During my trip to Mongolia, I was able to get an insight into the way of life of the Mongolian nomadic families, whose kindness and generosity seem at odds with the harshness of the unforgiving landscape.
Of Mongolia’s population (2,6 million people), 25% are truly nomadic and another 25% are seminomadic, living in villages in winter and grazing their animals on the steppes during the rest of the year. The freedom to move about with their herds, the timelessness of the land and the delicate relationship with the earth and its resources have all had a profound effect on the Mongolian character. The great emptiness of their landscape and the vast distances gave birth to a horse culture that is inseparable from Mongolian life. Reverence towards the land, a product of shamanic beliefs, has attuned them to nature and the empty steppes have made hospitality a matter of necessity rather than a social obligation.
The traditional Mongolian home (“ger”) plays a vital role in shaping both the Mongolian character and family life. About half of all Mongolians live in a ger, the one-room round felt tent traditionally used by nomads. Gers are often equipped with traditional furnishings painted in bright colors and usually have three beds around the perimeter, a chest covered with Buddhist iconography at the back wall and a low table upon which food is set. Everything revolves around a central hearth, with the women’s side to the right and men’s side to the left. The head of the household sits at the northern end of the ger with his most honored guest to his right. The area near the door is the place of lowest rank and the domain of children. Families interact, share, work together and relationships are tightened. It prevents privacy but promotes patience and creates self-sufficiency. A family may live alone or with an extended-family camp of three or four gers. Ger dwellers must fetch their own water and fuel, and subsist on the food they themselves produce (meat and milk products). Given the lack of water in most areas, regular bathing is impossible for most nomads.
Nomads tend to move two to four times a year, although in areas where grass is thin they move more often. A livestock herd contains around 300 animals to be self-sustaining, although some wealthy herders may have 1000 head of lifestock. Nearly all families have a radio to get news, and these days many families also have satellite TV, DVD players and mobile phones. In winter the children of the ger go to school in the nearest town, visit their parents during holidays and summer.
Here are some other curiosities I have witnessed during my Mongolia trip:
- Mongolian culture was greatly affected by Russian influences during the communist period and, as a result, Mongolians clearly know how to drink Vodka (often too much!!). They can drink you under the table if you challenge them and there is much social pressure to drink, especially on males. While it not may seem obvious at first, every countryside ger doubles as a tiny brewery or distillery.
- When offered some Vodka, dip your ring finger of your right hand into the glass, and flick a drop once towards the sky, once in the air to the wind and once to the ground.
- Don´t point your feet at the ger hearth, at the altar or at another person. Sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.
- If you have stepped on anyone, or kicked their feet, immediately shake their hand.
- If someone offers you a snuff bottle, accept it with your right hand and take a snuff. It’s the Mongolian way to welcome guests.
- In Mongolia there are left- and right-hand drive cars, depending if the cars come from Europe or Japan.
Summing up, I can say that the chief attractions of Mongolia are the nomadic culture and the stunning landscapes. The highlights are found in the smiles of a nomad family, a warm campfire after a long day in the horse saddle, a Gobi sunset over the sand dunes or a horse herd crossing the road in front of your jeep.