10 Facts People Should Know About Mongolia

When I was nine years old, my family moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We lived there four years before moving back to the United States. I know that doesn’t sound like a very long time, but it was my home. And I loved it. Since I moved away, I have often had to explain the mysterious Mongolia. It seems that although the famous Mongols once possessed a great portion of the known-world, they have since crept back into the shadows.

In light of that, I thought I would share with you 10 Facts People Should Know About Mongolia.

1. IT’S IN ASIA (NOT AFRICA)

Sometimes, people ask me where home is. I look at them for a moment and then say slowly, “I’m not really sure. I lived in Mongolia for four years though.” That usually changes the subject (thank goodness) to, “Oh! Mongolia! That’s interesting. It’s hot there right?”

I hesitate. Could Mongolia be described as hot? Well, I used to think the summers were hot. They could get up in the 90s. But, no, of course not. Mongolia would never be described as hot. It has basically nine months of winter.

“Are you thinking of Angola?”

“Oh! That’s right, I am. Where’s Mongolia again?”

“Sandwiched between Russia and China,” I respond.

“Ha! That’s funny. I forgot there was even a country there.”

You’re not alone, my friend. You’re not alone.

2. THEY SPEAK MONGOLIAN (NOT CHINESE)

“You lived in Mongolia! How interesting! Do you speak Chinese then?”

…No. No, I don’t speak Chinese because they don’t speak Chinese in Mongolia. They speak Mongolian.

A common misconception about Mongolia is that they are some sort of territory or province of China. As much as China might like that, this is not the case. I know this is confusing with the province in China actually called “Inner Mongolia.” Let me explain. Inner Mongolia is outside of Mongolia – in China. Outer Mongolia is actual Mongolia. Don’t ask me why this happened, I have no idea.

Due to the fact that Mongolia is not a part of China, it speaks a language not even remotely like Chinese. Strangely enough, it is more similar to Arabic than any thing else. It is not tonal, it doesn’t use characters, and, to be honest, it doesn’t sound very pretty. But I love it because it’s theirs.

3. THEY EAT MUTTON (NOT “BD’S MONGOLIAN GRILL”)

“You are so lucky you got to live in Mongolia! I LOVE Mongolian food!”

Few things in life make me want to cuss. However, hearing these words makes this girl want to scream some foul language. I did not eat five hundred mutton dumplings or drink a thousand bowls of milk tea to be told I was lucky to eat it. I ate it to be polite.

I am sure there are some people in the world who really appreciate a hearty Mongol meal. If you like mutton and fermented mare’s milk, you really are in for a treat. Wait, are you surprised that this doesn’t sound like BD’s Mongolian Grill? That’s because that restaurant is one big fat lie.

BD’s serves seafood, NY strip steak, and every kind of beautiful fresh vegetable you can imagine. It has workers, with swords, flinging your food around on a grill while they sing a happy “Mongol” song. Just…what the heck.

Mongolia is a landlocked country – it’s a rare day when they get seafood. NY strip steak? Are you kidding me? I’d saw off my right leg for one of those in BEIJING alone. Mongolia is a land of permafrost – getting a lot of different kind of veggies is a miracle.

I just can’t tell you how much BD’s goes against every memory of my Mongolian childhood. I do understand that it is a delicious restaurant, but I’m not really sure why they picked Mongolia. Maybe the idea that no one would ever know they were crazy?

On a positive note, I do hope it’s helping Mongolian tourism. What a bummer for the tourists though, when they realize there’s no delicious seafood on the menu.

4. ROADS ARE A PRIVILEGE (NOT A RIGHT)

I have noticed that complaining about poor road conditions is just something humans like to do. When I first visited Leif’s home in downeast Maine, I learned that America still has a final frontier in regards to roads. They twist, and they dip, and they bump. I feel nauseated every time we fly down the street to his old home.

However, nothing compares to the “roads” of Mongolia. Almost as soon as you leave the capital, Ulaanbaatar, you find the end of the pavement. You cross over into the nomadic steppe that is the Mongolian countryside. The roads become dirt paths that have so many potholes and rocks you’re often better off just driving on the grass.

