10 things Mongolia

8 Things… Mongolia!

Here are 8 random things that we experienced during our time in Mongolia that we found interesting or unique. You can view our other “10-ish Things…” posts here.

1. The Land of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan is certainly Mongolia’s most famous historical figure. He is credited with not only expanding a massive empire across Asia and into Europe, but also uniting the warring clans of the Mongolian steppe into a coherent nation. Because of this, he is revered by Mongolians and considered the “Father of the Nation”. After his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire experienced a brief period of expansion into Europe, China, and Persia, before political infighting amongst his grandchildren over succession eventually led to fragmentation of the empire and civil war. Nonetheless, the effects of the massive Mongol empire is still visible throughout Asia and parts of Europe to this day. Today Genghis Khan — or Chinggis Khan as he is known in Mongolia — can be seen on vodka bottles and the local currency. (One of the vodkas is even “milk-filtered”!) The international airport in Ulaanbaatar is named after him. and there are large statues dedicated to him in front of the Mongolian parliament and just outside Ulaanbaatar.

Massive statue of Genghis Khan outside Ulaanbaatar

2. Gers

Gers are the traditional Mongolian home. A ger is a portable, round tent, that is covered with felt or animal skins to keep in warmth. The interior frame is comprised of a wooden lattice, with rods supporting a central opening in the roof. A ger and a yurt, are actually the same thing; ger in Mongolian means “home”. The inside of the ger can be richly decorated and quite comfortable. Usually a stove, used for cooking and heating, is located in the center of the ger with a chimney going out the central roof opening.

Outside of a ger
Inside of a tourist ger
Roof opening can be kept open or closed
Wood lattice around the outside, insulated with felt

During our trip in Mongolia, we stayed almost every night in a ger, and it was a very enjoyable experience! The quality of the ger accommodation ranged from a glorified tent, to a swanky hotel room with electricity and Wi-Fi, but even the simple gers were more than comfortable enough for us. The three of us always got to share a ger which was a fun way to travel in the countryside. I’m already thinking about constructing a ger in my backyard someday.

Hanging out in the ger
Cooking dinner on the wood stove

3. Mongolian Throat Singing

Mongolian throat singing is a type of overtone singing practiced in Mongolia, where the singer is able to create two, or more tones at the same time, and it is really amazing to listen to. The singing is typically accompanied by a Mongolian horse-head fiddle, which produces an evocative musical combination that brings to mind wide open pastures, endless deserts, and rolling steppes. Don’t take my word for it, listen for yourself!

4. Animals

Mongolia has over 66 million heads of livestock, including sheep, cows, horses, camels, and goats. The total human population of Mongolia is only 3 million people. That means there are 20 animals for every person in Mongolia. On top of that, roughly half the population (1.5 million) lives in Ulaanabaatar, and, of the remaining 1.5 million living outside the capital, only a small percentage are actually engaged in herding. This discrepancy is something we definitely noticed while road tripping in the Mongolian countryside. Once you get outside of Ulaanbaatar, you start seeing a lot less people, and a whole lot more animals. 

Yak mother and baby
Sheep as far as the eye can see
Goats everywhere

For the most part the animals roam freely. We toured around quite a bit of the countryside and I don’t think we saw a single fence. The large herds of animals seemed to know exactly where the tastiest grass was growing on a particular day, and where their favorite spot to sleep for the night was. Periodically, a man or small child would arrive on horseback to check if all was well, and possibly nudge the herd in the right direction.

Traffic jams involve herds of animals in the countryside

Finally, sit back and enjoy this video of goats flowing endlessly down a hill towards our picnic in Orkhon Valley.

5. Wide Open Spaces

Related to the lack of humans and large herds of free-range livestock, is the unbelievable amount of open space in Mongolia. As I mentioned before, outside the cities, there are no fences, and the few people who live in the countryside reside in small ger camps that move from season-to-season. While there are dirt roads that service certain routes in the countryside, there are very little restrictions on what you can do once you get away from those roads. You can drive almost anywhere, although it is more sensible and sustainable to stay on the existing tracks when possible. Camping is also allowed anywhere outside of major cities and national parks. This feeling of freedom was a rare treat for us, especially after coming directly from mega-populated China. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the countryside, with only a rough idea of where we were headed each day, knowing that if we wanted to camp by a river for the night, we could, or if we wanted to explore some ruins up in the hills, we could just drive straight there and most likely not see a single other person for the entire day.

In Mongolia you can roam free!
Typical Mongolian landscape: mountains, rivers, horses, and a few gers off in the distance

6. What3words

Mongolia uses a very interesting “address” system called what3words. You can read more about it here. Essentially, every 3 meter x 3 meter square in the world has been given a unique string of three words associated with it, for example thorny.blackened.distasteful might be the unique address of a gas station in Kharkhorin. It is basically equivalent to GPS coordinates, but easier to remember and communicate. For that reason, the Mongolia government has decided to adopt what3words nationally and all locations in Mongolia have been given what3words addresses. It is actually a pretty easy system to use once you get used to it, and there is even a GoogleMaps-like app that makes it very intuitive to find directions.

Visualization of how what3words works
How the app looks

7. Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar (or “UB” for short) is by-far the largest city in Mongolia, and, in fact, almost half of the 3 million people in Mongolia live in the capital. A lot of the urbanization of the capital occurred during the mid-20th century when Mongolia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Ulaanbaatar translates to “Red Hero” in Mongolian. Ulaanbaatar is also known as the world’s coldest capital, with very long, dry, and frigid winters. Due to the large number of wood stoves used in winter, as well as an unfortunate combination of climatic factors, pollution can be very bad during the winter months.

Downtown UB from the main square

However, we quite enjoyed our brief time in Ulaanbaatar. The weather was pleasant and clear the entire time we were there. The city felt very European to us though you should take that with a grain of salt, because we arrived there after three months in China. Anyway, we were delighted to find grocery store shelves stocked with all of our favorite brands from back home. The city is also home to a hip restaurant and cafe scene that we took advantage of in between our train journeys. Overall, the city is not worth planning a whole trip around, but it is an enjoyable place to rest up after your inevitable backcountry adventure, which is the real reason you should visit Mongolia.

Chiara enjoying wine and cheese at one of UB’s many good restaurants

8. Toyota Prius-es Everywhere

By far, the most common car in Ulaanbaatar is the Toyota Prius, which may sound like a pointless fact, but the truth is, there are such an insane number of Priuses on the road that you can’t help but notice it while walking around downtown. It’s especially strange considering how much off-roading Mongolians need to do. We theorized it may have something to do with the poor air quality and the government providing subsidies, and perhaps a good trading relationship with Japan.Either way, check out any street or parking lot in Ulaanbaatar, and you will be sure to see far more Priuses than any other vehicle.

So many Priuses

4 comments

  1. That singing!! Incredible. I was not prepared for how enchanting, powerful and… just cool that sounded.
    Also, that stream of sheep looks like the beginning of an apocalyptic movie – I’m glad none of you thought of that even though that’s where my mind went. And then it was quickly calmed by the drinking, thirsty sheep.

    1. I know the singing is amazing, right? Also, I highly recommend going down the Mongolian throat singing YouTube rabbit hole. There is a lot of great stuff out there!

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