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Mongolia is rich in culture and traditions. The nomads have roamed the steppes for centuries developing intricate systems for survival in the harsh climate and barren landscape of Central Asia. Here is just a short overview of some of the different aspects of this fascinating and ancient culture.
Throat singing is a talent learnt by only a few in Mongolia and is regarded as a great skill. The unique sounds produced through this technique are exquisite. Throat singers use a technique of circular breathing so it seems that they never draw breath in a song lasting up to 3-4 minutes.
Or horse violin is one of the many unique traditional instruments of the Mongolian people. Great legends surround the origins of this violin the strings of which are made from horse hair. The Morin Khuur is used on its own, with vocal or other instruments accompanying it. Thousands of songs have been written to be used by this famous instrument.
The long winter months with howling winds, snow storms and blizzards are passed in good spirits by Mongolians through playing games and singing songs. Mongolia has a very rich tradition of games and music. Most nomadic people are still without electricity, unless they live close to a administrative centre, so television is not an option. Games are made out of the bones of animals and card playing is another favourite. At any celebration or gathering in Mongolia people enjoy singing. Participants sit around in a circle and whoever is holding the cup of vodka begins the next song. There is no time for bashfulness or shyness. It is not about who has the best voice or can sing the loudest. Everyone has a turn. As the next song begins everyone joins in and the melodies and sounds made are transfixing.
While travelling in Mongolia you will frequently come across piles of rocks, usually located on the peak of a hill or on a small rise. This is a site of worship for Mongolian people known as an `ovoo'. Mongolians use these places of worship when travelling as a way to offer thanks to the surrounding nature and the gods and to seek safety when continuing their journey. Offerings are made by throwing three small rocks onto the `ovoo' and then walking around the pile three times, in a clockwise direction. Some ovoos are huge mounds consisting of rocks, animal skulls, vodka bottles and blue silk. These larger ovoos are usually found in very sacred sites such as on the very top of a mountain or on a special pass leading to lakes or rivers.
Tsagaan Tsar is celebrated according to the lunar calender and is the official New Year for Mongolians. It also marks the end of winter and the beginning of the spring. Tsagaan Tsar is a lengthy celebration and a time for visiting family and friends. Traditionally the first day of the New Year begins by visiting a nearby, ovoo, or site of worship to offer thanks and gifts to the gods of the nature. After this the celebrating begins.
Families first visit the oldest members. Blue silk is used as a formal greeting and gifts are offered, usually money. Each member of the family is visited, from oldest to youngest, followed by other relatives and friends. The whole process can last up to several weeks in the countryside where long distances are travelled to make the visit.
The celebration becomes an endless round of eating and drinking. Buuz, or steamed dumplings are constantly on the stove and served to each new guest that arrives. The fattest sheep is killed and great hunks of mutton fat dished out. A fat sheep's tail will adorn the centre of every family's dinner table. Vodka is also drunk, toasts made and many songs chanted and sung.
The main ingredients of the Mongolian diet is meat and milk products. Anything green or leafy is considered goat's food. Although a diet with lots of mutton fat, fermented milk and salty tea is not a popular dieters choice it has provided much sustenance, energy and nutrition for the nomad for centuries. There is not a lot of variation in the diet of the Mongolians but it is amazing the number and variety of meals that they can produce with such limited ingredients. Milk is taken from yaks, cows, sheep, goat and camels. Try to the yak's cream - it is really to die for. The woman's work is the milking. Sheep and goats are harnessed together, shoulder to shoulder, and milked early morning and at dusk. Throughout the summer mares are milked every two hours to make the mare's milk, `airag'. Milk not fermented is used to make the salty tea. In addition to cream, milk and yoghurt, a variety of cheeses and curds make up what is known as the `white foods'. Appropriately, white is considered to be the colour of luck by the nomadic peoples.
