5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Mongolia

Mongolia is a fascinating place to visit, and a journey here can be as adventurous as you'd like it to be.

1. The Naadam Festival is not what you might expect.

Lots of people travels to Mongolia to experience the annual Naadam Festival, a mix of pageantry, competition and national celebration that is like no other. The Opening Celebration has a fabulous parade and is reminiscent of a half-time show at an American football game, but from there on, Naadam is a world away from American festivals. The competitions, called the “Three Games of Man,“ may have familiar names – archery, horse racing and wrestling – but they are carried out in a strictly Mongolian fashion (of course). Male and female archers shoot arrows from tall bows that haven‘t changed much since Genghis Khan‘s warriors used them to conquer the known world. School-age jockeys urge their horses along an overland route that can be 17 miles long. And powerful wrestlers in skimpy costumes flap their arms gravely in the ritual Eagle Dance before grappling with each other. They don‘t do it that way in Sioux City. There are Naadam festival in most provinces of Mongolia and the smaller ones might be the better ones, because there will be less crowd and more opportunities to take great photos and feel the Naadam.

2. 4X4s rock.

Literally, one of the things most tourists say is that they should have brought along was pills for motion sickness. There are very few roads in Mongolia, and long off-road drives are fun and exciting – as long as you aren't seasick. Just pop a pill before getting started on a Gobi excursion or a drive to the ruins of Genghis Khan‘s capital, Kara Korum, and you‘ll be able to fully appreciate the huge bowl of blue sky and the endless vistas of the Mongolian outback.

3. Weather outlook: Sunny and windswept

The steppe has few trees. The Gobi has few trees. There is no shade out there, and nothing that might slow down the ever-present wind. So bring a scarf or bandanna, a windbreaker, a hat that covers your neck, sunscreen and lip balm. They take up so little space and are worth 10 times their weight in gold when you need them..

4. Mongolians love horses

If you have a good local guide, you will most likely be stopping to visit with nomadic herders on your travels across Mongolia. All of them have tough little Mongolian horses. Usually it‘s possible, for perhaps $15 or so, to take one of them for a ride. Even if you‘re not a horse person, one of the kids can lead you around for a while just so you can say you‘ve done it. However, it‘s a good idea to know how to say stop (zogs) – not to the horse, but to the kid who is leading you. (Tchoo means giddy up, and apparently the horse next to you will giddy up too, if you say this.)

5. Ger manners and milk products are important.

As you approach a ger settlement, you should remember that the proper way to greet the inhabitants is to yell, “Nokhoigoo!“ – “Call off your dog!“ Inside a nomadic ger home, do not lean against the ger wall or furniture or remain standing over the threshold. Sitting with your feet out in front of you is considered impolite; tuck them in when seated on a stool, or kneel. If you are offered food, it is best to accept, even if you don‘t finish it. Take food offered with your right hand. Tand bayarlaa means "thank you," but you don‘t need to say it often – nomadic people far from the city take it for granted that they will be offered hospitality in a stranger‘s ger, and they offer it to you as a matter of course.

Herders out on the steppe eat mainly meat (usually mutton and goat) and milk products. Mongolians have found creative ways to use the milk of all of their domestic animals such as yak, camel, horse, cow, goat and sheep. You may be offered salted tea with horse or camel milk; aaruul, the sour coin-shaped milk curds that you sometimes see drying on top of the gerairag, fermented mare‘s milk; and sweet or sour yogurt.

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