Mongolian hospitality is a lifestyle experience that has not changed over hundreds of years. Having lived in Mongolia with a host family for a month, I share my experience of Mongolian culture
Experiencing Mongolian Culture
It was the end of my 4-day adventure in the Mongolian countryside. I had had an insight into the real Mongolia: how the nomads had lived for hundreds of years and frankly… I was impressed.
Mongolian hospitality is a lifestyle experience that has not changed over hundreds of years. There is an unwritten hospitality law that exists once you step foot into a ger. Herdsmen share their food, tea with you and even invite you to stay overnight.
Ever resourceful and using everything nature gave them from burning dung to light their stoves, to the numerous uses of yaks' milk. They lived off the land and they gave back to the land: some not even having a toilet and using the shelter of the woods.
In Mongolian culture, they built their homes by streams, then when they wanted to move they would pack up their portable gers to pastures new, taking their livestock with them. And when they killed their animals, no part was wasted, carcasses hung from my ger and bowls of offal stood outside.
I had had a sample of this simple but effective life: chasing baby yaks into their pen, driving an oak cart, playing a game made from sheep bones and shooting targets at archery. It was a different lifestyle and I can see why many don't want to give it up to live in the city. This is the real Mongolia – the Mongolia I had come to see…
Mongolian has a hospitable culture and there are certain types of behaviour that you shouldn’t do such as walking in front of an older person or keeping you hat on when entering a ger. Make sure you’re aware of their customs before you visit, so that you don’t unknowingly offend.
Horse Riding in Mongolia
‘Good?' he shouted from the seat of his horse in front of me. He didn't turn around to see the panic on my face and the whiteness of my knuckles as I held on for my life.
‘No,' I wanted to yell. ‘I'm not good.
My neck was burning from the sun, I was dehydrated and trying hard with one hand to stop my hat blowing off my head. My horse stank and the saddle was so uncomfortable that my rear ached in places I didn't even know it could.
I tried to look at my watch through the constant bouncing up and down –
Three hours to go.
There was no use complaining to him, he could hardly speak English, so instead I gritted my teeth and fought hard to stay on the skinny Mongolian horse.
‘Yes' I shouted, wanting to get this ride over with.
Why didn't I choose the camel??
n.b Mongolian's don't have names for their horses. When I asked what the one I was riding was called, he replied ‘brown horse,' and the name of his: ‘white horse!'
Horse Riding in Mongolia – Next Time
So, I was back on the horse, travelling 9kms across lush countryside to the bus stop to take me back to the city.
But this time I had been shown how to ride the horse properly and was sat up straight with my heels down.
This time I had no smelly horse and no hat to hold onto and was wearing a sports bra for that added comfort.
And this time, I was shouting ‘Can we go any faster?'
Sometimes, you just need to give things a second chance.
Riding an Oxcart
‘Hold it's tail,' I yelled as we waded through a steam, getting splashed by the swishing of the ox's tail.
Then as the tail was secured and we made it through the stream, a chorus of what I could only interpret as ‘oh no,' came from behind me as the ox decided to go the powder room, it's tail still swishing. I moved out of the way of any flying debris.
I had arrived at my first home on a eco tour of life as a nomad and was to be travelling from ger to ger (a Mongolian round tent), experiencing the local way of life. I had been greeted with a cup of straight vodka passed to me by my host. He indicated that I should drink it in one go – I indicated that I would fall flat on the floor if I did. He smiled. I smiled and sipped it like a lady.
Then it was off to fetch some water, only the motorbike had broken down so we all hopped on the ox cart and set off, kids in tow with two big canisters to fill.
Then once our work was done, it was back on the ox cart until we hit a rock and the water came free. With the ox not stopping for anyone, I jumped off and secured the canisters (Jack Bauer style), then swung back onto the cart like a pro.
‘You're now a Mongolian woman,' said the eldest girl.
This was a far cry from city life; no worries, no stress, just pure countryside and simple living and oh, plenty of vodka –
Caught in The Crossfire
They were eyeing each over up, making weird, tribal noises to scare off their rivals. I was caught in a crossfire between two gangs.
