For centuries a vast number of Mongolians have lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving constantly in search of better pastures for their animals and a place to shelter in the bitter winters. Today, the numbers are dwindling although approximately half of the Mongolian population still chose to live this way.
They thrive in summer and survive in winter. As you can imagine, it takes extreme strength of character and resilience to bear the isolated and harsh conditions.
When you travel to Mongolia, grab the chance to spend a few days living with a nomadic family. Sleep in a rustic ger, drink salty tea and learn to make traditional Mongolian garments. Ride one of their prized horses or try your hand at archery… the experience is incredible.
Animals they depend on
Livestock is critical for the survival of Mongolian nomads, the most precious being the horse. Horses outnumber people in Mongolia which is why it’s nicknamed the ‘land of the horse’.
The small Mongolian horse is extremely resilient and affectionately referred to as the ‘race cars’ of Mongolia. They’re a big part of a nomad’s lifestyle, particularly as they provide milk for their favourite drink. Airag is fermented milk that is only taken from a mare. You’ve got to give it a try; it’s a healthy drink that’s good for your digestive tract.
Camels are important as they provide the only means of transport. They are not eaten or milked but their warm wool is shorn once a year and used to make traditional Mongolian garments. Mongolia is one of the largest producers and exporters of the finest quality cashmere in the world and it’s a primary source of income for the nomads.
One thing you’ll see a lot of when you travel to Mongolia is sheep – millions of them. They are a source of meat, wool and leather and a bit of milk. You’ll also find a few goats keeping company with the sheep. They provide milk but are not eaten.
Next you’ll see hundreds of cows and yaks wondering the countryside. They are eaten and provide milk – the she-yak’s milk is rich in fat and highly nutritious. You’ll come across a burly beast with long hair known as a hainag, which is a hybrid. The Mongolian bull cow is mated with a female yak.
Yak and cow’s milk is also used to make yoghurt, cheese and aaruul (dried cheese). Aaruul is a type of cheese ball that is dried on the roof of the ger and then stored for the cold winter months.
Nomads move at least twice a year seeking greener pastures, usually in early spring and the beginning of winter. Winter camps, known as an uvuljuu, are located in places that are sheltered from the vicious winds and there may even be barns built for the animals to stay in during the bitterly cold nights.
Recent winters have been so extreme that nomadic families have sought refuge in the big cities, particularly Ulaanbaatar. The government provides emergency aid when the influx of nomads is overwhelming.
A nomad’s rustic home, known as a ger, can survive high winds in spring and -50°C temperatures in winter. It’s a large white tent and only assembled using a single nail, which makes that even more remarkable. Inside a ger, you’ll find a central stove, several beds and the family alter. You enter through a wooden door which is never locked.
Nomads devote their days to caring for their animals; keeping watch for predators and milking, shearing and combing their hair. A typical nomad family is made up of less than ten people and has several hundred livestock to care for. The men are mostly responsible for herding and catching livestock while the women milk them, prepare food and create garments from what they produce.
Mongolia’s national dish is mutton and a typical nomad family can live off a single sheep for two weeks. The diet is rich in protein and generally very healthy. Although they can appear somewhat weather-beaten, they are slim, bright eyed and have sparkling teeth. Instead of sugar in their tea, they use salt. No sugar, no cavities!
Traditional beliefs and customs
Travelling to Mongolia is an opportunity to embrace the wonders of nature. The people have a deep respect for nature and for this reason never pierce the earth when erecting a ger. They take only what they need from the land to survive.
Popping in for a cup of yak tea? Never stand on a threshold of a home and always move around a ger in a clockwise direction. Space is cramped so tuck your feet out of harm’s way whether you’re kneeling or sitting. Men traditionally sit on the left of a ger (west side) and women on the right side. The north side is reserved for the family altar and honored guests.
On greeting your host, remove your gloves – even if it’s bitterly cold. Remember to accept food or drink with your right hand or with both hands. You don’t have to eat or drink everything you’re given but it’s a show of respect to at least nibble or sip on it. Food is scarce so take care not to be wasteful.
Lastly, it’s not polite to offer adults money. You’re welcome to give gifts of money to the children who pass it on to their parents when you’ve left.
Best time to visit
The summer months are beautifully warm and the humidity is low. Autumn is also a lovely time to visit Mongolia but the temperatures vary a great deal. Spring is a nice time of year but it’s also when vicious sandstorms sweep across the countryside.
Unless you’re made of hardy stuff, avoid the winter months when the temperatures plummet. You’ll probably miss the nomad families anyway as many semi-grate to the towns to seek shelter.
Spend a few days living with a Mongolian nomad family and you’ll think you’ve stepped back in time to the days of Genghis Khan. Very little has changed over the years, although modernisation is creeping in slowly. Many younger nomads are moving to towns and cities in search of education, employment and the trappings of a more modern lifestyle. They return to their families, bringing with them gifts from their ‘other life’.
Thus Mongolian nomads today combine their ancient traditions with new means. It’s not uncommon to see a nomad herding cattle and horses using a motorbike. Trucks are taking the place of ox carts, gas stations are popping up and solar panels hang from the sides of a ger. It’s electricity on the move and powers such things as televisions and mobile phone charges.
Nomads have always used a traditional system of bartering; trading sheep and goats for goods. However, today nomads also earning cash in exchange for wool used for the production of cashmere products.
Education is becoming more and more important and children from the rural areas are sent to the bigger towns to study. Some return to the old way of life, many don’t. The nomadic lifestyle remains a deeply-entrenched characteristic of Mongolia and any holiday to Mongolia should include some time spent with its warm and hospitable rural people.
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