Mongolia - the Living Culture and Heritage

There are roughly 5 million Mongols today, of whom 2.2 million live within independent Mongolia. The remaining ethnic Mongols live in China (Inner Mongolia) and Siberia in the so-called Buryat Autonomous Republic to the east of Lake Baikal. In China and Russia, most Mongols no longer live in gers and have become minorities in their own lands.

Mongolian herdsmen of today share the same lifestyle as those their ancestors have practiced since time immemorial. The land use patterns date back at least to the time of the Huns and the period during which the Chinese started constructing the Great Wall in 200 BC. Their life revolved around their yurts (ger), livestock, and pastures. More than a quarter of the entire population are semi-nomadic herdsmen.

The capital, Ulaanbaatar offers a sharp contrast to the lifestyle of the herdsmen. Most modern buildings have been erected by Russians over the last thirty or so years. A quarter of the Mongolian population live in this city, but over half of these urbanites still live in traditional gers. Typical for Mongolia, there is a tremendous contrast between the old and the new modern Russian-inspired gray buildings. There seems to be very little middle ground. The modern Russian impact on architecture and lifestyle is confined to Ulaanbaatar and a few other towns.

Approximately 6 percent of the population of Mongolia are non-ethnic Mongols. These non-Mongol groups are Kazakhs, Urianhai (Tuvinian), and Hoton. Kazakhs are the main inhabitants in western Mongolia, e.g. the Bayan-this province. They are Muslims and speak a Turkic language. Of the Mongolian ethnic groups the Khalkha Mongols make up 70 percent of the population and the remaining are divided into 14 sub-groups. Westerners find it difficult to distinguish them from each other.


Until recently all Mongolians learned Russian in school, but today there is an increased interest in English, German, and French. Very few Mongolians speak anything other than Mongolian or Russian. The Mongolian language is of the Uighur-Altai group and is unrelated to European languages. In 1940 the Mongols adopted the Cyrillic alphabet, just adding two letters to the Russian version. In western Mongolia Turkic languages like Kazakh are spoken.


Mongolian believers are mostly Buddhists (Lamaists), a Buddhism intimately related to Tibetan religious beliefs. In fact, it was the Mongols under Altan Khan (1507-83) who installed the first Dalai Lama in Lhasa (Dalai is a Mongol word meaning ocean). During the Stalinist regime of Choibalsan in the 1930s there was great persecution of the monks and many monasteries and temples were destroyed. Until recently there was only one functioning monastery in Mongolia, the Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Today under the democratization process there is a Buddhist revival all over Mongolia. New monasteries have sprung up, even in temporary shelters like gers. Monks who had been hidden in civil service have gone back into monkshood. For the last 60 years, they had been serving the herdsmen with clandestine religious services.

There has also been an Islamic revival among the Mongolian Kazakhs in the extreme west, and only recently the first Mongolian believers made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.


Vegetarians are unheard of in Mongolia. People mostly eat meat and milk products. No fish. No poultry.

Although there are potatoes many herdsmen feel there is a “taste of earth” to it. Fruit and vegetables are not commonly seen outside the main towns. Herdsmen do not keep poultry. Mongolian cuisine features lamb and mutton mostly. They prefer to boil all foods just as in European Medieval times. The Kazakhs in western Mongolia prefer goats. Herdsmen milk all their animals including mares, camels, and yaks. During the summer, when milk products are plentiful, herdsmen usually revert completely to the “white food” and abstain from meat for a while.

They also pick berries, pine cone nuts, and other produce of the forests, when available. From the mares’ milk, they make airag (koumiss) which is fermented. The alcohol content can reach 12-15 percent. They frequently distill cow yogurt and make “Mongolian vodka” out of milk.


The herdsmen are completely mobile during the summer months. Wintertime is the major constraint for the livestock, as pasture is very limited. Hence, herding families usually stay in one defined winter place. In the summer, when pasture is abundant, they spread out anywhere where the grass is green. Hence, on different trips, we usually do not meet the same people. In the north where pastures are good families move location just 3-4 times in the annual cycle. However, in the Gobi families may move as much as 19 times.

Herdsmen are scattered across the summer pastures, and the occasional guest is well-treated. It is a matter, of course, to any Mongolian to stop and talk for a while and they invite guests, even a group of 10-15 people, for dried cheese, yogurt, airbag, etc. We usually buy our meats and yogurts for our expeditions from these people – usually live animals such as a goat or lamb. Meeting with herdsmen is one of the delights of a trip to Mongolia. They have not suffered as much as the town dwellers, however, the present changes are significant. The lack of cash has resulted in many rural areas reverting to a barter economy. Little is available, except for local produce.

The Naadam Festival:

July 12th is the Mongolian national day which is celebrated throughout the country. The most popular sports of the Mongols are still the same as they were during the time of the Huns and Genghis Khan. These are Mongolian-style Wrestling, Horse Racing, and Archery. Since time immemorial the Mongols have competed in these “three manly games”, all of which were necessary to develop skills for Mongolian warriors. After the democratization of Mongolia, traditions of the past have become even more important and more pronounced. Today, more Naadams are being held. Small regional Naadams are celebrated as well. And at other more traditional times according to the Lunar calendar.

There are several ways to experience Naadam in Mongolia:

National Naadam Games are held in Ulaanbaatar from 11-12 July every year. On these dates, Naadam is celebrated throughout Mongolia according to the Western calendar. Local people qualify to go to the largest of them all, the one in Ulaanbaatar itself. It is crowded in Ulaanbaatar during this time, and herdsmen enter the city on horseback. A giant tent city is built overnight on the evening of July 10th on the Jarmag steppe between the airport and the city center. Horsemen train their horses in on the steppes near the city prior to Naadam. The horses are collected a month prior. Pre-Naadam horse races are held at four different points on July 3rd and July 7th a little bit away from the city. The wrestling and archery is made in Stadiums whilst the horse races take place on the Jarmag steppe by the airport road.

Regional and local Naadams 11-12 July. Most soups (sub-provinces) and all aimags (provinces) celebrate their own Naadams. Even at the local level, small stadiums have been built in the soum centers. There are not many practitioners of Archery, hence at local Naadams, one should expect to experience Wrestling and Horse Racing only. Whereas in many aimag capitals, Archery competitions will take place. The advantage of the local scene, is of course, that it is smaller, more amateur, and especially Wrestling can be seen at close range.

Small Naadams are becoming frequent anywhere in celebrations of anything. Such local Naadams are celebrated according to the Lunar calendar. It is just needed as an excuse to stage one. These small Naadams are very small by comparison.

Since 1994 larger Naadams have been staged in the open steppes in the commemoration of Mongolian heroes. All have been staged in the month of August, with final dates being set in May. Nor date and site are being made public early. In 1995 Ovorhangai province celebrated the 360th day of the birth of Zanabazar. In 1997 there were four Naadams of various sizes in August spread over the month. We, at Nomadic Journeys, will know well ahead of the locations and times to organize special trips for select small groups.

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