Truly a place well off the beaten path, Mongolia has proudly maintained but evolved it’s ancestral nomadic culture, leaving the land breathtakingly pure. It’s people are strong-willed but overwhelmingly kind, making you feel like you’ve seemingly stepped into their world, and their family within minutes of meeting them.
- Mongolia has two thriving spiritual cultures: Tibetan Buddhism, commonly called the “Yellow Sect” or ‘Gelug” is the primary religion but Shamanism, the oldest form of recorded Mongolian religion, now referred to as a “folk religion” is still practiced as well.
- The population of Mongolia is only 3 million – they just reached this number and awarded the 3 millionth newborn with a house and car!
History of Genghis Khan Empire. Genghis Khan worked to unite nomadic tribes across Asia in the 13th century to create an empire which was then expanded by his son after his death, and his grandson after his son’s death.
- It’s been recorded as the largest empire ever held in the world, with efforts among all three Khans to instill peace and unity across the empire. The three men are still seen today as heroes in the eyes of the Mongolian people.
- Ulan Bator, the capitol of Mongolia, literally translates to “red door”.
Most of the roads in the Mongolian countryside are dirt roads off of one or two main roads. This is to best serve the nomads as they move about the country throughout the year. As a result you’ll see unobstructed scenery as you travel around, but you’ll certainly be off-roading more than “on-reading” during your visit!
- Many cities and monasteries of Mongolia were burned or ruined by either the Chinese during the fall of the Mongolian Empire or Soviet Army in the early 1900’s, so many of the sites you will see have actually been restored to their original form.
Must know – culture & etiquette
- This is a great article on customs and etiquette to keep in mind as you travel about the countryside.
- The Mongolian people are a nomadic people, living from the land, off the land. To this day, they live in gers (i.e. Yurts), which they move about the country as the seasons change.
- When Mongolian’s marry, the man’s family sets up the newlywed’s couple’s ger for them to move into.
- “Ger” simply translates to “home.”
- Some Mongolians in the western and northern regions live in thin tents- looking almost like tepees.
Must eat & drink*
- Authentic Mongolian BBQ. This is a special dish, cooked usually for honored or special guests. It simply consists of meat, all still on the bone and pealed potatoes. It’s all put into a cast iron pot, with hot coals and covered with fresh dough. Often the meat is a goat (in our case, it was killed that day and the hide was laying out to dry by the copping block!). A few important customs to understand if you’re eating this dish with a nomadic family: 1) There is a bone (which we believe is the shoulder bone) that’s said to be able to tell the future of the person who eats the meat off of it, once burned down into ashes. If the person who’s future reading is on the line doesn’t want anything revealed s/he can take the bone home, or it can be ground down to be used in another dish. 2) There is a myth that holding the hot stones from the pot is good luck, so the family will likely pass a few to you to hold (and they are hot!)
- Mare’s milk. This is a traditional nomadic drink which many Mongolians absolutely love. It’s fermented horse’s milk, and they are proud to share it with newcomers as well, so expect a glass at some point during your trip. (A farmer walked over a mile to bring us a bottle of his homemade mare’s milk to share with us!)
- Homemade Yogurt. Many nomadic families make their own yogurt from cow’s milk, that they’ll likely share with you. Even if it’s still fresh in the pot!
- Fermented yogurt. There is a version of homemade yogurt that’s also slightly fermented that’s served more as a desert.
- “Milk tea”. This is warm milk that’s likely unpasteurized. It’s served in a bowl and usually offered to you upon entering a nomadic family’s home.
- It’s proper etiquette to accept this milk (and drink the whole thing). Yak butter will often be passed around while you’re drinking the tea, and it’s customary to take a spoonful to add to your tea. You can get away with a tiny spoonful if butter and milk aren’t typically your forte!
- Yak cheese and cow’s cheese.
- Mongolian dumplings. These are larger, flatter, and wider than many other dumplings but juse as delicious. If you’re vegetarian, hosts will make a version with rice, potatoes and carrots that are equally as tasty as the meat versions.
