Mongolia is a country with deep rooted Culture, heritage and nomadic traditions, which are very important to the Mongolian people. Such cultural roots bring with a variety of strict taboos and superstitions especially in the Countryside areas. So knowing the Do’s and Don’ts can really help you to fit in and not offend anyone! There is things you should Do and thing to avoid, some will be obvious but the majority will be very surprising!
Religion also plays a huge part in these traditions. Historically , Mongols practiced what is called “Shamanism” or worshipping the Blue Sky. However, Tibetan Buddhism or (Vajrayana Buddhism) gained more popularity after it was introduced in the late 16th century. Tibetan Buddhism shares the common Buddhist goals of individual release from suffering and reincarnation. The life of the Mongolian people and society has traditionally centred around dealing with animals and coping in the harsh terrain.
Brief History of Mongolia:
Pre the arrival of Communism, most Mongolians were nomadic peasants in a hierarchal feudal society. When the Communists arrived this hierarchal system was adapted easily to become a hierarchal state farm system. However, this affected the freedom of the nomads as they were no longer able to roam freely over a large area. They were restricted to provinces drawn up the Soviets.
Religious Practices in Mongolia
Originally, stemming from “Shamanism” many Mongolians still practice traditions associated with this historic religion. This ranges from the worshipping of nature, to meditation, exorcism, natural healing and even ritualistic magic! These practices are much more common in the countryside, if you head to the cities such as Ulaanbaatar, you will come to see a less strict and more relaxed attitude by many. However it is vital you are aware of traditions and practices to avoid offending anyone, as many people still practice. This is especially important for when you enter one the “Ger” of the Mongolian people. “Ger” a Mongolian word for home. Ger is a very useful to remember correct etiquette when in one of these homes! (Read further on in this article for a full explanation)
Mongolian Culture and People – Interesting Facts
Mongolian society has traditionally been organised around secular and religious social classes. In modern times status has become determined more by occupation and position in the market economy. In the old days, family histories and genealogies were recorded on silk cloth. Traditional clan structure was undermined in the Soviet era by the law banning surnames and other measures. The diet of the Mongolian people consists of beef, ribs, stews and dairy products. Dried cow dung is a common cooking fuel! (Yum!) . Tea is also very popular!
Do Mongolians drink horse milk?
In the words of the Dalai Lama:
“It’s illogical to confuse between a horse or a cow, What’s the difference between, cow milk, horse milk? “One comes out of a cow, the other I don’t know how you get it out of a horse. Thats it.” Dalai Lama.
What is Airag/Kumis?
Airag or Kumis is made by fermenting the raw unpasteurized mare’s milk over the course of hours or days, often while churning or stirring. The fermentation process causes the Lactobacilli bacteria to acidify the milk and yeast to turn it into a carbonated, alcoholic beverage!
There are two types of alcoholic beverage which can be made from mares milk:
- Airag (Or Koumiss, Kumis) – Which usually has an alcholic content of 3% (subject to fermenting time)
- Arkhi (Shimmi) – Which is distilled and concentrated airag and can be up to 12%
History of Airag:
The origins of Airag (Kumis) come from Huno-Bulgar, Turkic and Mongol origin: Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and Yakuts. Kumis was historically consumed by the Han Chinese of North China as well.
What does Airag Taste like?
Airag refreshens and sparkles softly on the tongue, some say it can taste slightly sour. (When i tried it back in 2018, I felt a hint of sourness on my tongue and it wasn’t really to my taste…but definitely worth trying!) The exact taste depends both of the characteristics of the pasteurisation and the exact method of production. The drink itself is white in color with a foamy look to it.
What is a GER (Yurt, Ortz)?
The actual GER is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by several of the distinct nomadic groups in the steppes of Central Asia. Another name for these is a Yurt or ortz, which originates from Turkic languages. After the mid-20th century, as more and more herdsmen ended their nomadic life, they began to build yurt-like houses manufactured from mud & wood. Before moving onto creating one-storied houses, each with two or three rooms. These days, in the cities many monguls live in modern apartments! However, if you would like to experience the REAL, Authentic Mongolia, it’s best to head out into the countryside and small villages where the Ger’s (Yurt’s) are commonplace dwellings for the Mongolian people.
In Ulaanbaatar, approximately 50-60% of the city lives in a GER shantytown. From the population of three million people. Approximately 30-40% of them live as nomadic herders. It is central to their culture and identity.
