Travel in Mongolia

Mongolian Culture

Nomadic based culture

Like every other nomadic culture, Mongolian culture is well-known for its hospitality. Upon guests’ arrival, traditional offerings and treats are served - dairy products in the summer time, and meat in the winter. Traditionally a Mongolian, even during his absence, will leave his ger unlocked, in order to allow any passer-by to rest and enjoy the treats which are left on the table for visitors.

Mongolians traditionally lead a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle. Because of the climate and short growing season, animal husbandry defines the nomadic lifestyle, with agriculture playing a secondary role. Nomads raise five types of animals - goats, sheep, cattle (including yaks), camels and horses - that provide meat, dairy products, transportation, and wool. Of these animals, the horse holds the highest position in Mongolian tales and legends.

As one of the only remaining horse-based cultures left in the world, Mongolians greatly cherish their horses. Outside the capital, the horse is still the main mode of transportation and children begin riding as soon as they can sit up. Nomads are extremely proud of their riding skills and horse racing is a favorite pastime. Believing the race to be a test of the animal's and not the rider's ability, young children are often the jockeys. The most prestigious tests of these superb animals are the horse races at the Naadam Festival, Mongolia 's national games, which takes place each July. Families will travel for days to be able to participate or just attend this grand event.

Nomadic families follow a seasonal routine, moving the herds to new grazing land based on the time of year, rather than one of aimless wandering. Historically, each clan had various chosen grazing grounds that were used exclusively by the same clan year after year. This tradition carries on today and families return to the same locations at the same time each year, for example, traveling at the end of each winter from a specific sheltered valley to a particular grazing area on the steppes.

Daily responsibilities are divided evenly among family members and no one person's work is considered more important than another's. Traditionally, men take care of the horses arid, the herds and make saddles, harnesses, and weapons. In addition, they hunt to supplement  the traditional diet of dairy products. Women also milk cows, goats and mares (the national drink is airag - fermented mare's milk). Despite their enterprise, however, Mongolians are not self-sufficient. Since ancient times, they have traded with surrounding civilizations far grain, rice, tea, silk, cotton and etc. Women's responsibilities include cooking, taking care of the children and making clothing (the traditional Mongolian costume is the ankle-length silk del).

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The Mongolian Ger

With a history of over a thousand years, this portable dwelling made of wood lashed together with leather thongs and covered with felt is the home of the Mongolian nomads. Easy to erect and dismantle, the ger, its furnishings, and the stove inside can be carried by just three camels, or wagons pulled by yaks.

The average ger is small but spacious enough to provide adequate living space for a family, is wind resistant, and has good ventilation. Gers are constructed of a latticed wood structure covered with layers of felt and canvas. A lattice frame of narrow birch and willow laths is held together by leather strips. The sections are about 2 meters long and are bound together to form a large circular structure. This collapsible lattice is called khana. The average ger uses four to eight khana, with six being the most popular size. The door-frame is a separate unit, as is the ceiling formed from an umbrella-like frame-work of slender poles called uni, which are lashed to the khana on one end and slotted into the tonoo, a circular frame, at the top. Traditionally, the door was a felt flap attached to the door-frame, but most nomads now use a carved or painted wooden door. In the center of the tonoo is a small hole which allows smoke to escape and fresh air and light to enter. Each ger is heated by a small metal stove fueled with dried dung or wood.

The entrance of the ger always faces south. Once the wooden framework is lashed together, it is covered with layers of felt and canvas. The felt helps the ger retain heat and the canvas over it sheds rain. Ropes made of hair and wool hold the thick layer of felt in place. During the summer, one layer of felt is used, but during the winter, two or three layers are necessary. Travelers to Mongolia will have the opportunity to sleep in traditional gers while staying with nomadic families or at ger camps. The Mongolian ger has customs attached to it that are unique; please refer to the guide following this section to learn more about the Do’s and Don’ts inside a ger.

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Mongolian Music

Two of the most significant Mongolian art forms are Khoomi singing (throat singing) and the playing of the Morin Huur or Horse Head fiddle.

Khoomi Singing- The physics of Khoomi singing are still not completely understood, but it’s basic principles are known. Most natural sounds are composed of a base pitch (fundamental) plus many more tones at higher pitches (harmonics). Usually our ears zero in on the fundamental and that is the pitch that our mind assigns to the sound. The fewer the harmonics the “purer” the sound (e.g., a flute does not produce many harmonic tones), whereas the presence of more harmonics makes the sound “richer”. The human voice is rich with harmonics. By dividing the mouth into two cavities and modulating the resonant pitches of each, the Khoomi singer is able to suppress the fundamental or base pitch and amplify one or two harmonics so that our ears register them as separate tones rather than as one complex tone. It is almost as difficult to describe in writing what khoomi sounds like as it would be to learn khoomi singing from a set of instructions! The end result is that you are hearing one person sing in what seems to be two or three different tones or notes at the same time. It is eerie, and beautiful. As the singer’s rich bass voice sings the words, there will be a whistling overtone and sometimes a humming mid tone.

