N is for Nomads

By: Becky the Great

An alphabetical list of the top reasons why it's better to be an expat here...

A is for Archery. Don't even kid yourself. Archery is hot these days. Katniss does it, and so does Merida, but the Mongolians have been doing it a lot longer...since before the days of Chinggis "Known-To-Most-Of-The-World-As-Genghis" Khan, and it's one of the three “Manly Sports” athletes compete in at Naadam – their biggest festival of the year..

B is for Bactrian camel. Forget about their cousins, the Dromedary camel. Bactrian camels not only give you more hump for your money (two as opposed to one!), they're full of wooly cuteness. And, yes, spit. There are several opportunities to see camel polo throughout the year, so you have no excuses not to.

C is for Cashmere. Mongolia may not produce the most cashmere in the world, but we make the finest, with fibers as low as 15 microns in diameter. There are shops everywhere selling affordable, stylish pieces of this luxuriously warm fabric, which you'll be grateful for come winter.

D is for DINOSAURS! If you didn't grow up on stories of Roy Chapman Andrews, you missed out. Not only was Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs the place to hunt for dinosaurs back in the day, they are still unearthing fossils, such as the recent discovery of nests of therizinosaurs. Visit the Gobi Desert and see where Andrews made his discoveries (or thefts, depending on how you look at it), and hopefully sometime soon the Dinosaur Museum in Ulaanbaatar will open.

E is for Eagle hunting. If you haven't already seen it, run a search for “eagle hunter meme.” While you will never be as cool as the eagle hunters of western Mongolia, you can rub shoulders with them at the Eagle Festival in Olgii, or even go on a hunting trek with them in winter. Just don't forget every article of warm clothing you own.

F is for Food. Who'd have thought that you'd find a pretty damn decent food scene in Mongolia? Nobody, that's who, and yet, here we are, with restaurants ranging from Sri Lankan at Ceylonta to the newly opened Mexikhan. There's even a Facebook group for food lovers in Mongolia: the UB Foodies.

G is for Ger. Staying in a felt hut rather than a hotel may strike you as an adventure at best, or totally strange at worst. You can take it slow and go for an overnight at a tourist ger camp, which may have flush toilets and hot showers, or jump right into it and stay with a herding family through organizations such as Ger-to-Ger.

H is for Hustai. And Horses. One of the closest national parks to Ulaanbaatar is Hustai. This was my first experience in a ger (freezing cold!), and with Mongolian food (leaving much to be desired) but it was all worth it when we went into the park and found a herd of rare Przewalski's Horses, known to their fellow Mongolians as takhi. Horse racing is one of the sports of Naadam, and Mongolians love their horses (sometimes even as dinner), so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the takhi has made a comeback from being extinct in the wild.

I is for Ice. If you've missed the references in the first 8 items on my list, it gets bloody cold in Mongolia during the winter, but we make it work for us. There are ice sculptures everywhere, and next week we're even hosting an ice circus! On the nearby Tuul River, Mongolians have just started driving on the ice (yes, driving, and I'm not talking about dogsledding, although you can do that here, too), and will be moving their anklebone games to the river, too.

J is for Jargal. Jargal means happiness in Mongolian, and it pretty much sums up how I feel here. I've been an expat in three different Asian countries and two in the Middle East, but I've never been as happy as I am in Mongolia. Don't get me wrong – it's not the easiest place in the world to live, as a good number of men on the “Expats in Mongolia” Facebook group will tell you at every opportunity, but the Mongolians I work with are awesome, the countryside is gorgeous, and I'm somehow miraculously adjusting to the aforementioned weather.

K is for Khovsgol. It's Mongolia's deepest lake, and pretty as a picture, whether you go in winter and see the ice festival in Khatgal or in summer, when the only thing bluer than the sky is the water.

L is for Lamas. After following their comrades' example and hopping on the communist bandwagon, Mongolia spent nearly 70 years “in the red.” Regardless of what you think about communism, religion had a helluva tough time with it, as a collection of bullet-riddled monks' skulls at the Political Persecution Museum will attest. And yet Buddhism lives on here, and the lamas have a lot of influence on the lives of the people. Not only do they choose the dates for Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia's other major holiday, they pick auspicious dates for other events, such as castrating your animals. So, you know, if you're ever craving a nice steaming bowl of testicle stew, find a monk and ask about the next favorable castration day.

M is for Maazaalei. When I used to think about desert animals, I never thought about bears. When my driver here first told me about the maazaalei, the Gobi bear, I thought he was making things up, but while more people may claim to have had encounters with the Mongolian Death Worm (total fiction), the Gobi bear actually does exist, and this year has been designated as the year of protecting it. Considering how well they've brought back the takhi, I have every hope that if I hang around long enough (and make no mistake, I'm sure we're talking about a long time here), I might actually get to see one.

