Mongolia is a landlocked country located between China and Russia. It is a vast emptiness that links land and sky, and is one of the last few places on the planet where nomadic life is still a living tradition. Mongolia may have various geopolitical, cultural and geographical meanings. Mongolia consists of historic Outer Mongolia. The province of Inner Mongolia is geographically and politically separate and located in the northern part of China, yet it borders Mongolia.
With only 1.7 people per km², Mongolia has the lowest population density among all independent countries in the world, and it is this vast and majestic emptiness that is the country’s enduring appeal, bringing the traveller, as it does, into a close communion with nature and its nomadic inhabitants.
Mongolia is known as the “Land of Blue Skies,” and with good reason: there are about 250 sunny days throughout each year, so good sunglasses are necessary.
The weather is bitterly cold during the winter, dropping down to -30º C in some parts. The weather during the summer varies, but it is generally hot. Outside of the Gobi desert, this time of year is marked with rains in some areas and cold nights.
Although most travellers choose to come to Mongolia between May and September, with the highest tourist peak in July during the Naadam holiday, other seasons can also be excellent for travelling. For the culture and the beauty of nature without crowds, shoulder seasons from March to May and September to November are best. October is a very good time to visit, and November is not too late to travel to Mongolia. It is still warm during the days but chilly at nights.
For visitors not afraid of cold, travelling to Mongolia from November till the Lunar New Year is still an option. Winter tourism is a developing area of the Mongolian tourism industry. The most rewarding experience will be visiting the nomads, and observing singing, dancing, wrestling and winter horse racing during “Tsagaan Sar”, the traditional (Lunar) New Year celebration.
The history of ancient Mongolia dates back to third century BC when the Xiongnu came to power among many other nomadic tribes.
Due to illiteracy and nomadic lifestyle, little was recorded by Huns of themselves. They first appear in recorded Chinese history as “barbarians” against whom the walls were built. Those walls later became known as the Great Wall of China.
People of Mongolia
Mongolia is more than twice as big as Texas and nearly the same size as Alaska. Its area is 1.6 million km² (603,000 mi²), four times the size of Japan and almost double that of Eastern Europe.
This makes Mongolia the sixth-largest country in Asia and 19th in the world, but the population is only three million, which makes Mongolia one of the least-densely populated areas in Asia.
40% of the population lives in the capital city of Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar leaving much room for travel. Of course, Gobi is even less densely populated.
Almost another 40% of population are scattered throughout Mongolia with their 56 million head of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels. There are 21 provinces, called aimag. Each aimag has a central city or town and about 15-22 sub-provinces called soum.
70% of Mongolia is under the age of 35 and the genders are pretty well balanced. 84% are Khalkha Mongols, 6% Kazakhs and 10% other groups.
90% of Mongols follow a mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism while the remaining 10% follow a diverse range of different faiths, mainly Islam and Christianity.
Holidays and festivals
Mongolia is home to the “three manly sports”: wrestling, horse racing, and archery, and these three sporting events take place annually at the Naadam festival.
Naadam is the National Holiday of Mongolia celebrated on 11-13 Jul. During these days all of Mongolia watches or listens to the whole event which takes place in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar through Mongolia’s National Television and Radio. Many other smaller Naadam festivals take place in different aimags (provinces) around the country throughout the month of July, and these Naadam festivals provide a closer look at the action.
It is believed that Naadam celebrations started with the rise of the Great Mongolian Empire as Chinggis (also known as Genghis) Khan’s strategy to keep his warriors fit. After the fall of the empire, the contests were held during religious festivals, and since the communist revolution it was celebrated on its anniversary.
The legend says that in old times a woman dressed like a man won a wrestling competition once. That is why open chest and long sleeve wrestling costumes, called “zodog”, are meant to show that every participant is male. Wrestlers wear short trunks, “shuudag”, and Mongolian boots, “gutal”. The yellow stripes on the tails of wrestlers’ hats indicate the number of times the wrestler was a champion in Naadam.
Only Naadam gives official titles to the wrestlers. Mongolian wrestling tournaments have nine or ten rounds depending on the number (512 or 1024) wrestlers registered for the competition that year. If the wrestler wins five rounds, he will be awarded the title “Nachin” (bird), six rounds – Hartsaga (hawk), seven rounds – Zaan (elephant), eight rounds – Garuda (Eagle), nine rounds – Arslan (lion) and ten – Avarga (Titan).
There are no weight categories in Mongolian Wrestling tournaments but there is a time limit of 30 min, if the wrestlers cannot overthrow each other, referees use lots for better position which often settles the match. One who falls or his body touches the ground loses the match.
