Feature Travel

Mongolia... Ancient, Mysterious & Mystical

By Dominique Wellington

In the West, Mongolia evokes the name of Genghis Khan and his 13th century conquest of most of the known world. His empire extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and the reputation of Genghis' ruthless hordes of soldiers has endured until today. But today's Mongolia presents a totally different picture. These are nomadic people who, for centuries, have managed to survive in an unforgiving environment. Today's Mongols are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, first introduced in the late 13th century. 

Landlocked, but strategically located between Russia, China, and Tibet, Mongolia has played a significant role in inner Asian history. After the death of Genghis, his grandson, Khubilai Khan, was the first ruler in the Yuan dynasty, a period of Mongol rule of China which lasted nearly 100 years. Following the Yuan dynasty, various Mongolian khans attempted to recreate Genghis' empire and dreamt of a new Mongolian age. In the 16th century, the Buddhist-based relationship between Tibet and Mongolia created by Khubilai was reestablished, giving rise to a renaissance in the arts, literature, political and religious structures of Mongolia that lasted through the 18th century.

Nomadic Life

In the landlocked steppe of Central Asia, the Mongols, since ancient times, have lived in tribal groups, enduring an extreme climate and landscape, with rugged mountains, desert in the south, and dry steppe lands and harsh winters in the north.

The horse makes the life of a nomadic herdsman possible, and to this day the Mongols are renowned equestrians. In the countryside, Mongols still spend much of their lives on horseback. The horse, together with the sheep, goat, cow, and camel, comprise the 'five snouts' of livestock, the basis of the Mongol economy and way of life. 

Nomadic life is reflected in the arts of Mongolia. Artistic creativity was often channeled into portable works of art such as saddles, horse trappings, and personal jewelry. Mongolian saddles are wonderful creations encompassing such techniques as metal casting, leather work, and embroidery. Women's jewelry is especially striking and varies from one tribe to another. Most characteristic are women's complex and elaborate headdresses and hair ornaments, made of precious metals and gems such as turquoise and coral. Along with proclaiming tribal affiliation, this jewelry was a dowry worn by married women throughout their lives.

Mongolian Culture

Mongolian culture has many distinctive features closely connected with the lifestyle. Since ancient times, Mongols have lived in the vast lands of Central Asia raising livestock. This nomadic lifestyle is reflected in everyday thinking and culture. 

One of the unique features of the nomadic culture is that people live in full harmony with Mother Nature. Compared to settled peoples, nomadic herders face nature directly on a day-in, day-out basis. Because of their multifaceted relationship with nature, it is the theme of many epics, poems, songs and blessings. 

Many traditions, customs and teachings emphasize the protection and care of nature. Tearing up flowers and grass, allowing filth into water systems, digging up land, killing animals and destroying forests are considered sins and are strictly prohibited even today. 
Mongolian people have a long history of raising and caring for livestock. While horses, cattle, sheep, goats and camels are praised as the 'five treasures,' horses are considered the 'emeralds' and are highly prized. Thousands of teachings, proverbs, tales, songs and dances have been created in praise of the five treasures.

Shamanism is closely related to nomadic culture. Mongolian tribes followed shamanism from the times of the Great Huns until the formation of the Uighur Empire. Reflecting a deep respect toward nature, shamans performed rituals worshipping the master of mountains, water, sky and land. These traditions, mixed with the Mongolian lifestyle, oral literature, folklore and symbolism are important components of the enduring Mongolian nomadic culture. 

According to the 'Secret History of the Mongols' and other historic sources, shamanism was the state religion. The Secret History is an outstanding historical and cultural relic by an anonymous author from around 1240. It is a fusion of historical narration, folklore and old poetry presenting a candid account of Genghis Khan and his times. 

Buddhism has played an enormous role in the development of Mongolian culture. Their perceptions, psychology, traditions, thinking and world outlook were enriched by the Buddhist philosophy and world view. 

Gobi Desert, Taiga, Steppe and Mountains 

The Gobi is the second largest desert in the world, covering the southern third of the country. The Gobi is home to many threatened species, including the Gobi Bear (barely 40 left), the wild camel and the wild ass. The mountain forest areas of the Khentei, Khangai and Mongolian Altai mountains cover about 25% of the country's territory. The Altai Nuruu mountains in Mongolia's far west are permanently snow-capped. The highest mountain in Mongolia, Kulten Peak reaches 4374 meters. The Steppe region of Mongolia covers about 20% of its territory. The rolling grasslands of the zone are part of the Great Steppe that ranges from Eastern Europe to Manchuria. 

 Photo by  tiarescott

Photo by tiarescott

The famed Taiga forest zone in northern Mongolia, bordering Siberia, is part of the world's largest continuous forest. Covering 8% of Mongolia's territory, the forests are in large part made up of Siberian larch trees that thrive in the Taiga's snowy winters and rainy summers. 

The Cradle of Many

While Mongolia is well known as the land of the great Genghis Khan, not many know that the Mongolian plateau and surrounding areas were cradles of the Hungarians, the Turks, and of some peoples of Siberia. Scientists believe that American Indians also came from this part of the world.

