The Mongolian way of life is nomadic and intimately connected with the ways of animals. Despite urbanisation, the traditions of the steppes live on. Even in the cities, most Mongolians continue to live in a ger, a large, white felt tent that can be moved easily and has a universal layout: the door always faces south; towards the back and a little to the west is the place of honour set aside for guests; the back of the ger, the khoimor, is the place for elders and most treasured possessions; and on the back wall is the family altar, with Buddhist images, family photos and suitcases. Get a local to explain the dozens of traditional, religious and superstitious rules and customs associated with gers.
Mongolians have always taken wholeheartedly to Tibetan Buddhism and the links between Mongolia and Tibet are old and deep. Once in a lifetime, every devout Buddhist Mongolian tries to reach the holy city of Lhasa; the Tibetans in turn have relied on various Mongolian tribes to sustain their power. In Mongolia at the time of the communist takeover in 1921, there were 110,000 lamas (monks) living in about 700 monasteries. Beginning in the 1930s, thousands of monks were arrested, sent to Siberian labour camps and never heard from again. Monasteries were closed and ransacked and all religious worship and ceremonies outlawed. Not until 1990 was freedom of religion restored. Since then, there’s been a phenomenal revival of Buddhism (and other religions). Monasteries have reopened, and even some ex-Communist Party officials have become lamas. Monasteries and temples (süm) always have Tibetan names. There’s a significant minority of Sunni Muslims in the far western regions of Mongolia, most of whom are ethnic Kazaks.
Mongolia’s paintings, music and literature are dominated by Tibetan Buddhism and nomadism. Tsam dances are performed to exorcise evil spirits and are influenced by nomadism and Shamanism. Outlawed during communism, they’re beginning to be performed again. Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and singing styles. In Mongolian khoomi singing, carefully trained male voices produce harmonic overtones from deep in the throat, releasing several notes at once. Traditional music and dance performances aren’t complete without a touch of contortionism, an ancient Mongolian tradition.
Mongolian, the official language, is a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Finnish, Turkish, Kazak, Uzbek and Korean. Since 1944, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet has been used to write Mongolian. The country has produced a huge literature, almost none of which is known to speakers of European languages. Only recently have scholars translated the most important text of all – Mongol-un Nigucha Tobchiyan (The Secret History of the Mongols) – which celebrates Mongolia’s days of greatness.
An old Mongolian saying goes something like: ‘Breakfast, keep for yourself; lunch, share with your friends; dinner, give to your enemies’. The biggest and most important meals for Mongolians are breakfast and lunch, which will usually consist of boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour and maybe some dairy products or rice. The Kazaks in western Mongolia add variety to their diet with horse meat. The Mongolians are big tea drinkers and the classic drink is süütei tsai (salty tea). Men who refuse to drink arkhi (vodka) are considered wimps, while herders make their own unique home brew airag, which is fermented horse’s milk with an alcoholic content of about 3%. Many Mongolians distill it further to produce shimiin arkhi, which boosts the alcohol content to around 12%.
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Archaeological finds suggest that primitive man appeared in what is now Mongolia 300,000 to 350,000 years ago and recent investigations suggest that Mongols take their origin from the Huns (or Huunu) who lived in Central Asian Countries many years ago. The term ‘Mongol’ only gained prominence in the early 13th Century with the emergence of the Mongolian ethnic unit and the formation of a single state. The word ‘Mongol’ has two suggested meanings. The first is a geographical name ‘Mon gol’ which means the river Mon. The second suggestion is that it should be pronounced ‘Mun gol’, interpreting ‘Mun’ as correct, basic or true and ‘gol’ as pivot, centre or essence. The combination would then be ‘true essence’.
The development of the present ethnic composition has gone through several historical stages. The formation and disintegration of numerous military tribal alliances of ancient nomads and their mass migrations over vast expanses of the Euro-Asian steppes, resulted in the emergence of the Mongolian Nationality which consists 86% of Khalkh-Mongol tribes. The population of Mongolia consists of twenty ethnic groups although their are few differences in language. Only the Kazakhs speak in their mother tongue. Kazakhs, Derbets, Buryats and other national minorities are concentrated where they have always lived.
The 1998 population of Mongolia was estimated to be 2.42 million, showing an increase of 1.4% compared to 1997. However, even today, there are more Mongolians living outside Mongolia than in it.49.6% of the population are male. In 1998, the percentage of the population aged under 15 years was 35.6 and over 65 years, 3.9%. The population density is around 1.5 people per square kilometre. Seventy-two percent of the population are in the labour force. There are approximately five hundred and twenty thousand families of which one hundred and seventy thousand are herders. The others live in urban centres. Approximately 51% of the population is urbanised, 27% in Ulaanbaatar. The birth rate is 2.06%, the death rate 0.66% and infant mortality rate 3.5%.
