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Mongolia: Etiquette, Customs, Facts and Vital Information

by Lizbeth Pereira |

Mongolia

snow landscape2
Photo by chenyingphoto

FACTS & STATS 

Location: Northern Asia; between Russia in the north and China in the south.

map of mongoliaCapital: Ulaanbaatar

Climate: Desert, continental with large variations in daily and seasonal ranges.

Population: 3,041,142 as per July 2009 estimates. About 36% of the population live below poverty line, while the unemployment rate is about 2.8%. Mongolian economy is based on agriculture and dairy for the large part and they also have considerable mineral deposits. Copper, coal, gold, tin, and uranium make for industrial production and foreign direct investment. China is the biggest trading partner and receives about 70% of Mongolian exports. The country has succeeded in paying off its huge foreign debts to Russian and looks set to play a part in the Asian economic scene.

mongolian childrenEthnic Make-up: Mongol 94.9%, Turkic 5%, Others including Chinese and Russian 0.1%.

Religions: Buddhism 50%, Shamanism and Christianity 6%, Islam 6%, Others 38%. The Mongolian Constitution grants the freedom to practice any religion; however, proselytizing is frowned upon and may face governmental intervention. Christian missionaries have embarked on various projects in Mongolia even in the face of bureaucratic harassments.

Language: Khalkh Mongol 90%, Turkic, Kazakh, and Russian.

Government: Parliamentary/ Presidential.

ponyTravel Issues: Travel to Mongolia requires a passport valid for at least another 6 months and a Mongolian visa permitting you to enter the country. Foreign nationals intending to stay in Mongolia for more than 30 days are required to register their presence with the police within 10 days of arrival. Those arriving for a period of up to 30 days need to apply for an Entry and Exit Visa and those staying for more than 90 days need to apply for an Entry Visa. If arriving by train, you can apply for a single, double, or multiple entry Transit visa. Visa applications have to be made to the Mongolian consulate.

Health & Safety: No vaccinations are mandatory, but precautions are advised against Diphtheria, Hepatitis A and B, Tuberculosis, Malaria, Tetanus, and Typhoid. It is also advisable to get up to day information regarding any influenza epidemic at time of travel. Use bottled or sterilized water for drinking and washing purposes. Avoid unpasteurized milk and go for tinned or powdered variety.

mongolian archers

SOCIETY & CULTURE 

little girl in mongoliaThe People

The Mongolian people hold fast to their ancient culture and remain largely unaffected by other influences. They live a pastoral life herding animals such as cattle, sheep, camel, and horses. The nomadic tribes are referred to as Five-Animal People for this reason. Their houses are called ger and are made of felt-like material which can be taken down without too much trouble and transported elsewhere. Traveling Mongols never carry supplies as it is the Mongolian way of life that every traveler be welcomed and fed, no matter what.

The Religion

Mongolia has no state religion but Buddhism is the major belief that guides their lifestyles. Shamanism and to a lesser extend, Christianity and Islam also have followers. They are tolerant of all faiths but frown on blatant proselytising.

mongolian horse racingRole of Family

Mongolian families can be quite large, though not necessarily extended. It is quite common to have a number of children and include old parents. Generally, families tend to follow the nuclear model. In rural areas, married couples have their own tent and inherit a share of the family herd. The eldest son usually inherits the parent’s tent and herd of animals. Families live close to their kin as part of the same herding camp.

Men engage in herding and trading of animals while women take care of the home chores such as milking yaks and preparing food.

mongolian hawk trainerAncestors

Respect for ancestors pervades the social fabric and they are honoured before every important event and on special days of the dead. In a home, the hearth symbolizes ties with the ancestors.

Recreational Activities

Mongolians have a rich repertoire of songs and music for every occasion. Horse riding is taken up with a passion and children are said to be able to ride a horse even before they can walk.

Anything else important for this culture

Inside a ger, the altar space is kept holy. Do not point your foot towards this area when seated; neither should you point anything sharp, such as a knife, towards it. The central support columns in a ger is believed to be a link to heaven in addition to symbolizing the husband and wife of the family, and as such, should not be used casually to lean against or support yourself. It is considered inauspicious to spill milk inside a ger. Never stand on the threshold of a ger, but gain entrance immediately.

Family outside of ger
Photo by The Wandering Angel

ETIQUETTE & CUSTOMS

mongolian shepherd girlMeetings & Greetings

Greetings are confined to a handshake and a nod of the head and are not prolonged affairs. Women may just smile and offer a verbal greeting such as “Sain bainuu”, which means “How are you?” Hugs are reserved for very close friends meeting after a long time.

Courtesy

Social hierarchy is a given in Mongolian culture as in most Asian communities and respect for older people are palpably shown. The suffix “-quay” is added to the name when addressing an older person. Never overtake an older person or walk in front of them. Always take off your gloves, even at sub-zero temperatures, to shake someone’s hand in greeting. It is impolite to take someone else’s hat and wear it. 

mongolian skyGift Giving

After you’ve enjoyed the hospitality of a Mongolian family, it would be a good gesture to discreetly offer the children some token of your appreciation, which can then be passed on to the parents by them. Do not offer parents money directly.

Dress Code

Western attire is suitable in the big cities for both men and women. In rural areas it would be wise to keep it casual depending on the weather, or go ethnic. The traditional Mongolian dress is a single body length piece with a bright sash, called the Deel.

man in gerDining Etiquette

Dining will usually be seated on the floor on or on low stools. It is rude to refuse anything offered and you are expected to take a bit of everything. On festive occasions, a bowl of liquor will be passed around, of which you have to at least pretend to take a sip, if not actually enjoy one. The ritual includes dipping your index finger into the brew, flick a few drops upwards to the sky, sideways to the wind, down to the earth, and touch your forehead for the ancestors. If offered snuff and you do  not want to or know how to use it, just  smell the tobacco and pass it on with your right hand.

Visiting a home

Mongolians have a high sense of hospitality and go all out to welcome visitors. Once you’ve been welcomed into a home, men often exchange snuff boxes. It is good etiquette to accept even if you do not have one of your own to offer in exchange. Tea or fermented milk will be served in small bowls and this has to be accepted with both hands or with the right hand supported at the elbow with your left.

Communication Style

Mongolians in the rural areas rarely speak English or any other language other than their own. However, they smile warmly to indicate welcome and appreciation.

 Inside Ger
Photo by Ironpark

Dos and Don’ts

Guests are welcomed unannounced at all times in a Mongolian home, but it is not acceptable to knock on the door to announce your arrival. Instead, stand back and yell “Nokhoi Khori!” which means, “Hold the dog!” This needs to be done even if there’s no dog. Do not take off your hat indoors, but it is acceptable to slightly dip it in greeting. Ensure your sleeves are rolled completely down while offering or accepting anything. It is rude to accept things with rolled up sleeves. Do not whistle indoors. Do not point your legs northwards as that is where the altar is located. If seated on the floor or on a low stool, do not stretch your legs outward but fold it under you. Fire is considered sacred and so it is sacrilegious to burn rubbish in it or put it out with water. In cities, the minimum age is 22 years for alcohol consumption and 18 for smoking.

Hawk, rosy cheeked girl, shepherd girl and landscape by tiarescott
Girl in pigtails by chenyingphoto
Contest photo by John Pannell
Man in ger by Wolfiewolf
Pony by yeowatzup

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