My dad would often weave our jeep in and out of power lines, saying, “We know power leads to something!” Of course, that meant getting stuck in a bog for six hours until a Russian truck could tow us out. The time my dad stayed faithful to the dirt “road,” the jeep rolled three times and he almost died out in the Mongolian steppe.

I would just like to take this moment to thank the American government for their beautiful highways. Thanks, America.

5. IT’S PRONOUNCED OO-LAN-BAH-TER (NOT OO-LAN-BAY-TAR)

Ulaanbaatar is a fascinating city that I hope everyone has the privilege of visiting. It is nestled in a valley, surrounded by rolling hills with ancient Mongolian script painted upon them. A developing city, it is under almost constant construction as it seeks to better itself for the world stage. And, currently, Mongolia is actually considered one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Surrounding modern Ulaanbaatar is the ger district. The ger district is where more than half of Mongolians live. It often, if not entirely, lacks access to basic amenities like water, sewage systems, and central heating. Gers (yurts) are the felt tents you may have seen in pictures when talking about northern Asia. The ger district is mostly made up of these gers, wooden fences, and poorly constructed houses.

Now that you know a little more about Ulaanbaatar, just remember to pronounce it correctly. Or, you could always just call it “UB” for short.

6. THERE ARE PEOPLE THERE (NOT JUST ANIMALS)

In university, I took an international relations class that required each student to religiously read the BBC News every week. Each week, I waited and waited for there to be an article about Mongolia. I thought about how wonderful it would be to finally be able to share my favorite country with my class. …No article ever came.

I can understand why people aren’t sure anyone lives in the country. I mean, we never hear about them in the media. My dad, being the wise father he is, did a lot of research on Mongolia before we moved there. One of the few things he uncovered during his research was that Mongolia has more horses than people. So…it’s an empty land running free with horses?

Well, yes and no. There are, indeed, a lot of horses. And sheep. And goats. And yaks. And reindeer. And hawks. And vultures. However, I am here to tell you today, there are also 3.2 million people in Mongolia. 3 million people with a unique culture and fascinating traditions. Just because you never hear about them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

7. CHINNGGIS KHAAN IS THEIR HERO (NOT A VILLAIN)

When we were feeling particularly optimistic about life, my family and I traveled around the countryside of Mongolia. Usually we decided to venture out for a camping trip or some other kind of vacation. Every time we got in the car, my brother, Jonan, and I would sit by our windows and stare intently out at the steppe. Our parents had told us that Chinnggis Khaan was buried out there somewhere and, gosh darn it, we were gonna be the ones to find him.

Chinnggis Khan (Genghis Khan), as you may remember from history class, was the founder and Great Khan of the Mongol empire. He was able to unite the nomadic tribes and conquer most of Eurasia. He was a fearless leader, willing to do whatever necessary to further his people’s iron grasp of the world. Their conquest was brutal.

Despite the brutality Chinnggis Khaan used, he is never a villain in the eyes of the Mongols. He is their founding father. Their hero. Statues of him are found all over Mongolia and, honestly, can you blame them? Chinnggis Khaan, although horrendously vicious, got the job done. A tip of the hat to the brilliant warrior.

As rumors have it, Chinnggis Khaan had a very serious burial plan in the event of his death. He was to be buried at an undisclosed location and anyone who was involved in the burial process was later to be killed.

As you might imagine, Jonan and I never found his grave. Bummer.

8. IT IS FRIGID (NOT JUST COLD)

Our first winter in Mongolia, our radiators in our apartment froze. It was -40 Celsius and our heaters froze. We could put hot soup on the counter and it would freeze in five minutes or less. I have decided that I didn’t know cold until I didn’t know what warmth felt like any more. You know it’s cold when your snot freezes to your nose hairs. You know it’s cold when your eyelashes get so many ice crystals you can’t see anymore. And you know it’s cold when you’re wearing seven layers and you’re still cold.

