Nomadic culture


For 3 000 years, the people of the steppes have adopted a pastoral way of life moving in the search of best pastures and campsites. They live by and for their livestock, in the forefront of which the horse undoubtedly was the first animal domesticated in these infinite meadows. Today, approximately half of Mongolia’s population is still roaming the vast plains living in the ger and moving their camping several times a year on the grounds with no fence. Nomadic life thrives in summer and survives in winter. Considering climatic conditions, especially during winter, such lifestyle may seem to the outside world to be a very hard way of living. However, Mongolians have developed for centuries such qualities as strength and resilience that are essential for survival in this harsh nature, which is their cherished homeland. The number of nomads has significantly decreased over the last years. Nomads move to the capital city being compelled by the necessity to search for means of subsistence or attracted by city lights and perceived advantages of urban life. After the last terrible winters many nomadic familieslost all their herds that were the source of living. Such situation requiring an emergency aid resulted in large rural-to-urban migration, especially from the west of the country, driving nomadic herders as well as stockbreeders from small rural towns towards the suburbs of the capital city. Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise 5 species of livestock known as the: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats and camels. Reindeers are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering the Russian Siberia. Nomadic families often gathered in groups move generally in the radius of 50 to 100 kilometers, at least twice a year, in spring (May) and at the beginning of winter (October). However, more significant displacements are sometimes necessary in the search of better pastures. Uvuljuu or winter camps are located in areas that are naturally sheltered from wind and are equipped with barns for the animals to stay for the night.  Nomads devote all of the day to caring after their animals – watching over, milking, shearing, or combing – to produce felt and felt clothes, cheese and other dairy products. Horses are raised and looked after by men but are milked by women. Nomads use a pole-lasso or uurga to gather the herds and to capture the horses.
The ger (yurt) is part of the Mongolian national identity. The Secret History of the Mongols mentions Genghis Khan as the leader of all people who live in felt tents, called gers, and even today a large share of Mongolia’s population lives in ger, even in Ulaanbaatar. Ger also means home, and other words are derived from its word stem. For example, gerlekh means to marry.


 Customs and superstitions
Mongolians traditionally were afraid of misfortunes and believe in good and bad omens. Misfortune might be attracted by talking about negative things or by persons that are often talked about. They might also be sent by some malicious shaman enraged by breaking some taboo, like stepping on a yurt’s threshold, desecrating waters or mountains, etc. The most endangered family members were children. They are sometimes given non-names like Nergui (Mongolian: without name) or Enebish(Mongolian: not this one), or boys would be dressed up as girls.[2] “Since people of the steppe received only one name in life, its selection carried much symbolism, often on several levels; the name imparted to the child its character, fate and destiny.”[3] Before going out at night, young children’s foreheads are sometimes painted with charcoal or soot to deceive evil spirits that this is not a child but a rabbit with black hair on the forehead. When passing ovoos (cairns) on a journey, they are often circumambulated and sweets or the like are sacrificed to have a safe trip. Certain ovoos, especially those on high mountains, are sacrificed to obtain good weather, ward off misfortune, and the like. For a child, the first big celebration is the first haircut, usually at an age between three and five. Birthdays were not celebrated in the old times, but these days, birthday parties are popular. Wedding ceremonies traditionally include the hand-over of a new yurt (ger) to the marrying couple. Deceased relatives were usually put to rest in the open, where the corpses were eaten by animals and birds. Nowadays, corpses are usually buried.


Khorkhog, a Mongolian meat stew, served as a special meal for guests.
The Mongolian cuisine is primarily based on meat and dairy products, with some regional variations. The most common meat is mutton, supplemented in the desert south by camel meat, and in the northern mountains by beef (including yak). Dairy products are made from mare’s milk (Airag), from cattle, yaks, and camels (e.g. clotted cream). Popular dishes include buuz (a type of meat dumpling),khuushuur (a meat pastry), khorkhog (a meat stew, usually a special meal for guests), and boortsog (a sweet biscuit). The meal commonly known as Mongolian barbecue is not Mongolian at all, but Taiwanese in origin. Starting in the second half of the 20th century, vegetables are increasingly becoming a part of the Mongol diet as well. In Ulaanbaatar, there is a wide range of imported food available.


Mongolian dress has changed little since the days of the empire, because it is supremely well-adapted to the conditions of life on thesteppe and the daily activities of pastoral nomads. However, there have been some changes in styles which distinguish modern Mongolian dress from historic costume. The deel, or kaftan, is the Monglian traditional garment worn on workdays and special days. It is a long, loose gown cut in one piece with the sleeves; it has a high collar and widely overlaps at the front. The deel is girdled with a sash. Mongolian deels always close on the wearer’s right and traditionally have five fastenings. Modern deels often have decoratively cut overflaps, small round necklines, and sometimes contain a Mandarin collar. Depictions of Mongols during the time of the empire, however, show deels with more open necklines, no collars, and very simply cut overflaps, similar to the deels still worn by lamas in modern Mongolia. In addition to the deel, men and women might wear loose trousers beneath, and women might wear underskirts. Skirts of the same style are still worn in part of Mongolia and China today; they have plain front and back panels with closely pleated side panels.
Paintings of Mongols from Persian and Chinese sources depict men, and often women, wearing their hair in braids. The hair would be divided into two pigtails, each of which would be divided into three braids. The ends of the braids would then be looped up and bound to the top of the braid behind the ears. Men shaved the tops and sides of their heads, usually leaving only a short “forelock” in front and the long hair behind. The famous bogtag headdress worn by women seems to have been restricted to married women of very high rank. Each ethnic group living in Mongolia has its own deel design distinguished by cut, color, and trimming. Before the revolution, all social strata in Mongolia had their own manner of dressing. Livestock breeders, for example, wore plain deels, which served them both summer and winter. The priests wore yellow deels with a cape or khimj thrown over it. Secular feudal lords put on smart hats and silk waistcoats.
m165Popular board games are chess and checkers. The chess figures are noyon (noble = king), bers (cp. bars “tiger” = queen), temee (camel = bishop), mori (horse = knight), tereg(cart = castle), khüü (boy = pawn). The rules used today are the same as in European chess, although there are differing versions called ‘Mongolian Chess’ and ‘Daur Chess’. Dominoes are played widely. Indigenous card games existed in the 19th century but are now lost. One of the popular card games that is played is Muushig.
Sheep anklebones, or shagai, are used in games, as dice or as token. Rock, paper, scissors and morra-like games are also played. Wood knots and disentanglement puzzleshave traditionally been popular. Mongolian children were known to have played an ice game on frozen rivers that is similar to curling.