Responsible tourism in Mongolia

Like the quietly content man who finds himself an overnight lottery millionaire, Mongolia’s sudden and rapid growth upon the realisation that it sits, literally, on a mineral-rich treasure trove worth billions, has doubtless come as a bit of a shock, the effects of which are cutting through its traditional core like a (double-edged) sword.

Rural herders are now struggling to survive as their nomadic way of life dissolves. Urbanisation is high, but given their lack of relevant skills, new arrivals in the city are finding themselves with few opportunities in the formal job sector. Similarly, the fast pace of change throughout the country is seeing an increasing amount of land being leased to development interests, but this activity could leave the landscape fragmented, severing vital passageways for animal migration as well as monopolising freshwater sources on which people and animals depend.

Mongolia needs to develop and to build infrastructure for the future stability of its people, but equally important is the safeguarding of its pristine habitats, so it doesn’t lose the wild frontier spirit that makes it Mongolia. To do that a development model must be found that gives equal weight to the needs of conservation, herders and developers alike.

People & culture in Mongolia

The poverty trap

Poverty in Mongolia is a relatively recent reality and is a direct consequence of the country’s transition to a market economy in the 1990s. While economic growth initially helped to reduce poverty, the privatisation of industry and introduction of state farming brought with it high levels of unemployment, so incomes shrank and inflation ate away at purchasing power. As of 2016, three out of ten were Mongolians living in poverty with herders among the poorest of the poor. Sadly, this is a number which seems to be on the rise, in 2014 the World Bank classed just 21.6 percent of Mongolians as living in poverty. Up until that point, the number had been in decline.
It may seem counterintuitive that this is happening at a time of such great economic growth, but one look at the swanky four-wheel drives stuck in Ulaanbaatar’s traffic versus the people living without heat and drinking water in the city’s expanding ger district confirms that some are benefiting considerably more than others from Mongolia’s mineral wealth. There are rumblings of rising inequality in terms of income distribution, but also in terms of access to opportunities such as education, a good job, or decent healthcare.

Poverty is higher in rural Mongolia than in urban areas, as the traditional herders are increasingly struggling to survive. However, urban migration is high and is moving the problem closer to the country’s capital, where new residents are finding themselves ill equipped for city life. Faced with few opportunities in the formal job sector - including mining – the new arrivals remain unemployed, or are forced to work in informal jobs where wages are low. This is incompatible with high inflation rates in UB, which have seen living costs prices - food, transport, housing, and services such as electricity – rise significantly. Interestingly, it is the women who have been picking up the slack; as the men struggle to adapt to the city after a semi nomadic life with their livestock, and feel a loss of identity when they are no longer able to provide for their families, the women have been taking the opportunity to find work, get an education and support their husbands and children.

If the growth of UB continues at such a dramatic rate, there’s no question that Mongolia will grow, both in size and economic status, but the issue of poverty must be addressed. Protecting the poor from the impact of high inflation, and enabling their full participation in economic development through greater employment and access to basic public services, are essential issues that Mongolia’s government will need to consider as part of its efforts to diversify the economy and ensure the sustainability of growth.

What you can do
Make sure your money stays in local hands: stay in ger camps, homestays in small towns and in locally owned guesthouses. Use local guides, and ask your guide where you can eat locally – they’re often more than happy to swerve an itinerary item in favour of this if you ask politely.

Shop in local food markets, buy genuine handicrafts, and ask your guide about worthwhile tourism projects that you can visit and get involved in. A recommended project of interest is Asral, a charity supported by the Dalai Lama that works with impoverished families in the ger districts of UB and further afield so that children do not end up on the street.