Meat is eaten from sheep, cow, goat, camel, yak and sometimes horse (although only in very hard times) Although Buddhists, Mongolians would not survive without being meat eaters, a short prayer is always said before the slaughter, which is carried out in the most humane manner. The herdsman lies the sheep down on its back, a small slit is made in the chest of the animal and the death is quick and relatively trauma free as the herdsman tightly squeezes the aorta. They say the sheep die happily as it is the first time the herdsman has allowed it to lie back and gaze at the blue sky. Every part of the animal is then used - either eaten or used for clothes or coverings. The woman, not allowed to watch the actual slaughter, then has the equally gruesome job of cleaning the innards and preparing the meat. Meat is usually cured and dried to last throughout the winter and spring. Herdsmen don't like killing animals during these seasons when they are lean. Animals are usually only killed when they are fat and on special occasions. `Khorhog' or `bordog' are favourites for celebrations. This is when hot rocks are placed into the skin of the animal, or an urn, followed by chunks of meat and water. The neck of the animal is then sewn up and the meat allowed to roast. Marmots are also hunted in the summer months and their meat is considered a delicacy.
Three Games of the Men' - the major festival of Mongolia celebrating the three sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing. The major festival is held from 11-13 July each year. However, the word `Naadam' denotes any sporting event consisting of horse racing and wrestling and may be held throughout the year to mark any special event or momentous occasion. The Festival held in July is held at many locations throughout the country, the most important and prestigious being in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Riders and competitors travel for thousands of kilometres to take part in the event and winners are richly rewarded with fame. The competitions are also screened on national television and the final of the wrestling usually stops the nation, sometimes for many hours. Local Naadams are held in all regional locations and are a much more intimate affairs than the official celebration in Ulaanbaatar.
The horse racing can be held over huge distances, up to 20km. The jockeys are children as the lighter the load the faster the horse. Sometimes they even forsake saddle and boots to save even more weight. Not surprisingly, it is not uncommon for a horse to gallop into the finish line riderless. Both child and horse are decorated in bright silks and ribbons for race day. Buddhist mantras are chanted before the race to help give the horse speed. The riders set off from the finish line and ride out, at a slow canter to the start line. When they reach their destination a cry is let out and they all turn around and head off, at full speed, back to the finish line. The winner of the race is usually rewarded with expensive gifts and songs are sung in praise of the fastest horse. The horse is also anointed with mare's milk.
The pride of Mongolia is the wrestler. The men participating in this event are revered by all Mongolians and the winner is given the most prestigious title of `lion'. Much skill and training goes into the sport of wrestling and it takes years not only to master the sport but to understand what is going on. The wrestling at Naadam is a knock-out competition and the final may last for several hours, depending on the skill of the competitors. The costume of the wrestler consists of great heavy, decorated boots, a small long sleeved top with bare chest and an even smaller pair of briefs. It is told that in times past the top also covered the chest. It was when a woman, disguised as a man, won the competition that the open-chested design was decided upon, thereby eliminating women once and for all from the competition. Sadly, archers are becoming rarer and rarer in Mongolia, although women are allowed to compete in this event.
As much activity goes on behind the scenes at Naadam as in the actual competitions. In the background is the Asar, or festival tent, under which sits the guests of honour. Other tents are erected all over the grasslands and singing and drinking go on long into the night.
When entering a ger, which you do without knocking, always walk clockwise around the ger and sit on the left hand side. The hostess will immediately start brewing some tea and it is considered rude to leave without at least tasting some tea. Everything, from tea to soup to airag , is served in small ceramic bowls. The hostess will pass the bowl to you in her right hand with her left hand resting underneath her right elbow. You should receive the bowl likewise. The tea is the salty, milky variety - an acquired taste with practice and a bit of dehydration due to low salt levels. Your bowl will miraculously remain full to the brim unless you place you hand over the bowl to indicate that you do not want any more.
The traditional dress of the Mongolian people. There are many variations on the same basic theme, depending upon which area of Mongolia you are in and from which ethic group the people come from. The basic design consists of a long gown, which wraps around the body and buttons at the top and at the side, underneath the arms. Around the waist (for women) or on the hips (for men) a sash, or boos, is tired. An amazing array of colours are used for the fabric of a deel - the brighter the better. Deep maroons with bright orange, bright blues with patterns of deep gold, brilliant green with shocking yellow. The fabrics used range from soft silks, to heavy cottons and rich velvets. Heavy silver buttons are used and more colour trimmings at the edges to finish off.
