There has been very little change in the way of living of Mongolian nomads for several hundred years. Their ancestors inhabited a huge area of the Central Asian steppe and mountain steppe, moving from one place to another seeking better pasture for their animals. This has been the case for their entire history, through the Hun dynasty in 200 BC, Chingis Khaan’s Mongol Empire in the 13th century and even after the socialist revolution in the 1920′s.
Nomads represent approximately half of the Mongolian population. They mostly live tens of miles away from any communities, villages and towns and have rather rough lives in a common condition where they are unable to be provided with electricity. It takes a couple of weeks for them to get current editions of national and local newspapers. The only reliable information source seems to be radios charged with batteries, which can be found in almost every nomadic family.
The extreme climate and geography as well as the landlocked condition greatly influenced the Mongols’ way of life, which has always been close to the animals and close to the steppes. The Mongolian nomads are often called ‘five animal people’, because the nomadic society is based on the five principal animals traditionally herded: horses, camels, cattle, sheep and goats. They also keep Tibetan yaks used for producing milk and cheese.
The horse is the most important of the five animals. It is the perfect means of transport for the terrain. It is said that children are taught to ride before walking. To catch a horse, Mongols use polo-lasso called “uurga” consisting of a rope loop at the end of a very long pole. Mares are milked and fermented milk is the Mongolians’ favourite drink “the airag” which can then be distilled in an alcohol, “arhi”, the typical Mongolian vodka. Airag is offered as a ritual to the visitors.
The camel they breed is the Bactrian camel, a two-humped camel able to endure the extremes of cold and hot. The camel as well as the yak are used as beasts of burden specially to transport the dismantled ger from place to place.
In Mongolia a settled agricultural life has not been possible because herders have to move from one pasture to another. Nomads move several times a year. The longest period they stay in the same pasture is between October and late April. Every nomadic family has a winter place with a fence and shelter made of stones and wood called ‘uvuljuu’. Apart from protecting livestock from the cold of harsh winter, animals give birth to their young in an ‘uvuljuu’ around late winter and early spring. Usual daily activities of nomads are all to do with herding their livestock and processing its raw material to convert them into food, clothing and shelters, such as feeding animals, training horses, cutting sheep wool, brushing cashmere, making felts and milking animals as well as producing dairy products.
The nomads have developed a circular felt-covered dwelling, the ger (or yurt in Turkish language), adapted to the difficult conditions of their daily life (cold, wind, sun) and easily moved. It can be raised and dismantled in thirty to sixty minutes. The gers have beautiful carved and decorated doors south oriented. When entering into a ger airag and cheese are blown and snuff bottles are exchanged. It is very easy to meet nomads and enter into a ger, Mongolian nomads being very hospitable. Accommodation in ger camps provides a perfect balance between comfort and authenticity and allows tourists to visit remote places with no other accommodation facilities.
The Mongolian traditional dress is called the ‘Deel’. Cut in a very simple pattern (in one piece) and buttoned at an angle it is worn with a bright-coloured sash. There are several different types of deel: winter, summer, spring deels and party deel. Party deels are most colourful usually made of valuable silk and worn during Naadam, Tsagaaan Sar and any other nomadic ceremonies.
Mongolian diet is based on dairy products and meat, especially fatty boiled mutton, though the whole sheep is good for eating. Steamed-boiled dumplings (buuz) are another variant of cooked meat. Vegetables have been introduced very recently, especially, potatoes, cabbage, carrots and onions.