There are many things to enjoy about travelling in Mongolia, this article focuses on behavioural rules and guides for etiquette when travelling and most importantly visiting Mongolian people in their traditional Yurts or Ger homes.
Many of these rules of etiquette have developed from religious connotations but most came about through a requisite of nomadic life.
The first thing to note is that city and country life can differ greatly in terms of following traditional rules and behaviours. Many city dwelling Mongolians, particularly in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, will not follow these rules in the city what so ever so don’t expect it or expect the need to follow them yourself either.
However in the country people certainly do follow these rules and will appreciate you making the effort and it will be a rewarding experience as it will lead to more interaction from locals.
Don’t be worried however; most Mongolians are tolerant people who realise that foreigners won't be aware of their customs.
Simple everyday rules
Do not touch another man’s hat, either on their head or not on their head. This is a very important item to Mongolians and most wear hats year round in all sorts of conditions.
The only time touching another man’s hat is allowed is during wrestling matches where the umpire will remove both participants hats and hold them and keep them safe until the end of the match where he will them return them to the contestants.
If you step on someone’s foot or touch it with your own immediately touch their hand or arm or better still shake their hand immediately afterwards. This tradition will not be as common in the city as it will be in the country. Even young children will follow this custom so if someone steps on your foot smile and extend your hand. This will show a knowledge and respect for a simple custom.
Pass items, especially food to others, using your right hand. If required you may support your right hand for heavy objects by placing your left hand under your right elbow. Roll down your sleeves when giving or taking items.
Snuff , in Mongolia snuff is commonly used and shared. Mongolians carry around a pouch which contains a flask of snuff. To share snuff with another hold your snuff in your right hand and swap with someone else’s snuff at the same time with the right hand. Open the bottle and place some snuff on your hand for sniffing. Smelling the lid will suffice if you do not wish to partake.
In the Ger – tips for the guest
The majority of rural Mongolians are semi nomadic who produce most, if not all, of their yearly food by herding livestock and eating the meat and using the milk in many many forms. They live in traditional homes called Yurts or Ger’s which can be disassembled and assembled in an hour in preparation to cart it to another part of the country.
It is lined with felt to insulate it in winter and has a fire stove in the middle.Ger’s are laid out in a similar fashion; the door faces south always, a desk or table with Buddhist idols on the opposite wall to the door.
It’s not necessary to knock before entering, something foreigners might find hard to comprehend.
While in the Ger don’t point your toes towards another person or towards the fire or the altar.
When passing a knife around always pass it by the handle, you will observe Mongolians always doing this if you see them eating or preparing food.
When visitors arrive, the most important male visitor sits on the left as you come in furthest away from the door.
Some of their milk produce might not appeal to everyone but if you are offered a milk drink or a milk based snack it is polite to at least try it by sipping a little or nibbling a little before putting the rest in your pocket.
Some products you might expect to see making the rounds are
- Suutei Tsai – tea with milk and salt. – An acquired taste, not everyone who is used to everyday tea will necessarily like it at first. Also this is served near boiling hot in a small bowl so watch your fingers as the bowl can get very hot.
- Various types of cheese
- Yoghurt – tasted like natural yoghurt
- Milk vodka – This is surprisingly strong so don’t drink too much or light-headedness might ensue. A serving makes the rounds and it is traditional to bring it to your lips even if you don’t wish to have any.
If you cannot have milk or meat products of health or medical reasons it’s best to have an interpreter along to explain this. Most Mongolians will accept and understand this.
These tips will help you if you ever venture into the wilds of Mongolia. Try and get out of the city and truly experience the way of life as it has been for centuries. A rewarding experience will await made even more rewarding by having a few pieces of knowledge with you as you travel.