Tip: Don’t spend too long in places like (Huhohot) where McDonalds is the only “culture” you will see!
What is an Ail in Mongolia?
A traditional Mongolian settlement is called an “Ail”. (group of households)
A common ail is made up of five – eight gers, with the gers arranged according to each household’s relation to the ail’s leader. Historically , an ail was a group of households consisting of kin and non kin that migrated together and formed social units. These act as small villages to support each other and help participate in kinship rituals such as weddings, funerals and even hair cutting rites. They also support each other with tending with livestock and sheep shearing. The leader of an ali, is usually one of the eldest males in the family and is called a (“White beard”) or (“Aksalkala”). These days with the increase of urbanization settlements have grown and this has undermined the traditional ail system. Now the settlement is more based on districts and territory.
Historically, land did not belonged to the individuals but to landowners, tribes, lamas and clans of herders. Each tribe or clan had its regular grazing grounds and families were allotted space within this scheme. A typical remote village of nomads is home to about 70 families. The villagers have traditionally been organized into units called khot ail, consisting of two or three families whom were related. Several of these groups are joined together in a nokhorlol, whose members help support each other.
60 Do’s and Don’t when traveling in Mongolia.
A. Inside the “Ger” (Yurt/Home):
1) DO – Enter or leave a GER using the left-hand side.
It’s very sinister to the Mongolian people not to! As they believe it brings bad luck.
2) DO – Obviously examine trinkets.
Examine trinkets on the shelfs and cupboards which face the door of the GER, such as family photos other other objects. You can even pick them up and examine obviously, the Mongolian people don’t mind this whereas some western households do.
3) DO – Head to the TOILET OUTSIDE!
If you are inside the GER and need to go to the toilet. Head out the door (Which always faces south) . Men should walk towards the north west as they leave the GER and Women should head to the north-east. Once you are an appropriate distance away, find a suitable hidden spot and relieve yourself! (Back to basics indeed!)
4) DO – Leave your hat in your seat when heading to the toilet in Mongolia.
This shows that you intend to return. This is especially important at gathering or ceremonies.
5) DO – Accept offering’s of Food and Drink, while inside the Ger.
Typically you will be offered food while in a ger this a a normal way of welcoming guests. Commonly this consists of Milk tea, airag vodka, then boiled sheep ribs, followed by a stew.. As a rule of thumb it is considered polite to accept at least two bowls of stew.
6) DO – Hold a bowl by the bottom, not by the top at the rim.
7) DO – Great people when entering the GER.
8) DO – Proceed to the left as you enter a ger or ortz
9) Don’t – Pass any object between the two upright support poles in a GER
10) Don’t – Remove shoes when entering the GER.
Keeping your shoes on is generally ok, when entering one of the Mongolian peoples GER.
11) Don’t – Whistle inside the Ger (Yurt)
12) Don’t – Lean on beams inside the Ger (Yurt)
13) Don’t – Stand on the threshold when entering the Ger.
14) Don’t – Pass the midpoint of a “Ger” without permission.
15) Don’t – Refuse to try food or tea
16) Don’t – Throw objects, especially inside a Yurt.
17) Don’t – Point the spout of a tea pot at someone, or the door
18) Don’t – Put anything in a family’s stove without asking.
B. Mongolian Cultural Do’s and Don’t’s:
19) Don’t – Point at someone using just your single finger.
A good tip is to use close your fist and use your thumb if you must, similar to what you see many political leader doing during a speech.
20) Don’t – Touch anyones head or hat.
This is very similar to many parts of Asia, where the head is considered sacred, for more information on this check out this great article: Top 10 Do’s and Don’t’s while in Cambodia – Cultural Faux Pars to Avoid!
21) Don’t – Walk over the horse catching pole or “Uurga”
(A lasso type object for catching horses)
22) Don’t – Throw water or trash into a fire!
As fire and water are both sacred elements.
23) Don’t – Urinate in any waters in nature such as rivers, streams, lakes etc.
As mentioned in the last point, Mongolians consider water to be sacred.
24) Don’t – Praise people to their face!
It is not received gratefully.
25) Don’t – Face or look towards a holy place while washing.
26) Don’t – Don’t pass or receive objects with your left hand.
Either take with both hands or with your right hand but with the support at your elbow by your left hand.
27) Don’t – Spill milk in rivers, streams or lakes.
28) Don’t – Estimate travel hours as drivers believe it can attract evil spirits to your trip.
29) Don’t – Say thank you too much or for small gestures.