Strangely enough, thanks to the polar vortex this year, a lot of you may actually know how this feels. It is freaking miserable. Not just miserable. Freaking miserable.

However, when it gets warm enough to snow again, suddenly you’re running around in shorts and a t-shirt.

Mongolia and the cold give you tough skin.

9. IT IS AN UNDISCOVERED BEAUTY (NOT A DESOLATE WASTELAND)

Yes, Mongolia doesn’t have a lot of people. And, yes, Mongolia isn’t well known.

Yet, Mongolia still has so much to offer. My memories of Mongolia are absolutely beautiful. There is a sea of rolling steppe where you can watch the shadows of clouds roll over the land for miles. In the north, there is beautiful Lake Khovsgol, where mountains, forests, and plains collide. In the west, towering, snow-capped mountains. And, in the south, there is the Gobi Desert with towering sand dunes and springing tumbleweeds.

Part of me loves that Mongolia is so little known. Part of me hopes it’ll stay that way forever, because it is charming in its endless emptiness of beauty.

10. IT IS ALWAYS AN ADVENTURE (NOT EVER BORING)

All of my best stories have come from Mongolia.

My family and I were trapped in a blizzard in the Gobi Desert. Nine stories of sewage backed up into my family’s toilet and tub. I stepped on a mouse that died in my boot. I could tell you story after story, but all of it to say, Mongolia is the best kind of adventure.

It’s the kind of adventure where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You never know what the next day will bring. You never know how it’s going to change you. I am incredibly grateful my parents moved me to the unknown nation of Mongolia. It taught me the life-long lesson:

There should always be adventure.

***

Are there other facts people should know about Mongolia? Leave a comment below.

159 thoughts on “10 Facts People Should Know About Mongolia

  1. Grace, a friend of mine posted this article on their Facebook wall. I just spent two years in Mongolia and everyone that reads it says you’re pretty spot on. If you ever get the opportunity to go back there you wouldn’t believe how much the city has changed since you were there. Then another friend posted your 10 things to stop sharing on Facebook post and I read through that and nodded my head. And then I saw your Twitter handle – Grace Pilet that lived in Mongolia… that rings a bell… I was married to Naomi.

    What a small world! I hope you’re doing well!

  2. thanks to the author for her funny enlightment what’s Mongolia and what it isn’t. I lived there a year and visited the country 8 more times for vacation…. Roads are constructed and will decay 5 years later. Good road, bad road, no road? On the countryside litterally noone cares. Good roads are toll roads (so they aren’t used too much), bad roads consume the corean / japanese 4×4 cars easily so everyone except big trucks drives on tracks parallel to the good (or bad) road in russian 4×4 jeeps or busses – they never break…. what people nowadays call “mongolian barbecue” was once the noblemen’s way to eat, but man-on-the-street eat soups or dumplings…. the only freshly fried stuff is “sharsan eleg”, liver with onions and I loved it (and gained kilograms of weight in the winter from it) and one more thing: they really hate Chinese, the chinese language and it’s absolutely depreciated. Oneself might gettin stabbed or beaten up when one mentions that he speaks Chinese. Anyway I loved Mongolia from my very first day there and I became kind of VIP because I play the horse head fiddle and performed in mongolia’s biggest concert hall. I had my moments when I staid there – but mostly I was upset abut all of these unadapted “gadaad humuus” who never bothered to learn to speak reasonalbe sentenses in Mongolian. Of course it’s complicated…. and when you can read arab script it’s easy to understand the mongolian vertical script as well. It’s my second home now…. Anyway even for someone who has been in a many places it might take half a year to adapt to local customs….

  3. I’m happy that our country has left a good memory for someone. Please visit Mongolia again. It changed a lot.

  4. All very true. Although there for only two years, I also hold a special place in my heart for Mongolia, and all my dear Mongolian friends. Nice story !

  5. Well said!! The Mongolian BBQ in US or in any other country is called Mongolian because of the way they cook, not because of the food. Chinggis Khaan’s soldiers used to cook using their sheild and sword, as they were out conquering the world.