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The del is the Mongols’ traditional garment worn on both workdays and special days. It is a long, loose gown cut in one piece with the sleeves; it has a high collar and widely overlaps at the front. The del is girdled with a sash. Each ethnic group living in Mongolia has its own del distinguished by cut, colour and trimming. The distinctions go unnoticed by foreigners, yet for the Mongols they are obvious. Before the revolution, all social strata in Mongolia had their own manner of dressing. Livestock-breeders, for example, wore plain dels, which served them both summer and winter. The priests wore yellow dels with a cape or khimj, thrown over it. Secular feudal lords put on smart hats and silk waistcoats.
Today, townspeople tend to wear European-style clothes. In the countryside, however, the modern attire is inconvenient and impractical. The del has several uses – as a coat, as a blanket, and as means of concealing yourself when going to the toilet on the open steppe. In the cities, as people start aging, especially the women, begin to appreciate the advantages of the del and wear it, trying to excel each other in the choice of fabric, as well as in the elegance of the cut and originality of the trimmings. Commonly there are three varieties of del, each for a particular season. The first, the dan del, is very much like a dress, a frock cut in one piece from plain cloth without padding. Rural women wear dan dels all year around. In cold weather they put on warm clothes over them. Terleg is a slightly padded del. And finally the winter del is padded with sheepskin or cotton wool.
Dels for men and women are of the same cut. The difference is that male dels are wider and of more demure colours. The pattern is simple enough. The sleeves are cut together with the gown and there are only a few minor details. Moreover the tailor does not have to worry about the precise length and width. Measurements are usually made using the hand rather than a tape measure. The ‘too’ is the distance between the thumb and the middle finger, the ‘soom’ the distance between the thumb and the forefinger and the ‘khuruu’ the length of the forefinger.
The del for everyday wear is grey, brown or some other dark colour, while the holiday del is a bright blue, green or claret silk with a silk sash of contrasting colour several metres long. The sash is not simply an adornment. It also serves as a soft corset facilitating long rides on horseback. In days gone by, men would attach a sheathed knife, a tobacco pouch, a flint and a pipe-cleaning hook to the belt. Characteristically, the Mongol always hid his pipe in his boots. The del collar, breasts and sleeves are trimmed with leather and colour brocade tape, which can be wide or narrow depending on the wearer’s taste. The del buttons, if they are not commercially produced from decorative stones or silver, are narrow strips of cloth tied into intricate knots.
Traditional dels are normally seen now only at concerts or official occasions. In addition to the del is the jacket known as a khurim. In cold weather it is put on over the del. The gutal is the high boot made from unbending leather and lined with fine and thin felt. They are decorated with different designs. Both the left and right are traditionally the same shape and were worn with thick socks made from quilted cloth. Traditional boots are without heels and have turned up toes. Mongolian hats are still very much the normal attire in the countryside. The traditional hat is a hat for all seasons trimmed with fur, fox fur in most cases. The sides of the hat can be tied down to keep the ears warm or tied on top in the warmer periods. The hats are worn by both men and by women. In the past, headgear was worn to show social status. The design is also symbolic. The pointed top of the hat represents Mount Sumber, the legendary land of the Mongol forefathers. The knot on the top represents the unity of the nation, red ribbons are the sun’s rays and the broad brim represents the country’s inaccessibility.
Because of the different ethnic groups residing in Mongolia, there are distinctions in the way they all dress. Therefore it is estimated that between them all, there are about 400 different types of garments, 20 boots, 10 sashes and 20 types of hats.
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Traditional Mongolian Medicine has made a revival after the communist era, due to the lack of western medicines and the incurability of some diseases. Based on Tibetan, Indian and Chinese medicine, traditional medicine has been used here since the late 17th century when it was founded by Luvsandanzanjantsan. It is believed that all manner of physical, mental and psychological ailments can be cured through the use of herbs, mineral water, plants and animal parts. The diagnosis and treatment are based on the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood and wind. The medicines are administered according to one’s metabolism, the weather and the season. Prayers are said and acupuncture along with massage are considered important parts of the treatment.
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12 Year Calendar
The Mongol 12-year calendar has been in use since ancient times. Each of the 12 years distinguish themselves from one another through their own names; all years are named and now symbolised by the following 12 animals – mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog and the pig. Traditionally, each year has unique characteristics that are similar to its name. For example, the year of the monkey will take on the monkey’s personality traits: hyper and rambunctious. The result: a very long, difficult and harsh year.
