Mongolia is a country with pristine wilderness, a culture virtually untouched by Western influences and a people known for their unfaltering hospitality and warmth. The Mongols have been living the same nomadic way of life for centuries. Living in their traditional gers - which are easily collapsed, moved, and re-erected - they herd their animals across the steppe, forever searching for fresh pasture. Nomads move about 4 times a year. In recent years severe weather conditions, responsible for the death of thousands of livestock, have resulted in a growing number of people moving to the cities. Ulaanbaatar's population is now close on 1 million, out of a total Mongolian population of about 3 million. The ger, however, is not exclusive to the countryside: outside the center of all towns and cities 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 the streets.The family is central to Mongolian culture and there are usually three, but sometimes as many as five generations living under one roof. Growing up in this manner 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 take 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 guests.
Mongolian culture is based on an infinite number of customs and traditions. Inside the ger, for example, visitors move clockwise after entering, and are seated in the northwest section (the door always faces south). The back of the ger is a 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 (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 then 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 noodles, or boiled mutton and fried noodles, all 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 milk 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.
This combined with the lack of vegetables and a high consumption of salt - which goes in everything, including the tea - doesn't make for 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 so are mainly based in the north and central regions. In Ulaanbaatar vegetables are readily available, both home grown and imported from China. The majority of families, however, can't afford to buy vegetables other than the staples of potatoes, onions and carrots. Fruit is also readily available during the summer months, and is hugely popular with children. The traditional Mongolian eatery is called a 'guanz' and these are dotted all over the countryside, at the side of the roads and in towns. Only some of their menu will be available (sometimes only one dish), and they vary greatly in quality, but the food is cheap and always in ample quantities.
The Mongolian countryside really is astounding. Covering an area of 1,566,500 sq km, Mongolia offers a diverse landscape 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 is undeveloped, the visitor is provided with views of endless unspoiled countryside, dotted with gers and wandering herds. Combine this with the fascinating culture and you can see why Mongolia really is a destination not to be missed.
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