    1. Sorry Miriam, that’s just a story for the diners to make them think they’re experiencing something authentic: General Subedei would not have been happy if his soldiers had misused valuable military technology in this way.

    2. Sorry Miriam, that is not very true though. Most of the shields that has been used for war were mostly leather, not metal! Can not cook something on open flame.

  6. Happy to read about my home-country. You have very positive mind and energy! Thank you my best wishes for you and your family!!!

  7. Dear Grace, thank you for the exciting article. I am sure lot of tourists are getting interested in Mongolia, since its burgeoning growth on world’s market. Your sincere review was very compelling. I hope it gave more perspective for foreigners. Good life!

  8. thanks for your post. When i’m reading it, i realized many things before ever didn’t know about my country.

  9. The people: they are more hospitable than any other nation. They will offer you their bed to sleep on and all their food to eat, even if you visit them as a stranger. They’re always delighted to see you, no matter how inconvenient a time you arrive.

    1. Hi Tim!!! You are so right about that👊. I’m Mongolian and I grew up there… Our people grew up working hard. So specially people who lives in countryside they are most amazing hospitable and warm people🙏. They treat you like their family, for real! Thank you for you nice comment about my peeps👍👍👍

  10. Awesome! I have been living in the Gobi Desert for 2 years. What years were you in UB and when was the last time you went to Mongolia?

    1. I also lived in Mongolia for 5 yrs. and stayed in the Gobi for 2 weeks. We lived there from 2000 to 2005

  11. I tell everyone that our trip to Mongolia was my best vacation EVER! I would love to return and make my own road through the amazing steppe, sleep on the permafrost again and again and listen to the people sing. Everyone sang, even our drivers and guides. I LOVE MONGOLIA. Two great books about Genghis Khan: Genghis Khan and the making of the Modern World (by Jack Weatherford) and Genghis:Birth of an Empire (by Conn Iggulden). If anyone has other books suggestions, please do so.

  12. I visited Mongolia last year for a 10 day riding challenge, it was the most amazing experience of my life. The landscape is truly breathtaking and the Mongolian people are wonderful. I hope to go back again.

  13. Thanks for this! I only lived in Mongolia for a summer in high school, so I can’t say anything about the cold and a summer doesn’t sound like a long time at all, but I absolutely fell in love with Mongolia!! Leaving Mongolia felt like leaving home. The only things I disagree with are the language–I think it’s gorgeous–and the food… personally I love buuz, huusher, and even airag!

  14. LOVE LOVE TO READ THIS ARTICLE AND ALSO PEOPLE WHO COMMENTED ABOUT OUR COUNTRY, PEOPLE AND CULTURE!!! IM SO PROUD TO BE MONGOLIAN💪👊!

  15. THANK YOU FOR THE BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE ABOUT MY COUNTRY🙏. AND ALSO EVERYONE WHO COMMENTED!! ALWAYS PROUD TO BE MONGOLIAN💪👊

  16. A beautiful article! I have always wanted to visit Mongolia.

    Yes, Genghis Khan is seen as a hero to Mongols just as the West says Alexander “the Great”, the terminology depends whether your own people were on the same side. He is universally known to have had one of the greatest strategic minds ever.
    Genghis Khan and descendants did rule one of the largest empires ever seen, and it was characterised by free trade, freedom of religion and super-safe, secure and orderly trade routes.

    The reason Inner Mongolia is now a part of China: During the communist revolutions, the USSR took control of Outer Mongolia and China annexed Inner Mongolia. After the dissolution of the USSR, Outer Mongolia regained full independence. However China has held on to Inner Mongolia, Tibet and other territories.