(Mongols can be very shy)
30) Don’t – Complain about country problems.
Be mindful that Mongolia is a developing country, so you may see dirty streets, lack of proper infrastructure, but be aware of this but try not to complain.
31) Don’t – Relieve yourself near or behind the Cairns. (sacred stones)
Cairns or (“Ovoo”) are sacred piles of stones usually located at the top of every mountain. This is believed to offend the Gods of the mountains!
32) Don’t – Talk in a foreign language excessively in front of others.
33) Don’t – Ask for the names of large mountains, while the mountain is still in sight.
(This is believed to upset the mountain gods)
34) Don’t – Step over food or objects on the ground.
35) Don’t – Talk or joke about bad things that could happen.
36) Don’t – Wash dirty dishes or clothes directly in a pool of water.
(As water is Sacred to the Monguls)
37) DO – Strip all the fat & meat to leave the bone clean, when eating ribs.
(I even do this in U.S Steakhouses!). The attitude of the Mongolian people towards food is,
“We remember we always have to hunt and kills for meat…so we never waste!”
[I think the western world could learn alot from this, especially with the amount of wasted food which ends up in the trash.]
38) DO – Always finish your bowl of food and leave clean.
This is because of the Mongolian peoples personality mentioned previously, they have to hunt so nothing is wasted. A technique which is commonly used is when you have finished a bowl of stew, pour milk tea into the bowl to allow you to finish off the last scraps. When eating yoghurt or similar, lick the bowl clean! (The irony is in western culture this can be considered quite rude.
39) DO – Roll your sleeves down and wear a hat when drinking Airag Vodka.
If you do not have a hat to hand, briefly move your left arm over the top of your head to acknowledge that you don’t have one.
40) DO – Just put the bowl of airag to your lips if you don’t wan’t it.
Yes, so if you are offered airag but don’t really wan’t it simply put the bowl to your lips and then pass it along to the next person.
41) DO – Snuff bottle etiquette
If you are offered a snuff bottle, lightly loosen the top without completely removing it. Then proceed to sniff it, look at the bottle with intrigue and then hand it back to the owner. The owner will then sniff it again before returning it to his pocket or passing it along to the next guest. If you have brought your own snuff bottle with you, follow the same etiquette. Where you will sniff it first before handing it along to the next guests.
42) DO – Leave an ail (Settlement) in a clockwise direction.
This is true for both well on horseback or in a vehicle.
43) DO – Climb onto horseback from the left.
44) DO – Bring some small gifts such as toys or stationary.
45) DO – Watch over your wallet or purse. Pick pocketing is common in crowded cities and areas.
46) DO – Shake the hands of someone if you have accidentally bumped feet.
47) DO – Offer to help by DOING not just by ASKING someone.
48) DO – Keep belongings neatly organized and in proper area.
49) DO – Leave tips (Don’t be a “beg Packer”)
This is a phrase which has been coined recently referring to backpackers which head to third world and undeveloped countries and then take advantage of the hosts good nature. Mongols are very hospitable people and will give you so much for free but don’t abuse it.
50) DO – Share your ride to Ulaanaatar.
If you are heading into Ulaanbaatar from the countryside, many people will swarm you and asking for lifts into the city. It is considered rude not to share, however my advice is too select people you are more familiar with beforehand and ask them if they wish for a lift first.
51) DO – Develop the self discipline to sitting in silence and just observing.
52) DO – Keep your promises, by mailing pictures to people if you promised to.
53) DO – Bring gifts to homes (Gers) you visit during Lunar new year (Tsagaan Sar),
The gifts are exchanged when you greet your elders (young ones give gifts to the elder ones).
54) DO – Try “Buuz” food especially during the lunar new year.
Buuz is a type of steamed dumpling filled with meat. Every family makes hundreds and thousands of these buuz dumplings. It’s considered in-polite not to eat buuz of the visiting family. Be aware, the host will be pressuring you to eat as much buuz as possible!
55) DO – Ask before taking pictures and introduce yourself.
56) DO – Visit cultural events like Naadam (July) and Watch the Wrestling!
Visiting cultural events like Naadam is a must, as you can see a lot of the culture of the Mongolian people in action. The wrestling is the highlight of the event, think equivalent to the Superbowl if your from the U.S.
Top Tip: Beware of pickpockets during the festivities such as Naadam Summer Festival and the Tsagaan Sar Winter Festival, when lots of tourists are around.