At one point in time many Mongols wondered where and how this calendar was derived. As a result, a tale was created. The following is a short version of the tale. Once upon a time during the ancient Hunuu times, God decided to create a “pattern of time”. One day he made an announcement to the people: “I am creating a 12 year calendar ; however, I need 12 different names to distinguish each year. I’ve decided that tomorrow afternoon – the first twelve things that appear before me will receive one of the names, until I have named all 12.” So, the following day, animals appeared before him. The first 11 were monkey, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, cock, dog and pig. However, the 12th animal that appeared before him were 2; the camel and the mouse. God did not know which to choose. Both would be good representatives because he created both. The camel is proud, big and self-confident and the mouse is the opposite: quiet, shy and modest. God decided to have a contest for the 12th year. The following day, the mouse and camel were to watch for the sun to rise. The first to see it rise would go back immediately to God and tell him. The camel, being proud, propped himself on a hill facing the east where the sun always rises. He was confident that he would see the sun rise first because he thought of himself as very intelligent. The little mouse, sitting on the camel’s hump, faced the west, the opposite direction. Finally, when the sun began to rise, the mouse saw its reflection on the mountains he was staring at. Thus the mouse had won the contest.
Although the camel is not one of the 12 years of the calendar, it is indeed still a part of it. On many written calendars, the camel is often showing. The camel is considered a very important part of Mongol society and its relationship with the calendar is that, in some way, the camel represents all 12 years, or 12 animals. This representation is as follows:
Camel’s Characteristic Other Animal
Ears – Mouse
Stomach – Cow
Hooves – Tiger
Nose – Rabbit
Body – Dragon
Eyes – Snake
Mane – Horse
Hair – Sheep
Humps – Monkey
Head – Cock
Hind – Legs Dog
Tail – Pig
The 12-year calendar is used in many Asian countries. Just as each country likes to believe they created it, Mongolia is no different. However, what’s most important is the strong belief in the calendar that the majority of Mongols hold.
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Music and Singing
Music is an important part of Mongolian culture. This is particularly the case in the countryside as families and friends will sing and play music together as a past time. A visitor to a countryside ger will often be coaxed into a song. Mongolians sing to their animals, sing about the environment, sing about nomadic lifestyles and sing about their patriotism.
Khoomi singing is a traditional form of song which comes from deep in the throat. Well trained voices are able to produce a whole range of sounds at once. The different combinations of sounds are said to represent the different landscapes within Mongolia. Urtyn Duu or Long Songs are another form of vocal music, so called because of their length. Some famous singers have been able to memorise 20,000 verses. Most of the songs relate to stories about love or the countryside and are apparently best sung on horseback galloping crossing the steppe.
The most traditional of instruments is the morin huur or horse head fiddle. With two strings made from horse hair and a carved horses head it is most often used to accompany singing. Legend suggests the sounds produced are similar to those of the nomad’s animals. The other instrument most often played is the Yatga (similar to a sitar). Music is often played at traditional and religious gatherings such as weddings.
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You are almost inevitably going to encounter the residents of the countryside. Things move slowly here and the standards of living you are used to are not the same. Part of Mongolia’s charm is its ancient customs and traditions. If you can learn and respect them before you step into the countryside, then you may get a more welcome reception. You may also become a small part in helping to preserve these traditions for future visitors.
let a post or fence come between you if you are walking with Mongolians
whistle inside a ger or house belonging to a Mongolian
let your feet point in the direction of the altar (which will be in the north side) when sitting in a ger,
let people walk over your outstretched legs
tread on the threshold of the ger when you walk over it
lean against a support column furniture or wall of the ger stamp out a fire or put water or any rubbish on it; fire is sacred
walk in front of an older person
turn your back to the altar and religious objects at the back of the ger
touch other people’s hats
have long conversations in your own language in front of hosts who don’t understand it
point a knife in the direction of anyone
pass anything to a Mongolian with just two fingers
take food from a plate with your left hand
wave you sleeve as it is a mark of protest or extend the little finger of your right hand, as this is a sign of disrespect
keep your hat on when entering a ger, if you are wearing one, but lift it as a sign of greeting
receive things with the right hand or both hands and ensure that your sleeves are rolled down
ensure you remove your gloves when shaking hands, if you are wearing them
walk round inside the ger in a clockwise direction
receive food, a gift or anything similar from a Mongolian with both hands or with the right hand supported at the wrist or elbow
take at least a sip or nibble of the delicacies offered pick up things with an open hand, with your palm facing upwards
grab the hand of a Mongolian if you have accidentally kicked their feet sit with your feet underneath you of cross-legged
leave a small gift, other than money, for your hosts
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Mongolia’s most popular sports, both in terms of participation and spectating are the three ‘manly’ sports of wrestling, archery and horseracing. In addition, the younger generation are now enjoying snooker, basketball and winter sports. For more information on the major sports, see the section above.