Mongolian Wrestling matches are attended by seconds whose role is to assist their wrestlers in all matters and to encourage them to win by spanking on their buttocks. They also sing praise songs and titles to the leading wrestlers of both wings, west and east, after the fifth and seventh rounds. The referees monitor the rules but the people and the fans are the final judges. They will speak and spread the word of mouth about who is who till the next year.
Festivals in Mongolia
The Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii on the first weekend of October is the largest gathering in the world of eagle hunters. The event typically has 60 to 70 Kazakh eagle hunters displaying their skills. The events include having their golden eagles fly to them on command and catching a fox fur being pulled by a horse from a perch on a nearby mountain. The event also features traditional Kazakh games like Kokpar (tug-of-war over a goat carcass while on horseback), Tiyn Teru (a timed race to pick up a coin on the ground while on horseback), and Kyz Kuar (“girl chase,” is a race between a man and woman where the woman whips the man while he tries to hold on). The festival also has a traditional Kazakh concert, camel race, and displays of Kazakh art. A smaller eagle festival is held on 22 Sep in the nearby village of Sagsai.
Nauryz Festival, also in Ölgii, is the traditional new year’s celebration of Kazakhs held on 22 March. There is a parade, concert, and horse races during several days of celebration. Though most of the celebration involves visiting friends and relatives to eat Nauryz Koje (soup) and boiled mutton and horse meat.
The camel festival is an annual celebration held in the southern Gobi organised by a local NGO to help protect the Bactrian camel and the essential role it plays in the lives of the nomadic herders in the region. Highlights include camel races, camel polo competitions and traditional performances of Mongolian music and dance. Those who want to will be able to travel to the festival by camel, dressed in their Mongolian best including a traditional deel.
The country can be categorized into five distinct regions based on culture and geography. These regions are further divided into 21 provinces and one special municipality.
- Mongolia regions
- Central Mongolia
- includes Ulaanbaatar and the popular tourist region of Arkhangai
- Eastern Mongolia
- Ulaanbaatar – the capital and starting point for most travel in Mongolia
- Erdenet – Mongolia’s second-largest city and home to one of the world’s biggest copper mines and a famous carpet factory
- Hovd – historic city at the crossroads of traditional Mongol and Kazakh culture
- Mörön – capital of Hövsgöl province
- Ölgii – Kazakh city in Mongolia’s far western corner of Bayan-Ölgii province
- Tsetserleg – capital of Arkhangai province
- Karakorum – ancient Mongol capital established by Genghis Khan
- Uliastai- capital of Zavhan province
- Ondorkhaan – capital of Khentii province
- Dalanzadgad – capital of South Gobi province
- Altai Tavan Bogd National Park – home to the highest mountains and largest glacier in Mongolia, as well as Kazakh eagle hunters.
- Uvs Nuur Lake, Uvs province – The largest lake in Mongolia and a world heritage site.
- The River Tuul Nomad’s Sacred Valley – The river Tuul is one of the longest rivers of the country, flowing from the Khentii Mountain Range. The valley of the river has been called sacred for centuries by the nomads as they respect nature especially the rivers and the surface water.
- Chinggis Tourist Base Camp – located on the eastern fringe of the Gorkhi/Terelj National Park, on the bank of Tuul river.
- Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve – The most suitable ecotourism destination in Mongolia.
- Gorkhi-Terelj National Park – A national park 70 km east of Ulaanbaatar
- Xar Xorin (Kharkorum) – The capital of the Mongolian Empire after Ghenggis Khan.
- Khovsgol Lake, Khatgal – A large alpine lake.
- Darhad Valley – Home to the Reindeer people.
- Khustain Nuruu National Park – Khustain Nuruu or Hustai National park is home to the Takhi wild horses (also known as Przewalski’s Horse). These are true wild horses which have never been domesticated.
- Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park – Khongoryn Els (sand dunes), Yol Canyon, Bayanzag-Red Flaming Cliffs and Khermen Tsav
What to see in Mongolia
Mongolia is a big country with bad transportation, so visiting too many provinces will require much time spent travelling. Hôvsgôl (or “Hövsgöl”) lake, in Hövsgöl province, is beautiful and can easily be accessed from Khatgal. There is little architecture in Mongolia, but Amarbaysgalant monastery, Selenge province, in the middle of nowhere, is worth seeing. Erdenet’s open copper mine, the biggest copper mine in Asia, is in Orhon province.