The air was tense and as they stepped closer to each other, my instinct was telling me to run. But if I drew attention to myself, would they come for me too?
They grew closer with a pace. It was time.
I stepped slowly away from the rock I had been sitting on, hoping their angry faces wouldn't see. And then they ran towards each other, locking horns and making horrible grunting sounds – a battle of the fittest.
I had only wanted to sit quietly by the river and read my book when a herd of angry cows had appeared from each side.
Can a girl get no peace anywhere?
N.b I booked my tour through Ger to Ger who offer eco travel routes and cultural homestays in Mongolia.
Experiencing Mongolian Family Life
During my month in Mongolia, I stayed with a Mongolian host family
Today, little Tingis called me ‘sister', a sign that I've been accepted into my host-family's home. We can barely speak each others language but it doesn't seem to matter at the age of five.
We play rock/paper/scissors, zombies, charades, and he tries to squirt water at me all the time with his new water pistol, even through the slats of the bathroom door. He follows me around, constantly shouting, ‘Lisa, Lisa,' and wants to show me everything he's doing.
But my new family doesn't stop there.
Family is so important to Mongolians and we spend each weekend visiting the relatives. I don't understand a word they say but they have welcomed me with open arms, presenting me with milk tea and noodles each time we meet.
‘Eat,' they say, laying on a feast of fruit, peanuts, bread and chocolate. So not wanting to be rude, I eat and take the snuff that is offered to me by the male of the household. I drink the wine and the beer and eat the artificial cakes. All the time they smile at me.
Then more relatives arrive and I shake their hands, introduce myself in Mongol and crack a joke.
They laugh at this crazy English girl who has come to Mongolia looking for adventure and culture.
Then when we leave, they embrace me with two hugs each and it's off to the next relatives house, where sheep bones are placed in front of me and a flask of milk tea sits on the table.
Then it's back in the car:
But this time, we're not alone. There's six of us in the back and I have no idea where these family members are going but I sit and pray that we are going home. They get out at yet another relatives house and we stay in the car and head down a familiar street.
Finally at midnight, I retire to my bed: weary, tipsy and full of food. Knowing that I have to do it all again next weekend…
The Blonde Girl Is Back
That dizzy blonde is back (admittedly now a dark blonde but there’s no dyeing that dizziness away):
Watching TV with my host family, I asked a question:
‘Is this a prison?’ I said,
My host father laughed. ‘No it’s a mining company camp.'
On my first day at work my supervisor came to collect me. I left the apartment and waved goodbye. My host-mother promptly called me back. I had left my slippers on!
Trying to cross the frantic main road, I looked left and right, ensuring the coast was clear and nearly walked into a car – I forgot the traffic went the other way.
Run Lisa, Run
It was when my adopted Mongolia little brother pointed to my belly, then to the belly of my host mum’s that I realised I may have a problem.
‘He said we look the same,’ said my host-mother patting her round pregnant-looking stomach.
It was a moment of reality and after days of eating nothing but carbs and meat, my body was adapting to a harsh Mongolian diet and growing considerably rounder. So I donned my trainers and took to the crumbling streets of Ulaanbatar, dodging the traffic…
(that only speed up when you step into the road) in training for my half marathon in August.
Still, with no hot water I had been reluctant to build up a sweat but if I was looking like a round Mongolian women then drastic measures called…
It's only taken them two weeks and they're trying to get a visa out of me already. When my host mum found out I was single, she had great delight in telling me that her husband has a brother who is also single. And she has set herself the mission of setting us up. Not wanting to be impolite I agreed.
I guess it's not so much blind as dumb date, with him not being able to speak English and me Mongolian – we'd make the perfect pair!
Proud To be British
I watched with pride as the Royal family made their way in the procession along the River Thames, wishing that I was there to witness this historic event. It was a moment of patriotism and I felt proud to say I was British and belong to such a free country.
As much as we moan about our lives in Britain…the traffic; the rain and the constant queuing. We are privileged to come from such a great country. A country that allows you a right of speech, that allows you to travel wherever you want and has a fair and justice system. Being British gives us the freedom that many others countries don't have.
