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What you need to know about Mongolian customs

Updated: Apr 2, 2023


Mongolian nomadic yurt
Fig 1. Mongolian nomadic yurt

Mongolia offers plenty of activities and attractions for travellers to see and do. This land of vast steppes, nomadic tribes, and fascinating traditions have something for everyone. It is still imperative for travellers to be aware of some things in order to have a memorable trip. Mongolia is a country with many distinctive customs and traditions. Before you arrive, you should take note of the following tips regarding food, accommodation, customs, and etiquette.

Mongolia covers an area four times the size of Japan. It represents the total area of Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal in Europe. Ulaanbaatar and Paris have similar latitudes: Ulaanbaatar lies roughly at the same latitude as Paris. Mongolia has a population of approximately 3 million, which is about 2.5% of Japan's (Matsuzawa 2019).


Become a member of the Mongolian customs

Mongolian traditional way to transport
Fig 2. Moving family

Nomadic lifestyle and Mongolian customs

The Mongolian nomads are still a part of one of the world's last surviving nomadic cultures. Mongolian nomads account for about 40 per cent of the population. You are almost certain to meet nomads on your trip to Mongolia, which is one of the few countries that still has tribes of nomads. Make the most of your opportunity and spend some time getting to know the nomads.

Camel riding tour
Fig 3. Camel riding

They are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and they will be happy to feed you a home-cooked meal and let you sleep in their ger. As a gesture of goodwill, leave a gift such as food or toys for the kids as soon as you leave.

Milk and meat products will be the mainstays of your diet

Mongolian buuz, bread and drinks
Fig 4. Traditional Mongolian food

You'll eat a lot of meat and milk in Mongolia, especially if you visit the countryside. Milk products were always included in the meals. Nomads made dairy products such as cream, yoghurt, and cheese from milk. After pounding milk 1,000 times, it becomes cow milk alcohol or horse milk alcohol, which can be distilled to make them clearer and stronger (Matsuzawa 2019).

Mongolian alcoholic beverage
Fig 5. Mares milk or Airag

The national beverage of Mongolia is airag, a traditional drink made from mutton. Try the local boodog (mutton barbeque), buuz (steamed meat dumplings), and buuz. Make sure you do not eat anything from a plate with your left hand. Instead, point a knife at anyone, or extend your right little finger in the direction of anyone.

Various traditional Mongolian foods
Fig 6. Traditional Mongolian foods

Food or other items should always be accepted with your right hand or with both hands supporting your wrists with your sleeves rolled down. It is highly recommended that you try at least a sip or bite of the delicacy offered.


Be familiar with the Ger rules

Western Mongolian family
Fig 7. Welcoming visitors

The parts of a yurt are designed to be transported compactly by camels or yaks so that they can be reassembled at a different location. Usually, it takes about 2 hours to fully assemble one. When staying in a Ger, there are a few rules to follow. As you enter, keep your hat off, but lift it to show greetings. Never lean on the walls of a Ger or hang around its doors. Place your feet under your hips and walk clockwise around the inside of the building. Keep your back to the altar, and don't whistle in Gers.

Mongolian ger or yurts
Fig 8. Building up Mongolian yurts

Other customs

Throughout history, ovoos (cairns) have been circumambulated, and sweets have been sacrificed to ensure a safe journey. A few ovoos, especially those on high mountains, are sacrificed to obtain good weather, avoid misfortune, etc.

The following tips will help you avoid offending your hosts should you be invited into their homes:

· Don't forget to take a gift.

· Don't forget to say hello (sain baina uu) upon arrival.

· Upon entering a ger, women enter on the right and men on the left. For entry into the ger, leave your hat on.

· Receiving objects should always be done with the right hand. When holding a cup and accepting something, the palm should always face up.

· You should never refuse gifts and food. Even if you are not hungry, take a bite or a nibble of the offered food.

· Keep your sleeves rolled up at all times. You shouldn't display your wrists to others.

· When you sleep, point your feet toward the door of your room.

· You should always answer your host's questions, such as where you are from and where you are going. If you don't reply, you are being rude.

· Please don't point your finger at anyone. Use your whole hand instead.

· Be careful not to lean on a wall or column.

· Avoid putting water in a fire, stepping on it, or putting rubbish in it. The Mongolian culture reveres fire.

· Avoid walking in front of the elderly.

· It is never a good idea to turn your back on an altar unless you are leaving.

· Don't eat from the communal plate with your left hand.

· Never touch someone else's hat.

· When eating, keep your coat on and other warm items nearby. To Mongolians, this means that you think their homes aren't warm enough.

Avoid having long conversations in your own language with locals who don't speak your language.

A translator can help you learn the local customs and avoid potential offence with your hosts.

Clearly, Mongolia has different rules than most Western countries, and some of these may differ from what you are used to. Locals generally forgive if you break any of their etiquette rules, as long as you respectfully try it out and embrace their culture.


Photoshooting

Suppose you plan to take photos at certain temples or government buildings. In that case, it is a wise idea to get all the necessary information beforehand. If you want to take the locals' pictures, please ask them first.

Publication bibliography

Matsuzawa, Tetsuro (2019): Horses and nomads in Mongolia. In Primates; journal of primatology 60 (5), pp. 383–387. DOI: 10.1007/s10329-019-00746-9.


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