For nomads in Mongolia, roaming is a sacred right

Horses crossing a road in Mongolia. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

This article was written by Elena Trifonova for Lyudi Baikala (Baikal People). An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement. 

Life in the city and the countryside is very different in Mongolia. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is a modern metropolis with skyscrapers made of glass and concrete. Nomads living in the countryside raise livestock, as they have done for many centuries, roam the steppe behind their herds and live in felt yurts, which the locals call “ger.”

About a third of Mongolia's population of 3.4 million is engaged in agriculture, though more than half live in Ulaanbaatar. Due to the harsh climate, there is almost no arable land in the country, and it is not customary to grow vegetables.

According to the locals’ ancient beliefs, digging the earth is generally prohibited, and misfortune will be brought upon whoever breaks this ban. However, these beliefs have given way to modern economic reality, and Mongolia’s economic growth is driven mainly by the export of coal and minerals dug from beneath the ground.

People mainly raise livestock: sheep, goats, horses, cows and camels. Almost 80 percent of the country's territory is used for pasture. The way of life of Mongolian nomads has hardly changed in 3000 years, leaving an impression that time froze and turned into eternity in the steppe.

Always moving

In 2023, the number of livestock animals in Mongolia almost reached 65 million, which leaves every citizen with around 18 heads of livestock, with 247,000 thousand nomadic herder families were registered in 2023. It is common for one family to keep more than a thousand animals. Mongolian nomads have ancestral pastures along which they move throughout the year to provide the animals with grass.

A Mongolian herder and his sheep. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

During the year, they change camp at least four times, and the camps are often located hundreds of kilometers from the nearest villages or cities. Due to the vast distances and impassable roads, nomadic herders cannot be reached by ambulance. Children are sent to boarding schools for the entire school year.

Mongolia has an interesting history with addresses. Due to the fact that Mongols migrate from place to place, you cannot assign a permanent address to a yurt. Therefore, the country introduced its own address system — a code of letters and numbers. This code is assigned to every property in the country. One can find it using geolocation tools.

Mongolian yurts in a steppe. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

Nomads continue the centuries-old tradition of living in yurts, which can be easily transported. For three thousand years, the structure of the Mongolian yurt has hardly changed. It consists of a wooden frame covered with felt on top. The only modern adaptation is using a tarpaulin, which protects the yurt from the rain. The structure, weighing 250 kilograms, can be disassembled and assembled again in a couple of hours.

Unlike their ancient ancestors, modern pastoralists roam the steppe in cars instead of on horses. The yurt and belongings are put into a truck, which slowly follows the herd. As a rule, the herd is driven by several people on horses or motorcycles, guiding the animals and preventing them from wandering off into the valleys. The distance between camps can be up to a couple of hundred kilometers.

Mongolia is one of the least populated countries in the world with only two people per square kilometer. The country is divided into 21 districts, or aimaks, in which there are 329 soums, or villages.

In soums, people live in wooden or brick houses, but, in almost every yard there is a yurt. There are also city neighborhoods, including the capital, where people live in yurts. Even if a Mongol lives in a house with a yurt in the yard, they will spend most of their time in the yurt because it’s more familiar and comfortable.

A Mongolian yurt from the outside. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

The yurt is traditionally divided into two halves. The right one is for men, and the left for women. The women's quarters usually contain a bed and household equipment. There are hunting weapons and men's tools on the men's side.

A men's side inside a Mongolian yurt. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

The door in the yurt is wooden; the entrance traditionally faces south, and opposite the entrance — near the northern wall — is the main part of the yurt. Guests of honor are seated there, next to an altar for deities and photographs of ancestors. A stove is placed in the center, heated with dried manure — argal. It is specially prepared and dried in the summer.

An altar with deities and photos of ancestors inside a Mongolian yurt. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

The proportions of the yurt recreate the model of a sundial. The entire space inside is conventionally divided into twelve parts, which are named according to the months of the Chinese calendar. A ray of sun enters a round hole on the ceiling of the yurt and falls on a certain part of the wall, moving throughout the day. You can tell time by its movement.

Ingrained hospitality

In 2023, Mongolia received 650, 000 tourists, and the tourism industry revenues amounted to USD 1.2 billion. It is believed that guests bring good luck and prosperity to the house. Therefore, the more guests who visit the yurt, the better.

Mongolian cuisine, as befits a nomadic people, contains a lot of meat and dairy dishes. One of the traditional dishes is boodog. It is prepared from a whole animal carcass, first removing all the bones from it. The resulting “skin” is filled with meat, vegetables and hot stones and cooked over coals.

Here is a YouTube video with the preparation of boodog in Mongolia.

The most popular drinks are airag, made from fermented mare’s milk, and the traditional sutei tsai made from green tea, milk, fat, salt, flour, and rice. The result is a rich, thick drink needed for people engaged in heavy physical labor.

Another traditional dish is aruul (dried cottage cheese), prepared on the yurt's roof in the summer. It is also common to dry meat, usually eaten in winter. Dried meat, ground into flour and sold in Mongolian supermarkets can be stored without refrigeration for many months and produces a rich broth.

A constitutional and sacred right

Mongolian boys are taught to ride horses from early childhood. A horse is a traditional gift for a boy on his third birthday. They say that a Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings.

Here is a YouTube video about child jockeys in Mongolia.

The most important holiday of the Mongols remains the traditional summer Naadam festival, which consists of competitions in horse racing, wrestling and archery.

Here is a YouTube video about wrestling and archery competitions held during Naadam.

Modern nomads are connected with the outside world with satellite telephones and smart phones that can get sporadic internet access. Near each yurt there are solar panels or a generator, generating enough power to illuminate a home in the evening and watch TV. There is also a satellite dish that picks up a television signal in almost every yurt.

A TV set and phone inside a Mongolian yurt. Photo by Baikal People. Used with permission.

Hunting with golden eagles is very popular in Mongolia, an ancient tradition of Kazakh nomads in Mongolia, who constitute an ethnic minority and live mainly in the western Bayan-Olgii aimak. Every autumn the country hosts the Golden Eagle Festival, where eagle hunters display their hunting skills.

Here is a YouTube video with footage from the 2023 Golden Eagle Festival.

To roam is the sacred right of every Mongol. The Constitution of Mongolia provides citizens with the right to live anywhere. One does not need land ownership to put a yurt on it. Some Mongols go nomad after retirement. The Mongols say that this is why freedom is in their blood.

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