Mongolia holds a unique place in the world with its combination of religious beliefs and its long tradition of the nomadic lifestyle.
When you think of Mongolia, you may first think of Genghis Khan and his nomadic warriors. Mongolians have been living the nomadic lifestyle for thousands of years and continue to practice it today.
The Nomadic Lifestyle
Nomads live their life by the land and their livestock, following the seasons and using them to guide the breeding and raising of their animals. They most commonly raise goats, camels, cattle, sheep, and horses. Nomads move around from place to place, to wherever there is good pasture and space for camping.
Mongolian is the official language of Mongolia, and it’s spoken by over 10 million people around the world. It’s in the same family as Korean, Turkish, and Finnish. People who speak Mongolian live in places like Mongolia, China, the US, and parts of Russia.
The main religion of Mongolia is Shamanism, which dates back thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until the rise of Chinggis Khan (known to the Western world as Genghis Khan) that it became a core part of the traditions and beliefs.
Around the time Shamanism rose, the Mongolian people worshipped “Hoh Tenger” (or blue skies). This belief system centered around the skies being the father and the earth being the mother. They also worshipped various other aspects of nature, which makes sense, considering their reliance on the elements to provide ample food and good pasture for their livestock.
Buddhism became popular around the 1500s when Tibetan lamas converted the king. They largely follow the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, sometimes called Lamaism, which is also popular in Tibet and the Himalayas.
This religion is still widely embraced today, with monasteries being restored and the Dalai Lama an ever-popular figure.
Around six percent of Mongolians are Muslim, mostly from a small region in the far west.
The nomadic lifestyle dictates the traditional food, which is based on the products provided by their animals (namely cheese and meat). They are cooked and prepared in numerous ways and often combined with ingredients like flour and local vegetables.
Even though they’re nomads, Mongolians have a rich history in the arts, particularly music. A multitude of instruments and the human voice are combined in unique ways that aren’t found elsewhere.
This type of music combines a specific method of breathing with a guttural voice, creating two tones (one a whistling sound, one a lower base tone).
This ancient musical art involves very complex and drawn-out vocals. The sounds are meant to evoke wide-open spaces (much like what Mongolians experience as nomads) and require extraordinary technique and skill in the singers.
The Morin Khuur
Also called the Horse Headed Fiddle, it’s an instrument (similar in shape and size to a cello) that’s combined with Khoomii singing and other types of traditional music.
Sports have long been popular in Mongolia. The national sports include horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Together, they’re referred to as the Three Games of Men, which is a tradition dating back thousands of years.
Tribes from across Mongolia come together every year to participate in the Nadaam Festival. The highlight of this event is wrestling, the style of which is said to date back 7,000 years.
Horseracing is another event, featuring riders between the ages of five and twelve. Thanks to their nomadic lifestyle, children learn to ride practically from birth. There’s no set course. Rather, they ride across the land and deal with natural obstacles like hills, ravines, and rivers.
Archery contests first showed up in the 11th century, and the archers use compound bows made from wood, sinew, bark, and horn.
The Mongolian Ger, sometimes known as a yurt, is a dwelling that goes back a thousand years. It’s a portable house made from wood and leather and covered with felt. They’re very simple to erect and take down. The furnishings, including a stove, are few enough to be carried by three camels or inside a yak-pulled wagon.
A ger is circular, with the base structure being latticed wood. The wood is tied together with leather, then covered with felt. They are small but provide enough room for a family and provide protection from the wind. The felt provides waterproofing and helps the ger retain heat.
In addition to Naadam Festival, Mongolians also celebrate Tsagaan Sar, or the White Moon celebration. It’s held during the Lunar New Year, and it’s traditional to climb a sacred mountain. They then spend three days visiting with friends and relatives, enjoying traditional dishes.