    Chinese peoples are taught that all these regions were always a part of China as part of their propaganda.
    But that denies some major facts:
    – the Great Wall was built by Chinese to keep out these others such as Mongols
    – Ghenghis Khan took over China, and not the reverse, and that was how the territories were united for a time (so by that reasoning you could say China was part of Mongolia!)
    – as the author of this article notes, the cultures are so different: completely different language and language roots; Mongols traditionally did not eat vegetables or rice (they can only import such as the growing season is too short); Mongols have always used dairy in all meals as they had a nomadic lifestyle dependent on animals, whereas the Chinese used no dairy (they have only very recently become interested in milk and ice cream through Western influence); Chinese are agrarian, tied to a plot of land while Mongols traditionally were nomads (even though many have moved to UB, their soul is still in the steppes)

    It is unfortunate that restaurant terms like “Mongolian Grill” are used for Chinese food as it confuses people. To a Chinese person, “Mongolian” sounds like exotic outlying people, so maybe they feel it is good marketing for their restaurants.

    Anyway, I would not want to detract from the very positive tone of this article! I never hear Mongolians themselves talking such politics. They are a very positive people who wish to keep harmony with both their neighbors Russia and China and increase ties abroad.

    There is so much cultural richness awaiting us there–from refined art, to horse riding contests, to archery, to amazing music that will blow your mind, to spotting dinosaur bones in the Gobi Desert!

    1. Wow, thanks for such a good explanation about the difference of Mongolia & China. Well done! You’ve made my day 🙂

  17. wow! let me just say, you’ve written this like a true mongolian. (now all you need to do is learn to love the food.) especially that last point, haha. nothing /ever/ goes as planned in mongolia. there is no such thing as a set plan, and each time you step outside the door, you just know something new and terrific (or terryfing) will happen.

    hope you get to return ‘home’ soon, someday!

  18. Thanks for the article. I am planning to use it whenever someone is going to annoy me with their ignorance about my country.

  19. I leave in America. It is different people , different culture. I love America. Truly high civilized country. Yes , my country poor , but – people …… Thank you Tim Cowell for your nice review about Mongolian people : ” The people – they are more hospitable than any other nation. They will offer you their bed to sleep on and all their food to eat, even if you visit them as a stranger. They’re always delighted to see you, no matter how inconvenient a time you arrive. ” however it is true . That’t what exactly my step – daughter tells about me . I love my country , my people , my culture and it is nice to hear it from you . Thank’s Grace P . J. for your amazing article and other peoples nice comments .
    : ) : ) : )

  20. I am very happy that you gave answers to lots of misconceptions about Mongolia. It doesn’t matter whether people like my country or hate it…… But the general consensus needs to be spread out…… Thanks deeply!

  21. I guess it’s not even Mongolia that made you feel this way, I think it’s you, the beautiful person inside, who is able to see all the beauty of the world. Would be very happy to know the purpose of your visit to my homeland for 4 years. :)))

  22. Hi Grace – the Inner / Outer Mongolia names originate from a Chinese perspective. Nèi (Inner) Měnggǔ is the Mongolia within China: Wai (Outer) Měnggǔ is the Mongolia outside of China. I enjoyed your article.

  23. Dear Grace,

    Thank you so much for this amazing article. May Mongolia leave in yourself as written in the article, ever!!! We will try our best to keep our country as a true Mongolia, certainly :-).

    Wish very best to you and your family!!!

  24. thank you so much for this and now i can easily share it with my American boyfriend who knows nothing about Mongolia. You’ve took the words right out of my mind and made it humorous !

  25. Its better to drive on the dirt paths. You never know whats hiding in the grasses. Speaking from experience.
    Great article btw.

  26. This article was perfectly made…good sense of humor..facts..it still sounds mysterious…to the point I want that job…but 70 kms away from the capital sounds even more tempting to see what civilization is about.
    Many thanks to the author.
    I’m going for it.

  27. Thank you for this article! I will visit Mongolia next week and this piece will certainly help me optimize my visit.

    I am prepping my heart to fall hard for this beautiful country you call your home. (ish) 🙂

  28. thank you for your great humorous article! All this optimistic comments about my homeland made my day 🙂
    Wish you all the best!

  29. Thank you for telling the truth! When I was in France they always ask me ‘do you know how to use toilet or bath?’. For gods sake everyone knows how to use that

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