Jess Brooks, from our supplier, Eternal Landscapes shares her opinion on the issue of poverty in Mongolia:

“The political liberation of Mongolia in 1990 came as an economic disaster for the country. As the decades of communism ended so did the heavy subsidies that Soviet Russia had paid to keep Mongolia as a buffer state between itself and China. Known as the ‘dark years’, many families were plunged into poverty and, with the shutting of most state industries, unemployment. These are issues that still affect Mongolia today, but there are many great local projects in Mongolia that between them provide greater opportunities and benefits for local people and the communities. One of my favourites is the New Way Life Mongolian Quilting Centre. Set up by Selenge Tserendash to teach unemployed and vulnerable women in Ulaanbaatar and rural Mongolia in the traditional skills of quilting and embroidery and offer a safe workplace for them.”

Modernity vs tradition

Ulaanbaatar's ger district, named after the circular nomadic dwellings favoured by traditional Mongolians, is a sprawling and ramshackle development that is growing row upon row onto the edge of the capital as a product of its rapid expansion.

Many residents of the ger district - which isn’t connected to the capital’s piped heating system and lacks access to drinking water and proper sewerage - are former herders. Some of them have been lured into the city by the promise of a new life, but have found themselves lacking the skills needed to fulfill it, while others have been pushed off their rural pastureland by the extreme winter weather Mongolia is renowned for. In 2010 alone, some 10 million animals were left dead after a dzud, an extreme weather occurrence known as ‘white death’, and tens of thousands of herders had no option other than to head to the ger district. An estimated 40,000 people now arrive annually and the population stands at over 1.4 million - or around 45 percent of Mongolians.
As the country pushes on with rapid modernisation and plans to replace the ger district with high-rise apartments for 70,000 families, the government is struggling to win over residents with the idea of bricks and mortar because for most of them the ger remains central to their cultural identity. Couple that with the fact that unemployment in the ger district stands at about 60 percent, triple that of other areas in Mongolia, and the rural-urban divide – a perfect parallel between tradition versus modernity - looks pretty hard to bridge.

The likelihood is that it can be bridged though. Although UB's track record for planning isn’t brilliant (the city is lodged in a dip between four hills, its infrastructure is poor, and it is the coldest capital in the world), the city has ambitious plans to transform the ger district. The government has already introduced micro-finance schemes and begun building schools and paved roads as an introduction to a different way of life to the nomadic purists that live there.

It’s likely that disagreements between officials and the residents of the ger district will run and run, with many reluctant to leave behind their unique and traditional way of life. However, Mongolia is a young country with half of its citizens under the age of 25, and it has a democratic system of government that at least wants to listen. The chances are they’ll thank their lucky stars they’re not being forcibly removed as they would be by their not so distant neighbours, and slowly but surely have to accept the advancing modern world.

Jess Brooks, from our supplier Eternal Landscapes, shares her opinion on the issue of modernity versus tradition in Mongolia:

“It is important for any traveler to Mongolia to accept that Mongolians wish to develop economically and gain access to material possessions that we take for granted. A majority of herding families now use mobile phones and have televisions in the ger. This does not mean their way of life is dying out – they are adapting to the 21st century and they have every right to do so – Mongolia is a tough country, from its infrastructure to its climate and having access to a mobile phone also makes their way of life safer.”

Wildlife & environment in Mongolia

Mining vs conservation

A landlocked country nearly the size of Western Europe, Mongolia is inhabited by just over three million people and is the most sparsely populated country in the world. However, it is currently in the midst of a mineral boom and is extraordinarily rich in copper, coal and gold. Mining represents a massive opportunity in Mongolia, but one that’s loaded with risks.

Building an economy on minerals is to build an economy on commodity prices, which fluctuate - a drawback already experienced by Mongolia in 2008 when the price of copper crashed and the government had to make a plea to the International Monetary Fund for help. And then there’s mining’s broader environmental impact: the use of land for mining is not compatible with the Mongolian culture of cherishing their environment. In some areas dust from poorly executed dirt roads is compromising the health of local people as well as their livestock, and many herders who tend mineral-rich land are already struggling with water supply because the mines require such huge amounts to operate.

