A country of little more than 3 million people in East Asia, Mongolia is often overlooked, especially compared to its dominant neighbors Russia and China. But this landlocked country boasts a rich tapestry of cultures, geography and political history that truly makes it worth exploring. Here are eight fascinating facts about Mongolia.
1. Mongolia Is Totally Landlocked
Mongolia is a landlocked country with only two official neighbors: Russia to the north and China to the south. “I like to call it a ‘sandwich country,'” says Christopher Atwood, chair of the East Asian Languages and Civilization department at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the “Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire.” “Which is to say — a country that has only two neighbors. And that creates a really interesting dynamic.”
“Both countries have had an important influence on Mongolia, with Russia assuming an especially vital role throughout most of the 20th century, shaping Mongolia’s economy and political institutions along Soviet lines while also determining its foreign policy,” writes Jonathan Addleton by email. However, in recent years, China has taken on the dominant economic role in trade and investment with Mongolia.
Addleton served for three years as U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia between 2009-2012; he is also the former executive director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies and author of “Mongolia and the United States: A Diplomatic History”.
Due to the influence of these two dominant powerhouses, Mongolia has adopted something known as the ‘third neighbor’ policy with countries like the U.S and Japan. “The idea is Mongolia trying to find a metaphorical third neighbor, given the fact that it doesn’t have a real third neighbor,” says Atwood.
2. Mongolia Is a Democracy With a Turbulent Political History
Did you know that there are historically two separate regions known as “Outer” and “Inner” Mongolia?
“Old maps designate the territory that is now [present-day] Mongolia as ‘Outer Mongolia.’ As for ‘Inner Mongolia,’ it is a province of China that borders independent Mongolia,” says Addleton. “[Inner Mongolia] is also home to most of China’s Mongolian minority.”
How did this split occur? The answer dates back to the rise of the Chinese Qing (Manchu) dynasty and its conquest of Mongolia in the 1600s and 1700s. “The division [of] Outer and Inner Mongolia is a direct result of the Manchu conquest,” says Katarzyna Golik, Ph.D., a scholar affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences and an expert on Chinese-Mongolian relations.
Following the period of revolutionary Soviet influence in the 20th century, the government of Mongolia (previously known as Outer Mongolia), made a rapid advance toward democracy.
“During the 1990s, Mongolia made its ‘decision for democracy,’ replacing the political system it had inherited from the U.S.S.R. with a functioning parliamentary system and a market-based economy,” says Addleton.
3. Chinggis Khan (or Genghis Khan) Was a Pretty Big Deal
History-savvy readers will likely have heard of Genghis Khan (also known as Chinggis Khan in Mongolia). He was the war-mongering tactician and Mongol leader who brought under his control the different tribal groups of Mongolia in the early 1200s and later began the conquest of China, which was fully conquered by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. And he’s a pretty big deal in the country.
“Chinggis Khan is widely considered the founder of the Mongol nation, having united the Mongol tribes and conquered much of Eurasia,” says Addleton. “His image appears everywhere — in government offices and on stamps, billboards, vodka bottles and monuments across the country.”
For a major tourist attraction, Addleton says that you can check out the enormous monument of Khan atop a horse, which was constructed on the 800th anniversary of the Mongol Empire’s founding. This stainless-steel monument is reportedly the largest equestrian statue in the world.
4. Religion in Mongolia Is Complicated
More than 50 percent of Mongolians were followers of Tibetan-style Buddhism in 2010. But a strong percentage (nearly 40 percent) of Mongolians expressed belief in no religious practice whatsoever.
Atwood explains that the Soviet-supported revolutionary government in Mongolia essentially forced atheism on the country’s citizenry — and also suppressed Buddhism — which has had long-lasting effects on the population’s ties to organized religion.
Nonetheless, Buddhism still plays a fairly central role in daily Mongolian life. And there’s a pretty important figure at the heart of Mongolia’s Buddhism: the Bogd Khan.
“So, Bogd Khan was really important in Mongolia, particularly the khalkha group, which is about 85 percent of the Mongolian population,” says Atwood. “They originally formed as the disciples — the people who looked up to Bogd Khan.”
Addleton expands on the pivotal political role of the Bogd Khan in Mongolia: “The Bogd Khan was the last theocratic ruler of Mongolia, assuming a role in both the religious and political life of the country. He is credited with leading the movement that resulted in the reassertion of Mongolian independence from China during the early 1900s.”
5. Mongolia’s Geography Shapes Its Culture
If you want to experience the vast beauty of Earth’s topography, then you need look no further than Mongolia, which spans snowy mountain peaks and wide desert regions.
