Of course all cultures are different…
Mongolia certainly has its unique aspects. Here are 5 of the things that visitors find amusing, confusing, or even bizzare. Also, hopefully you can take some knowledges away from this post and apply it when travelling to Mongolia. Also check out the youtube video on the same topic. If you have any other questions or requests, just let us know! Enjoy!
1. Drink Salty Tea
If you visit a Mongolian family, they will offer you milk tea or sometimes black tea. But it’s often salty. Although many places put sugar in their tea, we often add salt. One exception would be if you visit someone from eastern Mongolia where they usually don’t put salt in the tea. I was told the reason that Mongolians drink salty tea is the higher altitude and extreme climate in Mongolia. It is very cold and dry- especially in the west. Salty tea helps to stay hydrated. The more to the west you go, the thicker and saltier the tea will be. Maybe take this into consideration when traveling to Mongolia, so that you don’t get too suprised. Sometimes we even put butter…
2. The Wrist Grab
Don’t be alarmed if a Mongolian stranger grabs your hand seemingly out of nowhere. In fact, they are likely apologizing for bumping your foot. If we accidentally kick or step on someone’s foot, we shake hands or touch each other’s wrists. Isn’t that weird? This gesture means that you didn’t mean to do it- it was purely an accident. Otherwise, it might mean you need revenge and want to have a war with them. It could be misinterpreted as an act of agression. The Most awkward part is when Mongolians are in another country or with other foreigners. When we step on a stranger’s foot we instinctively touch their wrist. People would look at us like ‘What are you doing?’ Of course they are surprised or scared when a stranger touches them out of nowhere. So now you know the reason, and you don’t need to be frightened when a strange Mongolian grabs your wrist.
3. Hospitality: Accepting/Refusing Offers
In some cultures, when someone visits your house you would offer a drink or food right? Like ‘Would you like something to drink?’, ‘Do you want coffee or tea?’ or, ‘Are you hungry, would you like some food?’ The implication here is that perhaps the guest doesn’t want anything, and it is perfectly fine to decline the offer. However, in Mongolia, we don’t ask. We just give. If you do ask whether someone wants food /drink, a Mongolian may likely say no at first- even if they do want to drink or eat. Why? You know- just to be polite. We don’t want to bother someone by having them serve you. There is even a word/term for such behavior which is нэрэлхүү (adj) нэрэлхэх (verb).
The reason for all this is because of our Mongolian traditional nomadic culture. We act this way because nomadic people are very generous. Remember that a long time ago on the steppe, if someone didn’t get fed, they might die. Thus, we offer everything we have for the guests with a generous heart (without being stingy). So asking if someone wants food/drink may imply that they don’t really want to give but are just offering to be polite. Perhaps they don’t have enough foos made, but it is very rude not to offer. So that’s the reason the Mongolian guest would say no.
One example is if you visit a Mongolian family in the countryside. They will offer you a milk tea without asking if you want it or not. Be ready for this. So next time, if a Mongolian visits you make sure to offer something without asking. Remember, the Golden Rule: Treat people how you want to be treated. However, the Platinum Rule: treat people how they want to be treated.
4. Giving and Describing directions: Universal/Cardinal Directions
Talking about directions in UB can be quite confusing- to say the least. People often have to clarify by asking Ертөнцийн зүгээр хаана вэ? Which means ‘are you referring to the universal direction?’ This is because the other person could mean a different direction from what you thought.
Mongolians are nomadic people and live in the steppe and they use universal/cardinal directions: North, South, West, East. However, when they say these words they mean something different because their directions are based on a map with China being in the North and Mongolia in the South. In other words, what we think of as the main direction (North), is actually South in Mongolian. Are you confused? Let me explain.
Mongolians have always built their gers with the entrance facing South due to the wind from the North. Some people also say that Chinggis Khaan made his door face South so that he could watch China in case of a war. But that is probably not true. Anyhow, imagine you walk out of your ger and you are facing South. To the left would be zuun (which is also the word for East). That’s why the word/term South and in front could mean the same; урд/өмнө.
The same is true for the other directions:
North and behind –хойно
West and right- баруун
East and left– зүүн
So no problem in the steppe. The problem starts in the city. Because the door could face different directions. Of course in the city not all doors face south. For example: If you are in front of a building and you say in Mongolian: ‘Би байшингийн урд байна.‘ Your Mongolian friend might understand you are at the South side of the building because of the word ‘урд’ which could mean either South or in front. Especially if this building faces North, it would be very cofusing. So to make it clear to the other person, you use the word ‘Ертөнцийн зүгээр урд’ which means I am South in universal/cardinal direction. So next time when you talk to your Mongolian friend about direction, ask if it’s Universal direction, ‘Ертөнцийн зүгээр үү?’
5. Don't Put Your Bag On The Floor!
I’ve seen many foreigners come inside the house and throw their bags on the floor. This is quite shocking to us. Maybe the floor is the world’s biggest table, but for Mongolians that’s not the case. If you visit a Mongolian family and put your bag on the floor, they will immediately take it and put it on the chair or sofa. Mongolians never put their possessions on the floor like this. It is because the ground is considered dusty or dirty and you don’t want your bag to get dirty. So it originally was a practical thing. Of course many people live in apartments now and they are not so dusty, but still we carry this tradition of not putting our bags on the floor. One woman who runs a hostel for foreign backpackers in the city told me a story. She said she was waiting for two Western travelers and they came into the hostel to check in. They said hi and everybody greeted each other. Of course they were very tired because traveling in Mongolia can be difficult and they have large backpacks. So once they came in they just dumped their backpacks on the ground to relieve themselves. This woman was shocked because she had never seen anything like that. It wasn’t rude, but she just thought that maybe they should put their bags on the chair to not get them dirty.
So remember to put your bag on a higher surface when you enter somwhere in Mongolia. Otherwise you may get some strange stares.
So That’s it for now! I hope you found this interesting and helpful to understand Mongolian people. Are there any other things you find different or interesting when interacting with Mongolians? Also, are there any things that people do in your country that others find strange or interesting? Please comment down below. I’m Khishge from Nomiin Ger. Don’t forget to watch the accompanying videos on our Youtube Channel. Also look out for more blogs like this in the near future. Daraa uulzie, bayarlalaa!