That said, the Mongolian government have repealed hundreds of exploration and exploitation licenses from mining companies who have operated within 200 metres of forest and water sources and protective laws, such as 2009’s incredibly long winded ‘Law of the Prohibition of Mining Operations in the Headwaters of Rivers, Protected Zones of Water Reservoirs and Forested Areas’ have been passed, though question marks do linger over whether these rules an regulations are being fully enforced.

For centuries, Mongolia’s massive expanse of wild grassland habitat has supported the country’s nomadic cultures that have, in turn, worked in harmony with the land to sustain it and that relationship has been the fundamental underpinning of local life. If the Mongolian government are stringent about whom they partner up with and these companies continuously monitor their environmental impact then it’s hopeful that mining in Mongolia can be compatible with conservation. What remains to be seen is to what extent the country’s new riches will be used to improve the tough lives that many Mongolians face.
John Williamson, from our supplier Zavkhan shares his opinion on the issue of mining in Mongolia:

“You can’t really talk about Mongolia without talking about the country’s current mining boom, which is changing things very fast. There is incredible amounts of mineral wealth in Mongolia, apparently there is enough wealth in the ground to give each person in the country a million dollars. Foreign multinational companies are moving in thick and fast to develop the mining industry, which is starting to produce wealth, but the issue lies in how the country will best spread that wealth, so that it can benefit the poor people living in the slums and alleviate the growing problems there. It’s normal for 33% of the wealth generated from mining to stay in the country, but there are rumours of corruption and the danger is that the profit will end up in back pockets instead of filtering out to the Mongolian people. The government does have agreements in place with external companies who have a responsibility to train up a certain number of unskilled locals to become employable within the industry though, but mining is never going to employ enough people to spread wealth that way – the government will have to find other ways to spread the benefits to its people.”

Responsible tourism tips

The Mongolians are a very calm and contemplative people. You may find yourself in social situations that are completely out of your western comfort zone. If you don’t understand something, ask quietly and be patient.

Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Mongolia’s incredible landscape and nomadic lifestyle. Remember, this may be your trip of a lifetime, but it’s reality for the locals, so introduce yourself and ask permission. Whenever possible, it is good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families.

Use either both hands together, or your right hand only to give or to take something and roll your sleeves down before you do so.

It is impolite to say no when offered tea, food or dairy products. You should accept it and taste it (or at least pretend to taste it) before placing it back on the table.

Passing a snuff bottle around is perfectly normal in Mongolia. Always accept it with your right hand and with an open palm. Whether you take a pinch, or just sniff the bottle's top is up to you, but you should offer the bottle back to its owner before passing the bottle to another person. Do not replace the cap firmly before passing the bottle back either, just leave it on top of the bottle.

You will be offered a lot of airag - a vodka equivalent made from fermented mares’ milk. Definitely accept it, but don’t feel forced to drink it. If you do sip from the cup or bowl, you should return it back to the person who handed it to you. Mongolians will be impressed if you down it, but beware – that’s a green light for another shot.

It is impolite to put your feet or shoes on chairs or tables, or to show the bottoms of your feet when sitting in close proximity to someone is offensive. If you step on, kick or touch someone else's foot, offer them a quick handshake.

Never whistle when in a ger or in any other type of building.

Women should never cross their legs in a ger.

Mongolians do not speak to each other across the threshold of the door to their ger, or stand on the threshold of the door, but sitting on the beds in the ger is absolutely fine, even if someone is sleeping in them.

Do not step over the long wooden pole used by herders as a lasso, if it is lying on the ground and if you see a lasso or wooden pole planted in the ground, avoid the area – it is a request for privacy by whoever placed it there.

There are ethical issues regarding the treatment of goats and the production of cashmere, so it’s important to ensure that if you’re buying it, you’re buying it from a source that directly benefits the locals. You can read further into this here.

Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bernd Thaller] [Intro Box: François Philipp] [People & Culture: Michael Eisenriegler] [Gers in the city: Honza Soukup] [Mining: Herry Lawford]