57) DO – Try to sing when asked (You won’t be worse than me!)
58) DO – Dress Appropriately.
59) DO – Ask Questions!
If you are unsure about a certain process ask, the Monglians are very friendly people.
60) DO – Try and learn a few basic phrases while Mongolian
Even if it’s just the real basics:
Hello – Sain bainuu
Thank you – Bayarla
Goodbye – Bayartai
It’s good to be aware that in Ulaanbaatar people will understand a little more english than the countryside. However, it’s still good to know some basic phrases which will definitely go a long way.
Address elders/authorities with “Ta” not “Chee”
Is Mongolia Safe?
Mongolia is generally a pretty safe place for tourists and travellers!
Mongolia has one of the lowest crime rates in Asia! So as long as you follow the cultural rules above and use your common sense you should be fine! The only concern when traveling in busy cities like Ulaanbataar is your might get your purse or wallet pickpocketed or even snatched! This can be a real nightmare if your have all your traveling cash and your passport in there! Be more alert on pubic transport such as trains, buses and in airports. Also the major tourist landmarks are common places. Such as Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbataar, Naran Tuul Market, Central Post office and the Gandan Monastery.
These specific areas have organized gangs operating in the area regularly! So make sure your money is hidden. You might be thinking, How can I hide my money safely?
The Real Game changer – Hidden Money Belt!
A top tip is to use a hidden Money Belt, (I don’t travel anywhere without mine now!). It hides your money and tucks away neatly under your shirt to keep it out of site from prying eyes. Get yours now on our Essentials page which compares all the prices worldwide.
Great Secret money belt for emergency cash…
Scams to Avoid in Mongolia
The “Travel Insurance” scam at the Mongolian Border
If you are crossing the border from Mongolia into either Russia or China beware of this one. You could be stopped by someone in an official looking uniform. They will tell you that you must have “travel insurance” in order to cross the border! They will then try to sell you it on the spot! Don’t buy the lie! Refuse politely, come up with some excuse and continue your journey.
Unofficial taxis in Mongolia
As is common in many parts of Asia, unmarked cars often pull up offering to give you a lift. This will either be extortionate prices or even worse you could be held at ransom! Your best bet is to get your hotel or a nearby restaurant to call you an official taxi.
Mongol Street Kids/Pickpockets.
Be aware that you may be harassed for money upon leaving a bar of large groups of street kids. This may seem harmless but sometimes it can be a distraction for a pickpocket. Keep your money belt on at all times!
Mongolian Horse Theft!
Don’t book overnight horse trekking with non reputable agencies. If your traveling across the desert you may be followed by armed bandits, whom will take your horses and stuff. Sometimes even the local tour guide is in on it! Make sure your book with a respectable agency. If you book a package with mtravels, we will connect your with reputable local companies…enquire for further details.
Mongolian Food’s you have to Try!
As stated previously, Mongolia’s desert/steppe climate is too cold to grow much in the way of vegetables or fruit, so most of the classic Mongolian dishes are meat and dairy dishes, with fairly simple seasonings.
Buuz (Dumplings) or (Khuushuur)
Buuz is a type of steamed meat dumplings (buuz). They resemble other Asian dumplings – potstickers or steamed buns , with one difference being the thick, hearty dough. Spices for the filling are usually just onions or garlic, salt, maybe pepper or caraway. Khuushuur is a fried meat dumpling version which many tourists seem to love!
Tsuivan is a dish of thick, handcut noodles. It usually contains small bits of meat and unremarkable slivers of vegetables, and is often rather greasy, but handmade noodles are always a good thing!
Boodog is a marmot roasted by piling hot stones in the stomach. Boodog is a fun, all-day experience, there’s a lot of preparation involving fire and everyone gets progressively drunker! Think like having a BBQ in the U.S. However, Beware (Warning: marmot fleas carry black plague! Outbreaks are rare, but do occur.) So be careful!
Is another hot-stones BBQ style roast. But this time, instead of putting the hot stones in the animal’s stomach, goat meat and stones are sealed in a metal can. This is common when your out in the countryside, so don’t expect to see this in any restaurants!
It’s great to wash this down with some,Milk Tea and some Bansh (Handmade small dumpling) on the side.
Mongolia Bottom Line.
Mongolia is a vast and colourful place steeped with great traditions and history! If you follow the Do’s and Don’ts above and keep an open mind, you will have a wonderful experience. I highly recommended traveling to Mongolia if you want a little more authenticity in your next trip!
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