Mongolians usually own several deels. Some would be only used for working in when they are out riding on the steppes or doing chores about the house. They would then own one or maybe more good dels, which are packed away and brought out only for special occasions.
As with most things in Mongolia the del is remarkably versatile, being used for a variety of purposes from a blanket to keep warm at night to a basket to carry dung home to the ger.
The home of the nomad, otherwise known as the 'yurt' to Mongolia's northern neighbours. The ger has been used as the traditional home of the nomadic peoples of the steppe for centuries. The construction of this small home is so simple and so brilliant. The ger is completely detachable and fits easily onto the back of a couple of camels, or these days, a Russian truck. The ger has many advantages for those whose lifestyle keeps them constantly on the move. It takes about 45 minutes to set up and take down again; it is light and easily transportable; it is small (depending on the number of walls it has) so there is little space inside for accumulating junk; it is easy to heat and stays warm in winter and cool in summer; it sleeps about 20 at a squeeze; and can be easily made using only a couple of trees, some horse hair and sheep's wool made into felt.
A ger consists of wooden lattice walls; wooden polls, ascending from their resting place on the lattice work to join at the top, forming the roof; a circular wooden structure into which fit the top of the wooden polls. The circular piece of wood sits on two large wooden polls which are placed on the ground in the middle of the ger, holding the whole structure in place. Around the outside of the ger is placed layers of felt. The colder the temperature the more layers of felt are piled on top. They are held down by wrapping rope, made from horse hair, around the outer circumference of the ger. Inside the limited space is used efficiently by the nomadic people. They have few belongings and keep only what is completely necessary for their life on the steppe. There is nothing like moving four times a year to keep ones possessions to a minimum. In the centre of the ger is a pot belly stove. This is also the central to the lives of the women. The stove is made of steel and has a cylindrical chimney which sticks outside the roof of the ger. It has been said that a man seeking a good wife for his son will rise early and go out with his horse, waiting to see which ger will emit the first puffs of smoke, indicating that a young lady is up and busily making the first cup of tea for the men of the family.
The fire is usually made with animal dung or wood. Since wood is very scarce in most areas of Mongolia the dung is usually collected by the women and children, using pitch forks and baskets on their back, and pilled high outside the ger. Dung radiates an amazing amount of heat and is very useful for boiling water quickly or making meaty broths. Traditionally the women and children occupy the right hand side of the ger as you enter. This area consists of all a small cupboard housing all the cooking utensils and bowls for eating and drinking. The left hand side of the ger is for guests and the top of the ger is for the man of the house. Sometimes a nomadic family will have a separate ger where all the milk products are kept and the implements for making them. Otherwise, it is not uncommon to see a large leather pouch with airag (mare's milk) brewing in the corner of a ger or small, hard lumps of arul (dried curd) baking in the sun on the roof of a ger.
The door of the ger is always placed so that it is facing south. This makes for a remarkably accurate time telling device. The sun then shines through the circular wooden structure at the top of the ger, shedding light on the walls and acting like a sun dial. The doors are painted in a range of bright colours and intricate patterns, contrasting with the monotone white covering of the felt. The furniture inside the ger is usually also painted in bright colours and motifs. Oranges and reds are always prominent colours.
Mongolia has been a horse based culture for thousands of years. Songs of horses are sung and children learn to ride before they can walk. The speed, power and dexterity of the little Mongolian horse changed the course of history and the face of the world in the 12th century. Chinggis Khaan built the biggest land empire the world has ever known with the horse as his key weapon. Today the horse remains central to life on the steppe and good horsemanship paramount to surviving the harsh climate, fierce winds and long winters. Even for the relatively settled modern day nomad, life would be impossible without the horse. Mongolians are some of the most skillful, talented and resilient horsemen in the world and have an immense respect for horses.
Horses are used in all areas of herding and domestic life in Mongolia. It is said that Mongolian's are born in the saddle. They are used for herding animals, for carrying heavy loads, for travelling long distances and for milking. The milk from the mares provides the nomadic people with a vital source of vitamin c. The mares are milked every two hours, every day throughout the summer. The milk is then added to a large urn, already containing a milk culture, which is then fermented and drunk in copious amounts. The taste of this `airag' is a bit like warm, bubbly yoghurt.
