Modern culture in Mongolia

‘Outer Mongolia’ is often used as shorthand for the middle of nowhere – a region so remote, wild and unpopulated that it represents all that is ‘other’ about the world.
Mongolia lures travelers in search of timelessness, where landscapes and lifestyles are said to have barely changed over the centuries – perhaps even since Genghis Khan rode across the wind-blasted steppe.
Today’s tourism plays on this idea. Eagle hunting festivals, created for tourism rather than tradition, draw spectators from across Mongolia and the globe. Semi nomadic herders welcome worldly travelers into their ger camps on the Mongolian steppe. Tourists dressed in heavy deel overcoats learn how to fire arrows on horseback, a throwback to Genghis Khan.
These are fascinating traditions, for sure, and the Mongolians are rightfully proud of their ancient heritage, but it’s a mistake to think that Mongolia has magically escaped the creeping influences of the 21st century. While there are plenty of herders still living on the steppe, moving with their goats and sheep between the most fertile pastures, almost half of all Mongolians live in its sprawling capital, Ulaanbaatar. A further 25 percent live in smaller cities around the country. If you really want to get under the skin of Mongolia, it’s worth taking the time to meet people from all levels of society.

A well connected country

“In the 12th and 13th centuries Chinggis [Ghengis] Khan sought skills and knowledge from other countries and cultures. He brought them back and used them to adapt and strengthen his own country, and Mongolians have always done that.”
– Jess Brooks, from our supplier Eternal Landscapes
Mongolia is incredibly sparsely populated. Its three million people – a third of the population of London – live in a country that is the size of Western Europe. That leaves a lot of empty space between the farming villages and temporary camps, but rural Mongolians are not quite as isolated as they may seem. Children from the remotest communities will attend secondary school in the nearest towns or regional capital, staying with family or boarding during term time. Some will go on to study at university, of course, but those that choose to return to their families in the steppe and the mountains will have spent several very formative years living in a city or large town.

Technology use is widespread, perhaps because of, not in spite of, Mongolia’s scattered population and tough terrain; when you live a day’s ride from the next family, mobile phones become invaluable. They can be charged with solar panels, a life changing piece of tech for rural Mongolians, as it allows them to use televisions, radios and even laptops. Physical isolation certainly hasn’t prevented Mongolians from keeping up with what is going on in the wider world.
This also is a highly literate nation, with over 97 percent of people able to read and write. And while older Mongolians learned Russian, the younger generation is just as likely to speak English, French, Mandarin, Korean or Japanese. These people know their country is remote, and a second or third language gives them a way to connect with the rest of the world.

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Ulaanbaatar, a modern capital

Jess Brooks, from our supplier Eternal Landscapes, based in Ulaanbaatar:
“Just today on my walk from the office to the coffee shop, I walked past the UB comedy club, I walked past the UB jazz club. There are fantastic artists. People expect the traditional culture, they expect to see and hear the horse head fiddles, but what they don’t necessarily expect is the heavy metal rock groups. People are surprised at how modern the capital city is, how forward focused it is, and the richness and diversity of the culture that’s here."
With a fast growing population that currently stands at around 1.3 million, Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s biggest city by far. UB, as it is known, has something of a split personality. Most tourists who pass through here will visit classic sights such as the Buddhist monasteries and the Winter Palace. You’ll pass chanting monks and a huge Genghis Khan statue. The urban center is bordered by ger settlements, a surreal suburb stretching out into the hills and valleys.
The vast majority of the country’s universities are concentrated here, and over 60 percent of students are female – due, in part, to young men staying at home to help their herder families, while their sisters are sent out to get an education. What’s more, when herder families migrate to the city in search of employment, it is often the female head of the household who ends up being the breadwinner. This isn’t a traditional, patriarchal city; it’s a particularly bright, forward thinking one.

How to experience contemporary culture in Mongolia

Chances are you’ll be flying in and out of UB, and it’s well worth spending a couple of days here to experience urban Mongolian life. Jess Brooks, founder of our leading Mongolia tour operator, Eternal Landscapes, always encourages her guests to appreciate this often overlooked aspect of Mongolian culture. Rather than visiting the typical tourist museums and temples, she asks her local guides where they like to take their mums or siblings when they come to visit UB. And then the tourists can visit these places, too, from restaurants and shops to city parks.
Just as you wouldn’t walk around Andalucia and expect everyone to be wearing flamenco dresses and matador jackets, don’t expect Mongolians to be in traditional dress, either. In rural areas, more traditional clothing is still worn, but you’ll find plenty of jeans and T shirts, too. In the cities, national dress tends to be restricted to elderly Mongolians.
As with many historical items of clothing, some Mongolian dress has been given a modern makeover. Fashion designers are creating contemporary designs based on the traditional deel overcoats, for example. Visit a shopping mall in UB, and you may find lightweight jackets, silk blouses and other gorgeous pieces inspired by the deel. There are even Pinterest boards full of the designs.
Out in the rural areas, do look beyond the ger camps and herders. There are many Mongolians away from the larger cities who are not herders; they live in small towns, and staying with them reveals a whole new side to Mongolia. Most tourists, who ping from modern UB to the remote ger camps, skip over those whose lifestyles sit somewhere in between.
Jess Brooks, from our supplier Eternal Landscapes:
“We work with a musician who’s also the manager of a weather station. We take our guests to the weather station because it’s actually an essential part of life for Mongolian herders, but nobody thinks about how important this is. He has the best map in the world of the region he’s in charge of. Then what he does is put a bottle of vodka on the table and brings out his guitar and his karaoke machine
Do remember that while many Western tourists come to Mongolia for its isolation, many Mongolians also take vacations in their own country, and if you are here in the peak summer season, particularly around the hugely popular Nadaam festival, you’ll be surrounded by Mongolian families on their summer breaks. They may well be chattering away amid the otherwise peaceful scenery or filming traditional horse races on their phones, but don’t get frustrated that the ‘traditional’ Mongolia you came to see is not quite as you anticipated. Old and new are equally as authentic, and tourists here would do well to embrace these cultural contradictions just as 21st century Mongolians do themselves.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bernd Thaller] [Genghis Khan statue: Eternal Landscapes] [School children: Eternal Landscapes] [Ulaanbaatar: Eternal Landscapes] [Smiling man: Eternal Landscapes]