I’ve had the great fortune to travel with Mongol Khan Expeditions several times and am about to go off on another journey.  What start...

Mongolia

  • Geography and Environment

    Geographic location

    Mongolia is located in Central Asia, landlocked between Russia and China. Like few places in the world, Mongolia possesses a great range of natural ecosystems within its borders. It is a transition zone, where the flora and fauna of Siberia meet the very different species of the desert and arid steppes of Central Asia. Mongolia’s rich natural heritage and special biological diversity are wild treasure. Largely unknown to the rest of the world until recent years, Mongolia’s unique combination of diverse landscapes, unspoiled habitat, and rare wild plant and animal species has become the subject of growing international attention and conservation efforts.

    Large distances and high mountain chains separate the country from the oceans. It has an extreme continental climate with marked differences in seasonal and diurnal temperatures and low precipitation.

    Although most of the country is flat, with rolling hills, there are several significant mountain ranges, notably the Altai, Khangai, Khentii and Khovsgol. About half of the land is at an altitude of about 1400 m or more above sea level. The altitude range from 560m (above sea level) at the lowest point of Khokh Nuur in the eastern steppes, to the highest of 4374m (above sea level) at Khuiten peak in the Altai Mountains.

    Administratively, the country is divided in 21 aimags (province) each of which is divided into sum (territorial administrative unit subordinate to district) and bag (smallest administrative unit in rural district).

    Ecosystems

    Mongolia’s position, size and topography have resulted in a unique assembly of ecosystems or natural zones. Studies of the flora and fauna of the country together with climatic and geographic data have resulted in the classification of Mongolia into 6 broad ecological regions, 16 provinces and 47 bio-geographical zones. Mongolia also has been divided into 6 broad vegetation zones. (Alpine, Taiga, Forest-Steppe, Steppe, Desert-Steppe and Desert). Ecosystems are fragile and extremely vulnerable to many forms of economic exploitation.

    Alpine: High mountains rising above the tree line occur in the Altai, Khangai and Khentii and Khovsgol ranges. Top of these mountains are relatively flat, with few sharp peaks. Vegetation exists of low shrubs and herbs, sedges, mosses, algae and lichens and there are few birds and mammals living in this altitude.

    Taiga: Mountain taiga forest covers areas of the Khovsgol and Khentii mountains, the area north of the Tarbagatai mountains, the upper reaches of the Orkhon river, and the Khan Khokhii range. It is the southern edge of the Siberian taiga, the largest continuous forest system in the world.

    Forest-Steppe: This zone lies between the steppe and the taiga in the Khangai and Altai mountain chains, including parts of Orkhon and Selenge river basins and Khyangan Mountains of eastern Mongolia. Coniferous forests are found on the northern slopes, while the southern slopes are covered with open steppe vegetation.

    Steppe: The steppe zone extends from the Western Great Lakes Depression past Khangai and the middle Khalkha highlands to the steppes of Khentii, Dornogobi and Dornod. It is characterized by flat plains and rolling hills covered in feather grass and shrubs.

    Desert-Steppe:

    Mongolia’s desert-steppe or semi-desert is characterized by a dry climate with mean annual precipitation of 100-125 mm and vegetation dominated by low grasses and shrubs. Many of Central Asia’s endemic plants occur in this zone.

    Gobi:

    Gobi occurs predominantly in the south. The Mongolian Gobi is dry, with mean annual rainfall lower than 100 mm, and some areas remain without rain for several years at a time. High winds and dust storms are frequent in spring and summer. There are oases with poplar, but for the most part the desert consists of bare sandy plains and rocky mountains.

     

    NATURAL RESOURCES

    Land Resources

    With its territory of 1.5 million square km, Mongolia occupies 17th place by the size of territory and first place by per capita land resources (65 ha) in the world. Per capita agricultural land in Mongolia (53.8 ha) accounts for 20 times over the world’s average.

    Freshwater resources

    There are more than 3800 rivers and streams with regular run-off in Mongolia. The total length of the river network is about 6500km. There are 186 glaciers and 3500 lakes covering total surface area of 15.600 square km.

    Mongolia is a country through which world watershed line crosses. There are three major drainage basins: rivers in the west drain to the enclosed Basin of Central Asia; rivers in the north drain to Arctic Ocean Basin; and rivers in the east drain to Pacific Ocean Basin.

