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Livestock, like these sheep, are a sign of nomadic wealth.
Livestock, like these sheep, are a sign of nomadic wealth.


Music has deep roots in Mongolia and often invokes nomadic or Buddhist themes.
Music has deep roots in Mongolia and often invokes nomadic or Buddhist themes.


Gers, collapsible round tents of felt and canvas on a wooden frame, provide portable, comfortable shelter.
Gers, collapsible round tents of felt and canvas on a wooden frame, provide portable, comfortable shelter.


Nomadic meals include meats and countless dairy products.
Nomadic meals include meats and countless dairy products—both produced by family herds.


Four generations enjoy the comfortable hospitality of a well-appointed ger.
Four generations enjoy the comfortable hospitality of a well-appointed ger.
Living Traditions

History: Khans to Communism—and Beyond
Nomad Life: Surviving on the Steppe
Home Life: Ger, Sweet Ger
Religion: An "Ocean Of Wisdom" for a Landlocked People


History: Khans to Communism—and Beyond

The Mongols galloped onto the global stage in the 13th century, led by legendary warrior-king Genghis Khan. Genghis's mounted hordes, and those of his descendants, inspired terror far and wide and established a land empire unequaled before or since.

The Mongols once held sway throughout much of Asia and the Middle East. Their armies conquered foes from Europe to the shores of Japan. There, weather foiled their invasions and gave rise to the legend of the divine wind, or kamikaze.

As the empire divided and declined, the Mongol people returned to their homelands on the steppe and lived among various mutually hostile tribes. The Mongols eventually became a focus of Russian-Chinese rivalry—and border disputes—in northeastern Asia.

Not until 1921, a decade after the fall of China's Manchu dynasty, did Mongolia become an independent nation—a communist country founded with some help from the neighboring U.S.S.R.

After some seven decades of communist rule as a Soviet satellite, Mongolia saw the rise of competing political parties and the advent of a parliamentary system in the early 1990s after the fall of the U.S.S.R.

Modern Mongolia is a vast, open land whose 2.5 million citizens are outnumbered by their livestock by a ratio of more than eight to one.

Urban areas like the capital, Ulaanbaatar (population: more than 800,000), have seen booming growth in recent years. Yet Mongolia's average population density is a sparse four people per square mile (1.6 square kilometers).

Most Mongolians live in rural areas and are part of an enduring nomadic culture that arose on the nation's grasslands. They still thrive on traditional rural pastimes like horse racing, archery, and wrestling.

Yet change is always on the horizon. Despite its long history, Mongolia is a young nation. About two-thirds of Mongolians are under 30, and about 40 percent are under 14.

Though about one in three Mongolians lives below the poverty line, an incredible 99 percent of the over-15 population can read and write.

About nine of every ten Mongolians are Khalkhas, ethnic Mongols who speak Khalkha. Significant minorities in Mongolia include Chinese, Kazakhs, and Russians.

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Nomad Life: Surviving on the Steppe

The Mongolian heart is apparently a restless one, moved by an ancient nomadic lifestyle born on the nation's vast steppe.

In most of the country, rainfall is scarce and unreliable and the growing seasons too variable for sustained agriculture. Thus Mongolian nomads still travel in search of pastures to sustain their animals and themselves.

Mobile Mongolians prize the horse above all animals and are legendary for their horseback prowess. In Mongolian epics, the hero's chief ally is often a horse, which dispenses sage advice.

Yet herd animals such as sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and yaks are equally important for survival. They provide cheeses, yogurts, milks and a myriad of other dairy products, as well as fats and meats for the Mongolian nomad's table.

In addition to foodstuffs, every part of the herding animal is put to use—from wool for clothing and shelter to dried dung for fueling fires.

Nomadic herding camps, composed of a few households, move within a large territory. Though the landscape appears uniform to outside eyes, to the nomad it is dotted with established points of value, such as water sources or outstanding winter campsites, which are in limited supply.

Winter is the most dangerous time of year. The herds, and the humans who depend on them, are pushed to the limit. Devastating storms sometimes kill animals by the tens of thousands.

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Home Life: Ger, Sweet Ger

Nomads rely on the ger as portable housing that weathers Mongolia's extreme climate. A ger is a collapsible, round tent of felt and canvas that is erected on a wooden frame.

Even in urban areas, many Mongolians prefer to live on the fringes, where they can dwell in a ger.

During its many centuries of service, the ger has become home to important traditions. The colorful wooden door always faces south, away from the worst of the winds. Opposite the door is the family's Buddhist shrine.

The hearth and its revered fire occupy pride of place in the very center of the ger.

When guests arrive they take their place to the left of center and enjoy cheeses, salty tea (süütei tsai), and the famous nomadic hospitality. Mongolians are also very fond of homemade fermented mare's milk, airag, an alcoholic drink believed to have health benefits.

Guests often salute their hosts and hostesses with specific good wishes, such as "May your bucket be brimful with milk" (at milking time) or "May the wool be soft as silk" (if they find their hostess beating wool).

A traditional answer to all good wishes is the same: "May it be as you say."

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Religion: An "Ocean Of Wisdom" for a Landlocked People

Mongolians cherish their long-standing religious ties with nearby Tibet, traditional home to the Buddhist faith. Buddhism spread through Mongolia and melded with indigenous shamanism. Some 96 percent of Mongolians practice Lamaism (Buddhism presided over by the Dalai Lama), and Mongolian painting and music is often centered on the themes of Buddhism and nomadic life.

The 16th-century Mongol leader Altan Khan hosted the visiting head of the rising Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and dubbed his guest the first Dalai Lama. Dalai means "ocean" in Mongolian, thus the name translates as "ocean lama" or "ocean of wisdom."

The succeeding Dalai Lamas have carried the title ever since, including the 14th Dalai Lama, who currently heads in India a Tibetan government in exile.

During Mongolia's communist period, Buddhism was vigorously suppressed. Hundreds of monasteries were shuttered or ransacked, and thousands of monks disappeared.

During this period the Buddhist shrine found in nearly every ger was replaced by a display of family photos and other valuables.

Since the early 1990s, however, the faith has publicly flowered anew, and monks are regaining some of their former status.

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Photo Gallery: Living Traditions

Photo Credits
All images courtesy National Geographic Television & Film.