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The Mongolian Ger is ideally suited to the country’s extremes of climate and the people’s nomadic way of life. It is a multipurpose dwelling that can be easily collapsed, transported to another place and put up again fully preserving its original shape. Being constantly on the move with herds of animals or being on military campaigns compelled Mongols to build gers on carts. Old books contain pictures of such gers, temporary abodes in which families of three or four could spend the night or find shelter. After some time the use of carts stopped because they were clumsy and the gers could not be hauled over long distances as there was the danger of getting stuck in the mud somewhere or tipping over.
The ger has two key components – the wooden framework and the felt cover. The wooden parts are the walls, the long poles, the round smoke escape and its supports. One wall consists of 10-15 wooden poles, each about 1.5m high, bound together in a way making it possible to fold it for transportation and then unfold like an accordion. The unfolded walls are connected to form a circle. The long poles are fastened to the upper part of the walls, with the other end passed through the round support at the top of the ger, the only window and smoke escape in the ger. Two posts prop up the round support. All this forms the wooden framework of the ger, which resembles an open umbrella. Two layers of felt are then laid on the roof and on the walls and tied down with hair rope. The top of the ger has a felt flap that can be drawn over the roof when the weather is bad.
Inside the ger, felt is laid either on a wooden floor or straight on the ground. The door of the ger always faces south towards the sun. The number of walls and poles determines the size of the ger. Most herders’ gers have five walls, which make a living area of 16-18 sq. m. Larger gers can have up to 12 walls. In the centre of the ger is the hearth, which has a special meaning for the Mongols. Apart from its utilitarian purpose, the hearth symbolizes ties with ancestors. There are several customs associated with hearth. Desecration of the hearth is a sin and an insult to the master of the house. The hearth is mounted on three stones, which symbolize the host, the hostess and the daughter-in-law. The hearth is the centre of the ger and divides the ger space into three conventional areas – the male and female quarters and the khoimor.
The male quarters are on the western side. Here the host keeps the saddle, the horse bridle and the koumiss bag. The female quarters are on the eastern side where she keeps the kitchenware and appliances. Accordingly, a man entering the ger goes straight to the western part and a woman to the eastern part. It is believed that the male quarters are under the protection of heaven and the sun patronizes the female quarters. The most honoured place is the khoimor by the northern wall, opposite the door. Here, they keep objects dear to the master of the house, his weapons, his Morin Huur (musical instrument) and the host’s horse bridle. Pieces of furniture, usually two wooden chests, painted bright orange, are also placed in the khoimor. Framed photographs of the host’s family and friends are put on the chests for everyone to see. If the host has some governmental award, he is sure to hang it in the khoimor.
When guests visit, the hosts usually sit on the eastern side of the khoimor and the guests on the western side. The hostess’ place is by the hearth and the children are supposed to sit near her but closer to the door. The bed of the host and hostess is in the female quarters; those for guests are on the opposite side. The children are put to sleep at their parents’ feet. There are many philosophical ideas on the ger, its parts and functions. The smoke escape is the only opening through which light penetrates the ger. An old legend has it that it was through such a hole that a fair-haired man got into the ger of Alangua, the Mongols’ ancestral mother, and begot three sons. In olden days people could tell the time by the sun’s rays falling on the cross-pieces of the smoke escape and on the poles. The Mongols divided the day into twelve hours and each hour into twelve minutes, which they called by the names of the lunar calendar animals.
A hair rope, chagtaga, is fastened to the smoke escape from which a weight stabilising the ger is suspended during strong winds. In new gers, they fasten a khadag to it, a piece of blue silk in which a handful of grain is wrapped. The symbolism of this ritual can be summed up like this – “May happiness multiply in this new ger like grains of corn and may life be pure and beautiful here.” The ger supports ensure stability and that is probably why tradition forbids touching, let alone leaning against them. Moreover, they symbolise a link with Heaven, with the past-present-future axis supposedly passing through them.
In winter the hearth heats the ger and also serves as a stove for cooking. In wooded areas, the hearth is stocked with firewood while in the desert and steppe, dry dung is used. The ger warms up quickly and holds in the heat. In the summer heat the lower part of the felt cover is raised to let in fresh air. The ger, round and squat, can withstand harsh winds while the quick drying felt is good protection against the rain and snow. In the towns and urban-type settlements, gers are being ousted by modern well-built housing. Young Mongols prefer to live in comfortable flats. In summer, however, urban dwellers often spend their vacations in gers, leaving the urban conveniences for a short while to enjoy the unmatched comfort of the ger.