If the Central and South Asians know more about Tamerlane, the Chinese about Khubilai Khan, and the Russians about Batu Khan, then the East and West Europeans surely know more about Attila the Hun, who conquered parts of Eastern Europe and almost conquered Rome. 
The post-empire history of Mongolia is not as well known. It is a history of a people struggling to preserve its identity, struggling for survival when its two neighbors, Russia and China, were territorially expanding in the 16th to 19th centuries. It is also a history of great power rivalries for spheres of influence and back door collusions. 

Enduring Mongol Influences 

The statehood of the Mongols dates as far back as 2000 years. In the 13th century the great Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and founded a united Mongol state, which soon conquered adjacent lands and later on set up a vast Empire that covered most of Asia and Europe.

Historically, the empire contributed greatly to developing trade and other contacts between East and West. By the end of the 14th century the Empire gradually disintegrated and most of the Mongols returned to their native land, while some remained abroad and were gradually assimilated into respective societies. 

The Mongols have a unique national culture, a nomadic way of life, a universal Mongolian language and script. The Mongol Empire not only influenced the emergence of a united Russian state, but also contributed to reversing the disintegration processes in China and laying the foundations of a united China. 

The Mongolian language, a sub-family of the Uralo-Altaic, is composed of major dialects, one of which, Khalkha, is the official language of today. 

In the early 13th century the Mongols adopted the Uighur script, still used by many even today. In 1941 the government adopted a phonetic alphabet derived from a modified Cyrillic script. Since the 14th century Mongols practiced Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, though the Mongol Empire encouraged different religions. For centuries Buddhism was influential and widespread. During the communist period in Mongolia (1924-1990), communist inspired anti-religious policies resulted in most monasteries being destroyed, while monks were either physically eliminated or forced to abandon the practice of their religion. Today freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Mongolian Constitution. While Buddhism is reviving, Christianity, Islam and other religions are also taking root. A distinctive culture, unique way of life and the Buddhist religion have been instrumental in preserving Mongol national identity despite the pressures of population growth in Russia and China. 

20th Century History

The 20th century saw Mongolia free itself from two centuries of Manchu rule, struggle unsuccessfully for total independence, and endure brief Chinese occupation followed by national revolution that succeeded with the support of the Soviets. As a consequence, seven decades of Soviet domination ensued, perceived as the lesser of two evils. 

The 20th century also saw Mongolia's revival as an independent state (at a great price), steady growth of its population (tripling in the last eight decades), and cultural renaissance coupled with attempts to Russify its form and content. The basis of a modern economy was established, though heavily dependent on the Soviet Union. It has also undergone social experimentation, including forced expropriation of private property, collectivization, political repressions, suppression of religion and physical elimination of the clergy. 

1990 was the turning point in its modern history. With the Soviet Union engaged in its own problems, Mongolia changed its pro-soviet political orientation and opted for economic independence, political and economic reforms and independent foreign policy. Political reforms supported these moves. Two years later Mongolia adopted a new, democratic Constitution that guarantees basic rights and freedoms for its citizens. All forms of property have been declared equal; free enterprise has been embraced; the principle of equal justice for all is being pursued. Since the Constitution's adoption, two presidential and two parliamentary elections have been held, peacefully transferring power to a new generation of imaginative and energetic people. The party that had held power throughout the 20th century found itself in opposition with the newly formed democratic parties. The past four years have been instructive for both sides and have demonstrated that democratic principles of government are taking root in the society. Practice has also shown that democracy is not just the rule of the majority, but also implies taking into account and respecting the views and interests of the minority. 

Mongolia-U.S. Relations 

The two countries established diplomatic relations in January 1987, and since 1990, bilateral relations have developed rapidly. These relations include political, economic, trade, as well as scientific and cultural spheres. U.S. support has been important to Mongolia in pursuing its simultaneous political and economic reforms. A growing number of Mongolian students are studying in the U.S. and people-to-people relations and interaction between scholars and NGOs are expanding. 

Trade and Travel 

Both countries accord each other most favored nation trade status. The U.S. is the fifth largest trade partner of Mongolia though there are enormous possibilities for expansion. Mongolia's membership in the World Trade Organization is creating even more favorable trade conditions between the two countries. Though Mongolia has a small market, its geo-economic location, i.e. between two large and expanding markets of China and Russia, makes Mongolia an attractive trade and economic partner for others, including the U.S. 
As more and more travelers and adventurers seek to explore the less-traveled areas of the world, Mongolia provides a fascinating and inviting culture in an unspoiled natural environment. Unique expeditions to Mongolia, ranging from camel trekking in the Gobi, to horsetreks through western Mongolia, to easy walking and behind-the-scene stays in native homes are available. For more information on this exceptional tourist destination and unique cultural journeys and adventure possibilities, check the website of: Nomadic Expeditions at www.nomadicexpeditions.com

Cover photo by Mario Carvajal