It may not be the world’s most popular tourist destination, but Mongolia has a lot going for it. With a big chunk of the population still clinging to a traditional existence, Mongolia is a country where you can still witness a relatively untouched way of life little changed over centuries. Here are ten interesting facts you might not have known about this incredible country.
1. It’s known as “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky”
Mongolia enjoys more than 250 days of sunshine a year, which has earned it the nickname “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky” or “Country of Blue Sky”. Mongolians refer to their own country as “Blue Mongolia”. Blue sky doesn’t always equate to warmth, though; Mongolia’s climate is extreme, and though most of the country is hot in summer, temperatures can plummet to -30 degrees Celsius in winter. Indeed, the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is the world’s chilliest capital city, with an average temperature of -1.3 degrees.
2. 30% of Mongolia’s population is nomadic
Mongolia is famous for the nomadic way of life – it’s one of the world’s few remaining nomadic cultures – and it’s estimated that between 30% and 40% of the country’s people live like this. Mongolia’s nomads are herdsmen, surviving by farming livestock such as camels, cattle and horses, and moving around to exploit the best conditions for doing so at different times of year.
3. Ger, not yurt
The traditional Mongolian home is known as the “ger”, although it has more recently become known to outsiders by the more well-known Russian term “yurt”. The ger is a tent-like structure made of a wooden frame covered with felt; the materials are purposefully very lightweight so that they can be transported by camel, but gers are surprisingly warm inside once the stove is lit.
4. Not just nomads
There’s more to Mongolia’s population than the nomadic tribes for which it is best known. 45% of the Mongolian population live in the busy capital, Ulaanbaatar, where life is a lot more up-to-date and travelers will find ample museums, shops, restaurants, bars and clubs.
5. The Mongolians are the world’s best horsemen
Horse riding is a fundamental part of Mongolian nomadic culture; indeed, the saying goes that “A Mongolian without a horse is like a bird without wings”. The country is also referred to as the “Land of the Horsemen”, and horses outnumber people in Mongolia. Horses have been relied on in numerous contexts throughout Mongolian history; Genghis Khan and his army, for example, famously conquered extensive territories on horseback. Despite their importance to Mongolian culture, however, horses in Mongolia are not given names and are both milked and eaten.
6. Mongolian camels have two humps
The Bactrian camel is Mongolia’s native camel. It has two humps and it’s much rarer than its one-humped cousin. Small herds of wild Bactrian camels still roam the Gobi Desert, but they’re more commonly seen in domestic contexts living among nomadic tribesmen.
7. Mongolia’s biggest celebration is the Naadam Festival
Mongolia’s biggest annual festival is Naadam, which is celebrated throughout the country and features the three national Mongolian sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling. Held in mid-July, it’s popular with travelers who want to get a glimpse into Mongolian culture.
8. Deer stones: a relic of Mongolia’s past
Deer stones are mysterious prehistoric stones found across Mongolia (and in southern parts of neighboring Siberia as well). These standing stones bear ancient depictions of flying reindeer, often accompanied by a belted warrior. Nobody knows exactly what these depictions mean, or even who made them, but over 900 have been found and they’re thought to date to the Bronze Age (about 1000 BC).
9. Sheep eyes, anyone?
How would you like to be cooked up and served the entire head of a sheep – including its eyes? It’s a delicacy in Mongolia, where the tradition is that one person has to eat both the eyes. Apparently a good hangover cure in Mongolia is a glass of tomato juice and vinegar with sheep eyes in it.
10. The south of the country is dominated by the Gobi Desert
The vast Gobi Desert takes up much of southern Mongolia, but, with the exception of the Khongoryn Els or “Singing Dunes”, it’s mostly not characterised by sand dunes. Instead, you can expect to find a barren, rocky wilderness, with strong winds and temperatures ranging from -40 degrees in winter to +40 in summer. The word “Gobi” refers to a kind of desert steppe, with just enough vegetation to support camels. Adding to the primeval vibe, dinosaur fossils have been found there and some even lie in situ, exposed to the elements.