Responsible travel on the
Trans Mongolian railway

While Moscow and Beijing, at opposite ends of the Trans Mongolian line, are bejewelled with fabulous architecture and endless cultural diversions, for many travelers it is what lies in between that holds the most fascination. Specifically, the chance to explore remote and beautiful Mongolian wildernesses; getting to know the nomadic herders and their families that make their home here; and experience their lifestyles. Visiting Mongolia is also a chance to understand some of the environmental and cultural issues that affect the country and its people, and how you as a visitor can help to make a positive difference during your stay.

People & culture on the
Trans Mongolian

Life in a Mongolian ger


Remember that phrase when approaching a Mongolian ger. It’s a traditional greeting but one with a serious message: “Hold the dog!” that dates back to when herders would use fierce dogs to guard their tents and livestock. Nowadays the practice is a rarity except in some remote areas, but it makes for a useful introduction into the various customs you should be aware of when visiting rural communities and staying in gers.

Such homestays are a common highlight of Trans Mongolian railway vacations, and a superb way to learn about traditional ways of life, both in Siberia and Mongolia (around Lake Baikal in Siberia you’ll stay in wooden houses). You will be accommodated with local families that may not speak much – if any – English, but will be friendly and welcoming, and eager to share aspects of their culture to open minded visitors.
Mongolian gers are large, round tents – the shape makes them more wind resilient – that can be quickly assembled and disassembled, to be transported around on the backs of livestock or, more commonly today, pick-up trucks, as the herders move from place to place. The door of the tent always faces south, to maximise the amount of light, as there are no windows. Tents are Tardis-like on the inside, supported by pillars, and usually have a stove and chimney in the center. Men have their area, to keep tools, saddles and other equipment, on the western half of the tent, while women use the eastern half to store cooking and washing utensils. There will also often be a shrine area, the khoimer, where treasured family heirlooms are kept and where visitors are invited to sit.

If you’re staying in a ger for a night or two, it will usually be in either Khustai National Park or Terlj National Park, both not far from Ulaanbaatar. When visiting a ger there are a number of things you need to keep in mind, but don’t worry too much if you forget them as your hosts will be very forgiving. Some of the most important to remember are:

    Don’t stand on the threshold when entering. This implies you’re unsure
    about whether to trust your hosts.
    Don’t lean against the central pillars – if only for the sake of practicality. When entering, move in a clockwise direction, so to the left of the door. Try not to point your feet at other people, or at the shrine area. Don’t take food with your left hand. Fires and milk are both seen as sacred, so don’t burn any waste in the stove and try not to spill any milk. Don’t turn your back on the shrine. Don’t whistle inside a ger. It’s believed that it can bring terrible
    storms or other natural disasters.

What you can do
Tour leaders and local guides are invaluable sources of information when it comes to correct behaviour, and especially in the case of guides drawn from the community, more reliable than you’ll find in any book. Do some research into Mongolian customs before you travel, and try to respect them.

Visiting herders helps create jobs and bring in valuable income, enabling traditional ways of life to survive. If you’re thinking of bringing gifts, your tour operator will be able to help with specifics but items such as pens and notebooks, clothing and sewing accessories tend to be welcome. Toys are another good idea, but these should be given to the head of the household for distribution, not directly to children.

Wildlife & environment on
the Trans Siberian

Breathing space

You could be forgiven for thinking that Mongolia would have very few environmental problems. After all, it’s relatively under populated, and much of the country is made up of pristine natural spaces. But while it’s known as the ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’, look upwards in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and a lot of the time all you’ll see is grey smog.

The fumes come from Soviet-built coal-fired power plants, as well as the household stoves used by thousands of people in the capital’s ger neighbourhoods. These coal and wood-burning stoves, a common sight when visiting gers in places such as Terlj National Park, are also used to burn old car tyres and other toxic material when the owners can’t afford proper fuel. During winter, when the stoves are used to heat the gers all day-long, the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is some of the worst in the world, some 133 times the recommended average – astonishing when you consider the city’s population is under 1.5 million. Air pollution causes a wide range of health problems, especially among children, such as bronchitis, stunted growth and reduced cognitive development. In winter, hospitals can be overrun with young patients. Localised acid rain has also been detected.
What you can do
The problem is not new, and improvements are underway. Many people are leaving gers in the city for modern houses with insulation that don’t require stoves. For those that remain, better quality fuel and more efficient stoves are also making a difference.

As travelers, the most important thing you can do is support traditional industries and lifestyles in the Mongolian countryside. The prospect of making a decent income will encourage people to stay instead of moving to the capital for work, and intensifying the air pollution problem there.

If you’re visiting Mongolia during winter, wrap up well in warm clothing so that your hosts don’t need to keep the stove hot all the time. It’s not an issue in the countryside but in Ulaanbaatar certainly you may want to consider wearing a facemask when out and about, especially if you suffer from asthma or other respiratory illnesses.

The cost of cashmere

After China, Mongolia is the world’s second largest producer of cashmere, sourced from the wool of cashmere goats. The textile is highly prized, and quality cashmere products can be pretty expensive. But there are other costs associated with cashmere that you won’t see on the price tag in shops.

Cashmere production and clothes manufacturing has been a Mongolian industry for thousands of years, with nomadic herders constantly moving their goats from place to place in search of fresh pasture for grazing. A surge in demand for cashmere in recent years however has led to the numbers and sizes of herds increasing rapidly, and the adoption of unsustainable practices that threaten the entire cashmere industry in Mongolia.

Unlike sheep, goats nibble up the roots of plants, and their sharp hooves can damage often fragile pastures so that the topsoil erodes, leading to desertification. Inexperienced herders sensing an easy profit are exacerbating the problem, and some parts of the Gobi Desert are now particularly overgrazed. As the amount of suitable pastures declines, so does the quality of the cashmere wool, leading to lower prices and a need for herders to sell even more to make their profits. Herders end up overworked and underpaid.
In tandem with climate change, which is causing Mongolia to see longer, harsher winters and drier summers, the increased desertification of land is risking the sustainability of traditional nomadic herding lifestyles, causing many herders and their families to reject the industry and move to urban areas in search of easier work. The countryside becomes under populated while cities such as Ulaanbaatar grow rapidly, exacerbating issues such as air pollution.

Market demand means that many goats are shorn in midwinter. With little in the way of body fact, they are left exposed and vulnerable to often extremely cold weather which can lead to suffering and death. Pressure to produce large volumes of wool in a short space of time can also mean they are shorn too quickly and violently.

What you can do
The first thing to consider is if you really need to buy cashmere at all. It takes the hair of five goats to make one cashmere sweater, whereas five sweaters can be made from the wool of just one sheep. If it’s cashmere or nothing, then one area you can make a difference is by trying to find garments made from sustainable cashmere sourced directly from herding communities, or even recycled cashmere knitwear. Be prepared to pay a little more; ethical, sustainable fashion is a major trend right now and one we hope is here to stay, but doing the right thing rarely comes cheap.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marko Mikkonen] [Life in a Mongolian ger: Richard Mortel] [Breathing space: Einar Fredriksen] [The cost of cashmere: Adrianrowe]