What to do in Mongolia
visit Reindeer Herders (Tsaatan Community), Tsagaan nuur, Khovsgol (West of Khovsgol lake, from Moron drive WNW, past the airport, go to Ulaan Uul and continue north. High water can make the roads difficult.). Reindeer herders living in high alpine mountains. Must ride horses or reindeer from Tsagaan nuur. It can be a long hard ride.
Mongolia Canoeing. River tours, canoe down some of Mongolia’s major rivers.
Local Bonda Lake Camp in Khatgal village near Lake Khovsgol offers fishing, hiking, winter tours, nomad visits, horseback riding, visiting reindeer herders and the Darhad Valley. Via horse, it is possible to visit beautiful Lake Khovsgol and meet Tsataan (nomadic reindeer herders) living in yurts in the north of Khovsgol area. This region is scenic, perched at 1645 m altitude in green mountains, covered with thick pine forests and lush meadows with grazing yaks and horses, and rich with wildlife: the lake has nine species of fish and its surroundings are full of sheep, goats, elk and more than 430 species of birds. Mongolia’s Khalh, Darhad, Buriad, Hotgoid and Urianhai tribes live nearby. The camp has a hot shower, sauna, internet and a restaurant with Mongolian and European meals.
Mongolia Incoming Tour Operator Samar Magic Tours offers custom-designed tours and expeditions for photography, historical and cultural visits, expeditions to the Land of Genghis Khan, spas and thermal hot springs, bird watching, botany, nature, the Gobi desert, fishing, Naadam Festival tours, private trips, horseback riding, camel riding, 4WD off-road tours, and luxury travel.
What to buy
The Mongolian currency is the tögrög (төгрөг), also spelled tugrik, tugrug or togrog, Unicode and local symbol: “₮”, ISO symbol: MNT. There are around 2,600 tugrik for USD1 or MNT3,000 = EUR1.
Mongolian cashmere is known as the best in the world. Garments and blankets made of cashmere can be found in many stores
Mongolia is famous for its copper mines Erdenet and Oyu Tolgoi. Copper bookmarks are ideal souvenirs and this USD1 metal souvenir is sold in Ulaanbaatar souvenir shops.
Paintings by local artists are excellent buys in Mongolia (local painting center gps coordinate: 47.928958, 106.928024 , “N+106°55’40.9″Efirstname.lastname@example.org,106.9280278,15).
Felt poker-work is sold in Erdenet.
Note that it is illegal to take antiques out of the country without a special permit.
The huge open-air market, Narantuul (“The Black Market”), in Ulaanbaatar offers the lowest prices on just about anything. Beware of the many pickpockets and even attackers there. This can be a great place to get a good pair of riding boots. There is a variety of Mongolian styles, from fancy to the more practical, or even get a good set of Russian-style boots.
In Erdenet is a ISO 9 001-certified carpet factory, also making and selling slippers made of carpet.
What to eat
The staple in rural Mongolia is mutton or sheep. Beef hits the menu occasionally. Here, about MNT8,000-10,000 will buy a large platter heaped with fried noodles and slivers of mutton. On the side will be a large bottle of ketchup. Khuushuur (huushoor) is a tasty, greasy, fried pancake stuffed with bits of mutton and onion. Three to four make a typical meal. Also, the ubiquitous buuz (booz) can be had at any canteen in town or the countryside. Buuz are similar to khuushuur in that they are big dumplings stuffed with mutton and onion, however they are steamed rather than fried. Six buuz cost MNT3,000-5,000 (USD1.50-USD2.00) and serve one.
The boodog or goat/marmot barbecue is particularly worth experiencing. For about MNT100,000-200,000, a nomad will head out with his gun, shoot a marmot, and then cook it using hot stones in its skin without a pot. Along the same lines as boodog is khorkhog (made of mutton), which is prepared by building a fire, tossing stones into the fire until they are red hot, placing water, hot stones, onions, potatoes, carrots, and, finally, mutton chops, into a large vacuum-sealed kettle; let the kettle simmer over a fire for 30-60 minutes; open it carefully, as the top will inevitably explode with hot juices flying out; once the kettle is opened, and all injuries have been tended to, eat the contents of the kettle, including the salty broth. This cooking method makes mutton taste tender and juicy, like slow-roasted turkey. Guides can arrange this dish in summer.
The boodog is also made of other meat, usually goat, and is similar to the khorhog with one major difference: the meat, vegetables, water and stones are cooked inside the skin of the animal. They skin it carefully, and then tie shut the holes at the legs and back side, put the food and hot stones inside, tie the throat shut, and let it cook for about 30 minutes.