    Water quality is found to be good in mountainous areas of Mongolia. Rivers and surfaces streams originating in high mountain areas carry absolutely clean water.

    Forest resources The recorded forest resources of Mongolia accounts for about 11.6% of its land area. Mongolia’s forest resources consist of 140 species of trees, shrubs and bushes such as Siberian larch, pine, cedar, Siberian spruce, fir, saxaul, birch, poplar, willow and shrubs.

     

    BIODIVERSITY

    Animals Mongolian fauna is relatively rich in animal species, which inhabit different habitats of the country’s variable natural zones, such as forests, steppes, deserts and high mountains. The Mongolian fauna includes many species that are common in Siberian Taiga, European forests, in West Asian, and Triennia deserts. But there are also species, which are endemic to the steppe and deserts of Central Asia, and are common in Mongolia. Mongolia is one of the richest countries in the world by prehistoric remains of various animal species.

    Mammals: Altogether 138 mammalian species in Mongolia.

    Birds: 449 species of birds have been recorded so far in Mongolia. More than 330 species from this total are migratory, and the remaining 119 species inhabit Mongolia year around. 322 species nest in spring in Mongolia. More than 10 species, nesting in the Tundra and in Arctic Ocean coasts, stay over winter in Mongolia. Approximately 50 species migrate through Mongolia. Half of the bird species in Mongolia are insectivorous, about 25% are herbivorous and 10% fed mostly on water plants and animals.

    Amphibians and Reptiles: Habitats for reptiles and amphibians are fairly scarce in Mongolia due to high altitude and extreme continental climate. Similarly with other dry areas of Central Asia, Mongolia has relatively few species of reptiles and amphibians; 22 species of reptiles and 6 species of amphibians exist in Mongolia.

    Fish: There are 75 species of fish living in Mongolian rivers and lakes.

    Insects: 13 000 insect species have been registered in Mongolia.

    Plants: There are over 3000 species of flowering plants in Mongolia. There are 845 species of medicinal plants, 68 species of soil-binding plants and 120 species of important food plants in Mongolia.


  • People and Lifestyle

    While urban lifestyle is becoming pretty much the same in this ever globalizing world, nomadic life of Mongolia remains very different from any other civilization, and therefore it becomes one of the main attractions for visitors.

    In rural areas, Mongolian nomads live the centuries-old lifestyle of livestock herding. There are five animals that nomad family’s life is dependent on: horses, camels, cows, sheep and goats. Some ethnic people in the north of the country herd reindeer, and in mountain areas there are yaks, which were first introduced to Mongolia by pilgrimages coming form Tibet.

    Nomads live in round wooden framed felt covered tents, called “Ger”. The fact that the ger structure and design hasn’t been changed for centuries indicate that it is a perfect dwelling for nomadic people. Mongolian nomads move seasonally in search of good pastures for their livestock. In the winter, when they are the longest in one settlement, they live more comfortably with more accessories. Gers are easily dismounted and carried on camel back or a yak or by truck. Once in the new settlement, it takes as little as 1 hour to assemble and disassemble the ger.

    In winter they live a long distance from their closest neighbor and only in summer months they converge on the stream banks. Accustomed to a kind of secluded life, anyone who passes by is a welcome, and becomes the source of information about what is going in the world. Mongolians are hospitable and friendly, ready to help travelers in any way they can.

    Mongolians are not time-minded people. Even in urban areas, punctuality is a very scarce commodity. In the countryside, even today nomads measure time by looking at the sun.

    Mongolians marry rather early. While in most Asian societies, the gender of the child is very important, for Mongolian nomads it is not that important. Regardless of gender, a Mongolian child learns to ride a horse and helps parents to herd cattle at an early age. Due to the active and healthy lifestyle that nomads hold in the challenging natural environment, rural kids grow up very healthy, fit and smart.

    By law every child has to undergo nine-year primary and secondary education. Children of nomad families live in dormitories in rural areas so they learn to be independent when quite young. While most of the children show an interest in herding during early school years, the incentive to move to urban areas to continue their studies becomes stronger as time passes.

    Mongolian women have a quite powerful place in society. It could be said that they have equal rights with men because in the nomadic tradition, women wield huge economic power in the family. Tradition dictates that the work is divided between men and women in this manner: Men are responsible for work done outside and women for inside the house. Women's primary role in raising children also empowers them to have a say in almost everything.

