Jun 27 2008

Western Mongolian Culture

Published by at 3:21 am under Mongolia,Western Mongolia

Most of the people we have met in Western Mongolia are Kazakhs who have lived in Mongolia for generations (Kazakhstan is only 40 miles away). We also met some Tuvan families who are of Russian descent. If you haven’t guessed from our other posts, horses are a huge part of the culture, not only in Western Mongolia, but throughout the country.

The families in the park are nomadic herding families who have some combination of goats, sheep, yaks, cows, camels, and of course, horses. In the summertime, the families live in gers near good grazing land, and in the wintertime, many of the families move their possessions to more weatherproof homes built of stone, or they move their gers to a bit warmer locations. This is a tough life, but the hard living has created a culture of hospitality, friendliness, and the importance of family.

Kazakh, Tuvan and Mongolian gers vary from each other, with different dimensions and different decorations. In the west, the gers are lavishly decorated with beautiful handmade tapestries. Though in a very remote part of the world (or maybe because of it), many of the families have TVs and DVD players (almost all of the gers we saw had a satellite dish outside). The whole family typically sleeps in one ger which is about 20 feet in diameter.


Two Kazakh gers within the park

During our visit to Western Mongolia, we visited two families in the park. The first family we met was Kazakh and lived near our first camp site. One of the family members accompanied us on our trip – his name is Karbay, but everyone calls him Aloosis (not sure how his nickname is spelled). We were invited into the ger and given lots of food and drink. Because the families are herders, dairy and meat is always on the menu. Because the families are nomadic, fruit and vegetables are not on the menu. We all had a bowl of yogurt made from a mix of animal milk (goat, horse, camel, etc.), three different kinds of cheese, some fried bread, and some tea with milk and salt. We had a similar experience at the second ger (a Tuvan family), where we also had distilled fermented mare’s milk, which is alcoholic and looks and tastes somewhat like vodka. These families’ principal income is from herding and selling animals. The dairy products they make are usually just for the family.


Inside the Kazakh ger; Dosjan tells us about the family, and we ask questions while Dosjan translates


Hard life = friendly, proud and hospitable


Inside the Tuvan ger; the mother is in the yellow sweater


Dad and kids


Making yogurt is hard work


The finished product – a feast for 15 people!

For all this wonderful hospitality, the families expect nothing in return (and would be insulted if you offered). But in reality, when tourists come by, the locals usually have some beautiful homemade handicrafts that we tourists are all too happy to buy. In fact, we met a family in the park who came by our camp to offer some crafts for sale. The crafts are typically home decorations (wool wall hangings or embroidered tapestries) or some type of clothing (hats, shoes, dresses, etc.).


The Kazakh family who fed us now offers us handmade crafts


Aletta, one of the members of our trekking group, tries on a beautiful deel at the Tuvan ger

Because the park is so remote, a couple of locals came to visit us in camp basically out of curiosity.


This guy got all dressed up for us!

The kids throughout Mongolia are absolutely adorable. The families are large compared to ours in the US – at least 4 or 5 kids, usually more. When we saw them helping their parents around the ger or playing, they were usually dressed in western-style clothes.


The kids from the Tuvan family pose for a picture with me.


The kids basically start riding horses as soon as they can walk!

One of the aspects of local culture that we did not get to see was Eagle hunting. This is a winter activity, so we just didn’t see it. In Western Mongolia, some of the men and boys capture a wild golden eagle when it’s still a chick, and train it to hunt for them. They keep an eagle until it is 6 or 8 years old, and then they return it to nature so that it will breed (that’s the idea anyway; I’m not sure how many studies have been done on whether the captivity impacts the eagles in any way). Though we didn’t see any eagle hunting, we did see two eagles that were being kept by a family near the end of our trip.


One of the hunting eagles; note the wooden post and leash around his foot

Overall, one of the best aspects of our trip was to meet the local people and learn a little about them and their way of life. I am grateful to our guides for giving me this opportunity. It’s hard to convey in a blog post. Even though we don’t speak the same language, we could communicate fairly well. Seeing the looks on kids faces and hearing their laughter when you show them a picture of themselves is a priceless experience.

– Meredith

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Western Mongolian Culture”

  1. janarbek says:

    What a amazing place and amazing people.

  2. Dosjan says:

    Helloo Dave and Meredith.

    When i am surfing on web, i found your travel blog.

    Good pictures and good explanations. 😉 We just arrived from 2nd trek today.

    Good luck.
    PS: Pictures, if possible can you email me.

  3. Saliem. Love your blog.

    We just got back from a trip into the park but our start and end point was Altai.
    Our local organiser and her husband and all the wranglers were related to everyone we met along the way it seems, and every day was spent recieving Kazakh hospitality. We often stayed overnight with a family, and Amangul, who is a noted singer and instrument player, was always induced to sing songs.

    Often people heard she was in the region, and this turned into an impromptu concert for the many visitors who appeared in the ger doorway…

    Meeting and staying with these hospitable folk was the highlight of my trip.