What to drink
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
The national drink is Airag. (It is available in for example in traditional mongolian “ger” tents in Ulan Bator at the main entrance of Gandantegchinlen Monastery, GPS decimal coordinates N47.92069 E106.89467 and at the West Market N47.91118 E106.83569). This is a summer drink made from fermented mare’s milk, and is certainly an acquired taste. The alcohol content is less than that of beer, but can have noticeable effects. Those unaccustomed to drinking sour-milk products may have diarrhea; later the stomach becomes accustomed to it. This should only happen the first time though. There are numerous ways to describe the taste, from bile-like to a mixture of lemonade and sour cream. The texture can also be off-putting to some people since it can be slightly gritty. It is worth keeping in mind that Airag is milk and a source of nutrients. After a day of riding it can actually be quite refreshing, once acquiring a taste for it.
Milk tea is the first thing served to guests in a ger; it is essentially a cup of boiled milk and water, sometimes with a couple pieces of tea leaf thrown in for good measure. A tolerance can be effected by drinking much milk before the stay because they don’t drink much else, except perhaps boiled water if requested during a longer stay. Also, most traditional nomadic foods such as dried yogurt and the like require acclimatization to milk as well. Cold drinks don’t actually exist in the countryside (except when drinking directly from a river, which is not recommended).
Try home-made vodka. It’s usually made from distilled yogurt or milk. It doesn’t taste weird. The first shot has little impact, at first, but kicks in a few minutes later. Most people in Mongolia usually drink this for medical reasons. First, heat the vodka, then add a bit of special oil which is also made from milk. Overheating it causes blindness. Mongolians call their national vodka nermel areehk (“distilled vodka”) or changa yum (“tight stuff”). There are many Russian-style vodkas sold all over the country. The best are Chinggis Khaan vodka, Soyombo and Golden Chinggis.
Western beers, from Miller to Heineken can be found in Ulaanbaatar. They sell Budweiser — not American Bud but the Czech Budweiser. Local beer, such as Chingiss, Gem Grand, Borgio or Sengur is fine.
Unfortunately, xenophobia is rampant, and violence towards foreigners is common. There are bands of Mongolian nationalists who style themselves as neo-Nazis and assault foreigners: be cautious. Especially in the capital, violent crime rates are among the highest in Asia. Do not acknowledge or approach any Mongolian man under the influence of alcohol. Nearly all foreigners who go to bars / clubs at night report assault and general aggression.
Violent crime is common outside the capital and caution is required at night. Dark or deserted alleys and streets, in particular, should be avoided.
Apart from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is generally a safe place to travel. However, incidences of pick-pocketing and bag-slashing have risen in recent years, so always keep personal belongings in a safe place (money belts are highly recommended), especially in crowded areas or in places where one’s attention is diverted, such as Internet cafes. Notorious places for theft are the Black Market (bazaar), the railway station and crowded bus stops.
Be careful when travelling by horse, because groups follow tourists and then steal their goods, including the horses, while they sleep at night.
Many tourists are injured from falling off of horses. Mongolian herders are expert riders, thus their idea of a horse suitable for riding is quite different from most casual riders. Also, the horses are trained differently than in the west. If injured in Mongolia, medical aid and ambulance service may be hundreds of kilometers away, hard to obtain and consist of a Russian minivan. Medical evacuation insurance is advisable.
Mongolia has aggressive dogs which may run in packs. Be wary of them since they are not likely to be as tame as domestic dogs elsewhere and they may be rabid.
Nomads’ dogs may have rabies. As a precaution, consider having a rabies shots before coming.
How to show respect in Mongolia
What to do
- Drink from the right hand with the palm up
- Receive items with the right hand, palm facing up
- Say hello (sain bainuu) upon arriving (but repeating it when seeing the same person is considered strange to Mongolians)
- Take at least a sip, or a nibble, of the delicacies offered
- Pick up everything with an open hand, with the palm facing upwards
- Hold a cup by the bottom, and not by the top rim
- If one’s feet contact someone else’s, immediately shake hands with them (failing to do so will be seen as an insult)
What not to do
- Point at anyone with the index finger (it implies disrespect)
- Refuse a gift (it is considered very rude)
- Lean against a support column
- Whistle inside a ger
- Stand on, or lean over, the threshold
- Stamp out a fire, or put water or any rubbish on it (fire is sacred to Mongolians)
- Walk in front of an older person
- Turn your back to the altar or religious objects (except when leaving)
- Take food from a communal plate with the left hand
- Touch other people’s hats
- Have a long conversation in a foreign language in front of hosts