    Mongolians feel strongly bonded to their families and these blood ties are generally stronger than marriage ties. Children grow up building strong brotherhood bonds. Those who have higher living standards bear a responsibility to care for close family and other relatives.

    Nomadic men, throughout the history, have had the responsibility of protecting the land, property and family in fights and wars. Except in situations where strength is a requirement, the involvement of men in every day rural life tends to get less and less. Mongolian men tend to have a carefree demeanor that may indicate a low level of responsibility. However, the majority are kind and helpful, but they are known for being slow in getting things done, and as such, are diametrically opposed to time-minded and industrious Mongolian women.


  • Customs and Traditions

    As nomadism dictates our livelihood most of the customs and traditions evolved in Mongolia are related to a life that moves around the freely with animal tending and being exposed to elements we have to face. There are an incredibly rich culture of respecting the nature surrounds us because we are directly dependent on it and respecting elders for the reason that they are primary source of the information and experience. 

    Many nomadic and Buddhist customs descending from ancient times continue to exist in harmonious combination in Mongolian life.

    Noble families used to arrange marriage for their children. But that tradition vanished in the 19th century. So now marriages are based on love. There is no custom of polygamy. Weddings in urban areas are usually celebrated in more universal ways. Weddings in rural areas traditionally take place in autumn. It not only because the 17th day of the middle month of the autumn by the lunar calendar is the most auspicious day of the year, but also because it is the time when airag and other dairy products are plentiful to be offered to the wedding guests. In some regions, an old custom of stealing a bride remains all but in name.

    From ancient times it is believed that evil spirits tend to take away young boys more than girls, therefore in order to confuse the evil spirits in defense of their boys, Mongolians don’t cut the hair of the babies till they are three years old. Once three years old, the baby's hair is cut in a big celebration.

    Elders are most respected. During the Tsagaan Sar (White Month) holidays, the Lunar New Year, the eldest one of the family is greeted in his house and after that other elders are saluted by order of age. From a traditional point of view, Tsagaan Sar is the celebration of the end of a harsh winter. It is customary not to consume alcohol on Tsagaan Sar days, to pay respects to all elder people and give presents to everybody, particularly relatives.


  • Religion and Faith

    Since ancient times Mongolians worshipped shamanism in which the souls of the deceased are accepted as gods, hence there is no monotheistic concept. In Northern Mongolia, the ethnic Tsaatans still practice shamanism, to this day. The “boo” or “udgan” (male or female shaman) gets spiritually linked with the souls of the ancestors and act as the messengers of the gods.

    Mongolians respect and tolerate people with different religious beliefs. Buddhist, Christianity, Islam, Taoism and Confucian thoughts have become known to nomads of Mongolia over the last millennium, and existed alongside shamanism for a very long time.

    The Buddhism has about 2000 years of history in the spirits of nomads. In the 16th century the Tibetan Buddhism was practiced strongly, becoming mixed with nomadic customs and elements of shamanism.

    Communist domination existed from 1921 to 1990 and ruled the lives of three generations. Their regime led Mongolians to an almost totally atheist nation by the end of the 20th century. Following the downfall of the Communism, Buddhist beliefs have been revived, with Christianity beginning to spread in Mongolia.

    One custom of worship from Shamanist times, which couldn’t be exterminated by Buddhism or Marxism, is the “Ovoo” or cairn worshipping. It is the custom of nomads to worship mountains, water and nature by expressing their respects in the form of heaped up stones and wood. These Ovoos are worshipped all year and there is no Mongolian who will pass it without paying respects by circling it three times, making a wish and tossing one more stone at the Ovoo as an offering.

    Other Shamanic practices widely applied to this day include tying of a khadag (blue silk scarf) to any object deemed sacred, regardless of its association, even to monuments.


  • Horse

    Horse is a inseparable part of Mongolian identity. Horse becomes an integral part of our tradition, culture, history and daily life. It is perhaps one of the last remaining nations that horse becomes core of the existence. Fine example would be Mongolians say “Man with invincible horse!” referring to a someone with lots of luck and success.

    Mongolians use the horses on a daily bases, whereas most places horse riding became a recreational or sports activity. From rounding up our livestock and transporting from one place to another and even traveling great distances we always relied on our horses. It is the only country where horses outnumber humans.