- Homemade Vodka (moonshine). Very strong! Also used for medicinal purposes (to calm the almost certain stomach ache you’ll have from all that dairy!)
- Lamb, beef and goat are the primary meats used in all Mongolian dishes.
* Insider tip: Bring some stomach medicine with you as you’ll likely get a stomach ache from one or all of these things!
- Ride a horse through the steppe
- Ride a camel through the mini-Gobi
- Attend a shaman ceremony
- Have a picnic in the Orkhon Valley
- Stay with a nomadic family
- Stay in a ger (i.e. Yurt)
- Stay in a tepee
- Try all foods offered to you
- The Ulan Tsutgalaan waterfall (of the Orkhon Waterfalls). Formed by a series of earthquakes and volcanoes over 20,000 years ago, you’ll also see remains of lava rock still scattered around the falls and the valley.
Mogoit hot springs. Insider tip: You can’t get all the way to the springs by car. You’ll walk about 10km to reach them from where the car needs to park. You can choose though to ride a horse all the way.
- The Gandantegchinlen Monastery. Insider tip: You’ll have to pay to take a photo but it’s worth it!
- Visit the Khustai Reserve to see the Przewalski horses. A Dutch man and his wife founded the FPPPH to preserve these horses, which are known to be Mongolia’s national symbol, as they were in severe danger of becoming extinct. Over the past 30 years, they have worked to build the population back up, and they can now be seen in their natural habitat at the Khustai Reserve. Insider tip: Bring a pair of binoculars and go in the evening as that’s you’re best chance to see them.
- Visit the Khogno Khan in the Mini Gobi and ride a camel through the countryside.
- Explore the Orkhon Valley. A UNESCO World Heritige Site, this is where many breeders, herders and nomadic families still live to this day.
- Tovkhon Monastery. Trek through the dense forest to discover Tovkhon Ermitage where Zanzabar, the first religious leader of Mongolia, created the Soyombo alphabet. Visit the “mother’s cave” (a small cave that you climb into head first, turn around and come out of to “purify your soul”) and if you’re a man, the shrine at the top of the mountain (women aren’t allowed). There are horses available to hire if you’d rather prefer not to hike. Once at the top, you’ll be able to appreciate breathtaking views of the entire Orkhon Valley.
- Erdene Zuu Monastery. Dating back to the 16th century, this is speculated to be the earliest surviving Buddhist temple. Insider tip: Pay to hold the eagle at the gate.
- Museum of Kharkhorin. There was an excavation effort that the Japanese, Turkish, and Mongolians worked on to unearth artifacts from the burned city in the surrounding area. Note: This was dedicated to the Mongolians by the Japanese.
- See a Mongolian traditional show at Tumen Ekh in Ulan Bator. Insider tip: Try to make a reservation as tickets do sell out. Though, if you aren’t sure of your plans and choose to go the day of, they ask that you arrive 30 minutes before the show time (which is usually 6:00pm daily).
Must go – Events*
- Golden Eagle Festival. Each October, trained falconers from the far west region of Bayan Ulgii, come together to measure their skills. It’s one of Mongolia’s greatest events.
- Naadam Festival. This is Mongolia’s Independence Day and celebrated each July. Among the local festivities are horse racing, wrestling and archery.
- Mongolian Derby. The longest and hardest horse race in the world, this 1000km course brings onlookers and riders alike, from around the globe. True excitement and quite a thrill if you decide to try your hand at the race!
- Festival of Ice. This is a 4-day celebration where Mongolians entertain ice skating, sleigh riding, ice sculpture art and ice sumo, and ice ger (yurt) making on Lake Huvsgul.
*Here is a link to all Mongolian events and festivals
Mongolia is a maze of dirt roads and unchartered territory, so as you’re planning your trip, you may want to consider a tour company. We booked our trip through Horseback Mongolia, and would highly recommend them. They’re quick to respond to any questions you have and provide a thorough PDF prior to your visit that outlines the culture, customs and planning tips.