For centuries horses roamed wild throughout the steppes and desert of Mongolia. During the 19th century they eventually became extinct due to hunting and lack of vegetation from the competition with domestic herds. The wild Asiatic horse - or Takhi - is now being re-introduced into Mongolia, from zoos all around the world, thanks to a ground breaking scheme. The Takhi horse is short and stocky, with a sticking up mane, in beautiful bay colours. In two locations in Mongolia Takhi are being bred in captivity and slowly let back into the wild. There are currently 3-4 wild herds in Mongolia. The horses used in Mongolia by the nomadic peoples are relatives of the wild horse. They tend to be quite small compared to European horses (around 13hh). Although the horses appear to be undernourished with prominent spines, hips and ribs, this is not the case. It is the harsh climate of Mongolia that has produced this resilient, little horse. The winters in Mongolia can be arctic, the temperatures can drop as low as -40 degrees and the horse largely has to find its own feed amongst the snow. The few short summer months are when the horse can enjoy green pastures and gain enough weight to survive the harsh winters.
Mongolian tack generally comprises of a head collar and lead rope, a bridle with a simple steel snaffle, hobbles and either a Russian steel framed or wooden Mongolian saddle. The Mongolian saddles are a challenge to ride for the novice. They have high backs and fronts, with silver decorative pieces protruding from the sides encouraging the rider to stand. Possibly another tactic introduced in the time of Chinggis Khaan allowing the rider to travel long distances without getting sore in the saddle. Mongolian horses are usually unshod except in very rocky areas of the country.
The great warriors of Mongolia are some of the kindest and most gentle people you will ever meet. The harsh climate and barren land of Mongolia, deep in the heart of Central Asia, has produced an exceptional culture based on sharing not competition, on groups not individuals. In a place such as this everyone depends on everyone else. The grass is never greener on the other side in Mongolia because there are no fences, and not much green grass either. The people have an amazing inner strength and open heartedness. There is no sense of mine and yours, only ours. If one man's herds are lost then others will assist in finding them. When Mongolians leave their gers', the door is always left open for any one passing by to stop and make themselves at home. When visitors arrive they are always welcomed with a cup of tea, a hot meal and a place to rest their weary body. There is much for us to learn from the people of Mongolia.
The most prominent religion of Mongolia is Buddhism with 90% of the country as Buddhists. During the years of communist domination in the country, 700 temples and monasteries were destroyed. A great majority of Mongolia's male population were monks before the 1920s. This rapidly changed through force during the middle of last century. Monk's were made to renounce their faith or face death, and thousands were killed. Since the peaceful revolution in the 1990s and the rise of democracy monk's have been permitted to worship freely and many of the temples are being slowly and lovingly repaired. Many are again fully functioning.
Most Mongolian homes, both in the city and countryside, have a Buddhist shrine placed prominently in the living areas. The shrine is usually found at the top of the ger, behind where the head of the family sits. Many of these shrines remained in private homes during the reign of the communists. Mongolia's return to Buddhism was officially marked by the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1995. The Dalai Lama is now seen as the spiritual leader of the people of Mongolia.
Buddhism has a chequered history in Mongolia. It was during the second half of 16th century that Buddhism first came to Mongolia and became widespread. It came via the `silk roads' from India reaching the area which is now Mongolia via Hohot. It flourished in the time of the `Uigurs' only to die away and arrive a second time from Tibet in the time of the Yuan Dynasty (14th century) to preach the `Red Hat' doctrine. Medieval wars destroyed all the religious monuments of that time. Lastly Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism came in latter half of 16th century and is what is practised today. This is known as the `Yellow sect'.
For visitors to the temples and monasteries the following is a brief etiquette guideline:
- do not step in front of the monks during chanting in the temples.
- take small denomination notes in local currency to leave as offerings at the shrines.
- bow before the altar and bow before the monks.
- spin prayer wheels in clockwise direction and always walk around the shrines or burial sites in a clockwise direction.
- do not - take photographs inside the temples or of the ancient Buddhist artwork.
Another minority group in Mongolia, the Kazakhs, approximately one hundred thousand people, are Muslims. They live in the far western Province of Bayan Ulgii and are Sunni Muslims.