    One of the main events Naadam Festival is held in July and most watched game of the festival is horse race. Horses run for 10-30km with jockeys as little as 4-5 year old. It shows stamina of the horse and riders.

    Mongolian horse is built for a very harsh weather and condition, cold winter and short dry summer. Mongolians never feed our horses and they roam free, which makes them tough and strong. Horses here are short and stocky, bit like Islandic horses and has long tails. Being out in the wilderness all their life built them into a frisky fresh behavior but once ridden they are very responsive horses with soft ride. 


  • Festivals and Entertainments

    Festivities and celebrations are the most widely practiced ways of entertainment for Mongolian herders. They are accepted as a welcome opportunity to gather together with friends and family, and exchange information and of course gossip, trade and redeem debts. The most colorful of all Mongolian celebrations is the Naadam Festival, which draws approximately 600,000 visitors. This colorful event with its panoramic pageantry and excitement is when the Mongolian people celebrate their national sports: wrestling, horse racing and archery. Jockeys in horse racing are kids about 7-13 years old, because of their light weight. These young kids ride bareback to reduce the weight on the horse. These races are grueling and are from 15 kms to 30 kms in length. So the kids must have laser-like sills and stamina.

    The favored sport of Mongolian men is hunting. Ethnic Khazaks in Western Mongolia practice their ancient tradition of hunting with trained Golden Eagles. These massive eagles are often caught at a very young age and trained to hunt small prey in the winter months. The primary quarry is rabbit and fox, whose pelage is in prime condition during the cold winter months. However the hunting has more cultural value than economic. Kazakhs hunt primarily for entertainment and fur rather than for meat. But the meat of the hunted animal is used to feed the eagle. Female eagles are used more because they are believed to be more aggressive than males. After about seven years of hunting, the birds are released into the wild so they can mate and reproduce.

    The eagle hunters wear a heavy leather gauntlet when handling their birds. They hunt from horseback, carrying the eagle on their arm, supported by a hand-carved, forked armrest that they brace on the saddle.

    In early October, every year, Khazak hunters gather to celebrate their dear tradiiton and hold the Golden Eagle Festival. The celebration commences with a spectacular parade of eagle hunters. Traditionally dressed in colorful deels and huge fox-fur hats (no doubt trophies of past hunts), the procession of hunters arrives on horseback, eagles perched regally on their arms. Also some interesting contests take place to test not only the hunting skills of the Eagle but also the bond between bird and hunter. The Golden Eagle Festival is fast becoming an attraction to visitors.

    The wolf hunting is accepted as a very special event, considering that the animal as an idol in Mongolia’s mythology and legends. But the beast is also an immense threat to nomadic life as it targets livestock. The wolf is widely believed to be a very auspicious animal and whoever kills a wolf is considered to have inherited the good omen from the dead animal.

    The fact that Mongolians are individualistic in essence does not pose any impediment to their enjoyment of group entertainment. Even games such as chess, played by two individuals, at times attract large number of spectators who contribute noisy, animated comments on the progress of the play.

    Mongolian men like to deal with snuffboxes, pipes and horse trading. The trading is more important in social and entertainment value than in its economic value: Items to be purchased are touched and scrutinized carefully. A trade transaction has a boring precursor to it: The grueling ritual greeting between nomads is to inquire about the other person's health, the health of all relatives and elders, exchange information about the weather, and whether the animals are grazing comfortably etc. After these seemingly endless exchanges, comes the bargaining. Surprisingly, that takes only minutes to conclude.


  • Cuisine

    The traditional cuisine includes dishes suitable for nomadic conditions, requiring very little equipment to prepare. The old custom of treating guests by presenting a whole sheep or goat in animal skin is still very much alive.

    On special occasions on our tours, we serve those delicious and authentic dishes to our guests.

    Nomads usually consume dairy products in the summer when they also rarely eat dried meat. The heavy focus on the dairy products in summer is the need to consume milk and its derivatives before they get spoiled in the summer heat. Summer is not the time to slaughter animals, therefore meat supplies drastically reduce in those months. But our reputation of meat eating nation really comes from the winter months. We prepare and preserve large quantity of meat and is often consumed by large portions throughout the winter months. Heavy consumption of meat helps us to cope with cold harsh winter.


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