Millions of people all over the world are learning our language right now. People can only dream of coming to our country and can never afford to, or are not permitted to by their country.
Our seasons aren't that extreme, our rush hour isn't that long (Mongolia is all day rush hour) and you can't beat the general British politeness that you don't find in other countries.
So next time you're thinking how bad it is living in the UK, just remember that Blighty isn't really all that bad…
Mongolia Has The X Factor
So it seems Simon Cowell really does have his finger in every pie:
There’s a Mongolia X Factor where contestants sing in practically every language except their own – English, French, Korean, German, or Japanese.
Forget Britain’s Got Talent think:
Mongolian Talent People, with the lucky winner walking off with £15,000 prize money.
And the similarities don't stop there – they’ve even got their own version of Heat magazine called Hot!
Mongolia has an alcohol problem.
People are passed out on the streets of the capital before work has even finished for the day. They hang around the rivers drinking and leave discarded vodka bottles wherever they can.
But with local bars and clubs selling bottles of vodka instead of shots and not using mixers – I can see why!
Meeting The Turkish Ambassador in Mongolia
Sitting in the VIP room of the best Turkish restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, we’re surrounded by video cameras, each focusing in on the face of the Turkish Ambassador.
The staff are patiently waiting for his cue. Plates of shiny apples, grapes and oranges line the table. I wasn’t aware Mongolia had so much fruit.
‘It’s imported from China,’ says the Ambassador. ‘It’s pumped with steroids.’
And then the feast arrives, bowls of green salad, grilled zucchini and piece of tender chicken, beef, lamb and potato fries. We tuck in and A. Asum ARAR, the current Turkish Ambassador for Mongolian begins his story.
Asum began his political career with the Government in Turkey and moved to Mongolia in 2008. During his four terms in Mongolia, Asum has seen many changes, the most important being the rise in Mongolian economy.
We take a walk through the Turkey/French friendship garden, a little oasis in the centre of the dusty city. Remnants of the harsh winter are evident in cracks appearing in the patriotic statues. ‘Every year we have this problem,’ he says, ‘and I have to speak to the French Ambassador to get it rectified.'
There are many monuments around the city symbolising the links between Turkey and Mongolia and there is a long history between the two countries. Mongolia is the original homeland of both Turks and Mongols and Turks once roamed this vast land. Over 400 turkish period human-like stone statues still stand inside Mongolia.
Relations are strong but Asum’s four year term is about to come to an end next month. When asked about his future, the Ambassador is unsure. He is more confident on the future of Mongolia. With the new airline link of Turkish Airlines into Ulaanbatar, the opportunities for growth are endless.
‘It’s a great opportunity for Mongolia,’ he says with pride. ‘Mongolia is placing itself on the map and it just needs the infrastructure and links to be in place then we can take it forward.'
‘These are exciting times.‘
Meeting a Tibetan Buddhist Lama
‘Has he got a name card?’ asked the producer.
I looked at the Tibetan Buddhist lama standing before me, wearing nothing but an orange robe and smiled.
‘I don't think so,' I said, thinking that last time I checked, Lama’s didn’t usually have a stash of business cards tucked away in their flowing attire!
I was following Panchen Otrul Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama chosen by the Dalai Lama to re-introduce Buddhism to Mongolia in the 1980's. As a young boy he was taken to a concentration camp when the Chinese Communists took control of Tibet and a year later he escaped into India.
He was back in Mongolia and we were following his recent tour with a film crew, visiting an orphanage that he had helped to establish ten years ago and seeing the children that he had helped.
Upon his arrival at a local temple, hoards of Mongolians lined the streets waiting for his Holiness to appear. I watched as one by one he greeted them and took the presents they offered. In return, he blessed them, tenderly taking their heads with both hands. My curiosity was too much and I joined the back of the queue, waiting for my chance to be blessed. As we spoke he took my hands then I was moved on.
‘He didn't touch my head,' I said to one of my colleagues. ‘Am I still blessed?'
She was unsure.As I walked home that night wearing my prayer beads given to me by the lama, I was spat on by a rude Mongolian man.
If only he'd touched my head 🙁