Morin Huur- Used in Khoomi singing and in other forms of traditional music, the origins of the Morin Huur lie with the Chinese two-stringed fiddle. With its typical horse-head carving crowning the instrument, the Morin Huur plays a major part in all classic Mongolian forms of music. To this day people of all ages play it.

Long Song- The Mongolian long song is a truly nomadic art form. It can be sung without any accompanying instruments and is very melodic, and the voices of good long song singers can carry over immense distances. Common themes include nature, family, animals, and epic tales.

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Festivals and Holidays

Naadam Festival- probably the most well-known Mongolian Festival. Originating from the beginning of the previous century, the festival consists of the “three manly sports”- wrestling, horse riding and archery, accompanies by festivities, eating and drinking, and much socializing. The event is celebrated all over Mongolia, with the main events taking place in the capital.

Tsagaan Sar- the “white moon” celebrations are celebrated at the Lunar New Year. It is a tradition to climb a sacred mountain on the first day of the New Year, to welcome the first morning of the New Year on the mountain peak. On the three following days, Mongolians visit their relatives and friends, and enjoy traditional food and drink.

Like any other ex-communist country, Mongolia adopted many communist style holidays, such as military day, revolution day, women’s day, labour day and so on. Today some of them remain non-working days, but have lost their original meaning.

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Religions

Shamanism - Anthropologists have identified shamanistic practices in tribal cultures, ancient and modern, throughout the world. Shamanism is a "technique of ecstasy" (Mircea Eliade) in which the spirit of the shaman leaves the body and travels to communicate with spirit helpers and other beings for the purpose of obtaining knowledge, power, or healing. However, the shaman usually retains control over his or her body. In many cultures, a shaman is chosen or called, sometimes by healing him- or herself of a serious illness. Shamanic healing is a process whereby a person journeys on behalf of another, and brings back information or instructions that can be used to provide psychological, physical, emotional, or spiritual healing to another person. The word 'Shaman' is actually a Tungus (Siberian) word for this spiritual practice that is as old as mankind, and is still practiced by indigenous people. Shamanism is not rooted in any organized religious tradition, but is instead a system of controlled visionary journeys into alternate realities (and back) in order to contact spirit guides and gain their assistance in divination and healing. Shamanism goes back in Mongolian history long before Chinggis Khan’s time, but it was Chinggis Khan that made it into such a fundamental part of the Mongolian tradition. The Mongolians were worshiping “Hoh Tenger” (blue skies) in this time. According to this belief the skies are the father, and the earth is the mother of all beings in the universe. As a civilization totally dependent on the forces of nature, the Mongolians worshipped the various elements of nature, praying to their ancestors who have transformed into mythical spiritual animals to provide them with good weather, health and success. Though oppressed during communist time, Shamanism is still widely practiced in Mongolia, and people who seek help will approach a Shaman for a blessing or cure and even to get hints about their future.

Buddhism- Mongolians have been Buddhists since the 16th century, when the Mongolian king, Altan Khan, was converted by Tibetan lamas. Mongolians follow Tibetan Buddhist teachings, (also called Lamaism), the body of religious Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and the Himalayan region. It is a school within Tantric Buddhism (also called Vajrayana Buddhism), which in turn is part of the great Mahayana school. In the pre-revolutionary period, Mongolia was ruled by a series of Living Buddhas, or Jebtzun Damba. The eighth, and last, Jebtzun Damba was removed after the communist takeover. Traditionally, monasteries were centers both of learning and of power. It's estimated Mongolia had 100,000 monks, or lamas, in 1921 -- one third of the male population. In the 1930s, this power became the focus of a ruthless series of purges that reached a climax in 1937. Most of the country's monasteries were destroyed, and as many as 17,000 monks were killed.

Today, Mongolia is once again embracing its Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are being restored, and are once again crowded with worshippers. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times. For many Mongolians, the practice of Buddhism is flavored with traces of Shamanism, an even more ancient spirituality.

Other Religions- Mongolia also has a small Muslim community -- about 6 per cent of the population. These are mostly ethnic Kazakhs living in the far west of the country. The opening-up of the country has led to an influx of Christian missionaries, and this remains a source of some tension and debate among Mongolians.

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