food is cheap and always in big quantities.
The Mongolian countryside is really astounding. With its 1,566,500 sq km, Mongolia offers diverse landscapes ranging from mountains, trees and lush meadows in the north to the expanse of sand and rocks of the Gobi desert in the south. The country also boasts some staggeringly beautiful lakes. As most of Mongolia has little or no infrastructure, the visitor will see views of endless unspoiled countryside, dotted with gers and wandering herds. Combine this with the fascinating culture and you will understand why Mongolia really is a destination not to be missed.
The Mongolian horse dates back about 6000 years. This horse, known in Mongolia as the takhi, was discovered in 1881 by a Russian explorer named Przewalski, after whom the horse became known. By the end of the 1960s the horse had become extinct in the wild. Thanks to breeding reserves in Europe, it was reintroduced in Mongolia in 1992. About 150 takhi are now living in Mongolia – you can see them in Hustai National Park.
Mongolian horses today have changed a little but still maintain their wild nature. The horses live in herds, led by a stallion who guides the horses to water, shelter and safety. They are hardy and adapted to living outside in temperatures that can reach -45C, and are able to dig snow for food in any conditions. Where their ancestors’ manes were short and their coats of one colour, modern Mongolian horses’ manes grow long, and their colours are varied. Mongolian horses are small, growing to between 13hh and 14hh, but stocky, strong and great for endurance riding.
Most young Mongolians – boys in particular – learn to ride from a very young age. They will help their father with the herding of goats, sheep and horses. Some children will have the chance to ride at the Naadam festival, the biggest of which is held on 11th-13th July in Ulaanbaatar. Though there are races held throughout the year all over the countryside. Young jockeys between the age of 5 and 12 (girls and boys) race horses over distances ranging from 15km to 30km. There are 6 categories for the races depending on the horses’ age, including a category for 1 year old horses (daag) and one for stallions (azarag).
Mares are generally not ridden in Mongolia. They are used instead for breeding and producing Mongolia’s national beverage “airag”. This is fermented mare’s milk with a low alcoholic content. Mares are milked throughout the summer. The herd is brought in in the late afternoon and the foals are caught and tied with their heads low so they cannot suckle. Then every 2 hours or so the foals are allowed a short drink before milking the mares. This carries on until late evening when the foals are released and return with the herd. The milk from a white mare is believed to be very good for you. White mares are consequently particularly popular among herders.
The Mongolian style of riding is different from the Western riding. Mongols hold the reins in one hand and stand up in short stirrups. The tack is also different. The saddle is made of wood and has changed little over centuries. It has a high pommel and cantle which allowed Chinggis Khaan’s warriors to shoot with a bow and arrow from any direction without falling from their horse. A herder usually has a decorated saddle which he will use at special occasions such as the Naadam festival and Tsagaan Sar (lunar new year). This saddle will almost certainly be adorned with silver and have fancy material. Bridles are usually very simple and made from cowhide. But again you will often see horses sporting fancy silver mounted bridles at the Naadam festival. Mongolian horse equipment can be purchased in various shops in Ulaanbaatar. Perhaps the best (and by far the cheapest) place to look is at the central market (Narantuul Zakh).
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