“Broadly speaking, Mongolia can be divided into several main geographic regions: 1) the Gobi desert to the south; 2) the Altai mountains reaching up to 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) in the Far West; 3) a Siberian-type landscape with streams, rivers, lakes and larch forests to the north; and 4) the vast steppe centered in the high plateau characteristic of the middle of the country and stretching to the Far East,” says Addleton.
But this varying landscape also shapes Mongolian culture in surprising ways. The northern part of the country — which is wetter than other parts — is known as the “Khanghai.” There is also the “Gobi” in the south, which Atwood says is a general term used to refer to a desert habitable for humans. “Mongolians think of khanghai and gobi people as having different personalities,” says Atwood.
However, the biggest geographic influence on Mongolia’s culture lies not in the countryside, but in its capital, Ulaanbaatar.
“Ulaanbaatar is the huge urban center. Relatively speaking — it’s about a million and a half people. In Mongolia, that’s almost half the population. So, it’s an enormous center of all aspects of Mongolian life — political, economic, cultural, social, educational,” says Atwood.
6. The Nomadic Life in Mongolia Includes Horses and Yurts
Images on Mongolian tourist websites will often feature images of the country’s nomadic people.
“In all of Mongolia, the best way to make use of land is through livestock rather than farming,” says Atwood. Livestock herding lends itself well to a nomadic lifestyle.
The five main types of livestock in Mongolia include horses, cattle, camels, sheep and goats, according to Atwood.
“Horses are less important now than they used to be, but the Mongolian heart is still the horse. The horse is to the average Mongolian young guy what a sports car is to your average American young guy,” says Atwood.
But perhaps the image most associated with pastoral life in Mongolia is not a horse, but a house. Specifically: the yurt. Atwood says that yurts are typically made of a wooden framework topped with felt, which provides cushy insulation during the winter. Addleton adds that the “the iconic ger (yurt) can be seen everywhere” and that the style of the yurt varies from region to region.
“Yurt” is the Russian word for what the Mongolian people call a ger. The main difference is in the style of the roof. According to Atwood, only one family typically resides in each yurt. Traditionally, if a group of nomad families — or an extended family — is traveling together, they’ll align the yurts in an east-west formation, and the most senior members of the clan will be on the right edge of the camp. But these formal rankings have broken down in recent years.
“Today, most of the people who live in the countryside of Mongolia — who are livestock breeders — do still live in yurts, because they’re actually very convenient for moving. A yurt can be broken down and put on a camel — or a truck, more likely today — and be moved in about an hour, two hours,” says Atwood.
However, the nomadic way of life is in jeopardy. Atwood says the percentage of true nomads in Mongolia may be as low as 15 percent. Part of the reason for the drop in nomadic living is the rapid urbanization in Mongolia as nomads migrate to urban centers.
7. Mongolia’s Main Ethnic Group Is the Khalkha
According to Atwood, the majority of the Mongolian people are known as khalkha, which is the dominant ethnic group in Mongolia comprising more than 80 percent of the country’s population.
However, one ethnic group stands out: the Kazakh population in western Mongolia. The Kazakh people are Muslim by faith — compared to the largely Buddhist and atheist majority of Mongolia — and also speak a Turkic language rather than Mongolian. The Kazakh people are a minority in the country but constitute the majority of the population in the Bayan-Ulgii (also spelled Bayan-Ölgii) province.
Beyond the Kazakhs, there are also a small handful of other ethnic groups. “Buriats (also known as Buryats) — a Mongolian community from Siberia — represent another minority,” says Addleton. And “the so-called ‘reindeer people’ (“Dukha” or “Tsaatan”) living in northern Mongolia are a tiny minority living in the forests around Lake Hovsgol; their traditional homes look like teepees.”
8. Golden Eagle Hunting Attracts International Attention
In 2014, a then-13-year-old girl named Ashol-Pan blew up the internet when a BBC photographer captured the petite teen using a large golden eagle to hunt in the Altai Mountain region of western Mongolia.
A team of hunters on horseback will flush out an animal — say, a fox or a wolf — into the open. A hunter will ascend to the top of a cliff or mountain, where they will release the eagle. If the hunt goes well, the eagle(s) will swoop down to kill the prey, providing food and fur for the hunters and their family.
Girls like Ashol-Pan have helped bring the long-standing nomadic Kazakh hunting practice into international awareness. Festivals involving golden eagle hunting, have also picked up international attention.
This practice has ancestral roots in the country. “In Mongolian empire history, Chinggis Khan and Kublai Khan were famous for going hunting with large birds,” says Atwood. “So the Kazakh Eagle festival, in a way, is continuing an ancient Mongolian tradition.”
Mongolian contortionists have become headlining acts in world-famous circus companies like Cirque du Soleil. Contortion really emerged as a performance act with the establishment of the Mongolian State Circus in 1941, which introduced its first official contortionist, Tsend-ayush.