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.