N is for Nomads. In my opinion, this is one of the most unique things about Mongolia. While more and more people are moving to cities (and yes, there are cities besides Ulaanbaatar), herding and moving around is still a way of life. Going to visit herder friends of our driver's, only to find out they'd moved was a surprise the first time it happened, and maybe a little inconvenient, but I admire their courage and the ability to pack things up and move on to greener pastures. It's a little like being an expat, but with fewer guarantees.

O is for Ovoo. Mongolia's 70 year flirtation with communism didn't manage to kill Shamanism here, either. You don't even need to leave Ulaanbaatar to find these cairns – which serve as both spiritual sites and landmarks - just to climb to the top of the hill with Chinggis' face on it. Circle it clockwise three times and leave a rock or a blue silk scarf on it for a safe journey.

P is for Petroglyphs. The history of Mongolia is amazingly rich, and the countryside is scattered with reminders of their past. There are stone figures called balbals, standing stones carved with pictures, and some really fantastic petroglyphs. We saw them out in Bayan-Olgii, which were part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but you don't need to go that far. Chinggis Khan's birthplace of Khentii Province has its fair share of them, too.

Q is for Queens. If you're into strong, beautiful women, you NEED to come to Mongolia. Actually, the same thing applies if you're into strong, beautiful men, but hey, for the sake of this list, we're talking about queens...as in the women who saved the Mongolian empire. Their descendants do a damn fine job of keeping up the family heritage; for once in my teaching career, my girl students are just as interesting and outspoken as my boys.

R is for Reindeer. It's not every city that can boast herds of reindeer moving down the street, but it's been known to happen in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia is home to a small population of reindeer herders, living in the taiga region northwest of Khovsgol Lake. It's a long jaunt to get out there, but the chance to visit them, to witness them carrying on their traditional way of life...well, it's one of the things I'm sticking around to see, hopefully in the coming summer, so watch my blog around the beginning of July.

S is for Steppe. Grasslands that go on forever, or so they seem, and each minute that ticks by brings a change in the colors as day creeps into night. I don't care if you hate fresh air and sunshine, you can't help but fall in love with the Mongolian countryside.

T is for Top. As in the Big Top. Okay, I realize this one is a bit of a stretch, but I couldn't finish this list without talking about the circus. Even though I'd already seen three amazing shows at the round yellow building downtown that houses the state circus (all of which featured world class international performers), last Sunday's was my favorite yet. All the performers were Mongolian, and it utilized Mongolian history, and featured the musical stylings of Altan Urag, a rock band that utilizes traditional tunes and instruments in their music. And remember what I said about strong beautiful women? Contortionism. 'Nuff said.

U is for Ulaanbaatar, but you won't be calling it that for long. Ulaanbaatar is a mouthful, so most of us just call it UB. Or the freaking coldest national capital in the world. You may not like it at first, but after a long weekend in the countryside, you'll appreciate it a lot more.

V is for Vodka. Honestly, I don't drink, but if you'd asked me – prior to moving here - where vodka comes from, I would have told you Russia. After the last year and a half, I've learned Mongolians are no slouches when it comes to either the production OR consumption of this spirit. And although I don't drink it, I DO have a favorite brand: Aimag vodka. Some marketing genius has bottled it in a different bottle for each of Mongolia's provinces, and they are all beautiful. Which means my friends have been enjoying a lot of drinks on me this year.

W is for Wrestling. Beautiful strong men in tiny underpants...need I say more? Again, it's one of Naadam's manly sports and is really interesting to watch. One of these days I'm hoping to make it to a tournament in UB's Wrestling Palace.

X is for Xanadu. Okay, technically this is in Inner Mongolia, which is a part of China, but hell, Mongolia owned their asses, long enough for their paper money (which Mongolia invented!) to still be called the yuan (Khubilai Khan's dynasty). So go ahead and hop on the Trans-Mongolian railway and take yourself down to his territory and do a little compare and contrast.

Y is for Yaks. You know, we all actually learned this when we were growing up, but did we know what yaks are, or what they look like? Mongolian kids do, because they're all over the place here, but these kids call them sarlag. I'm not sure if you can actually eat yak in Mongolia, but if you get the chance, do it – I had it in Tibet over the summer and it is TASTY!

Z is for Zanabazar. Lonely Planet calls this monk-sculptor the “Michaelangelo of the Steppes.” Well, I don't know if I'd go that far, but he's left behind a pretty great legacy. Not only can you visit his workshop, a monastery in Ovorkhangai province, and see some of his work in the Zanabazar Art Museum in Ulaanbaatar, you'll find lots of Mongolians with some mad art skills. It makes my job as an art teacher a lot of fun.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingBecky the Great is an American expat living in Mongolia. Blog description: I've been living in Mongolia for one year and still have one more to go. I blog about things to do and see, mostly in Ulaanbaatar, restaurants my friends and I visit, and occasionally where I go on vacation.
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Contest Comments » There are 17 comments

Cori wrote 10 years ago:

BAM. You nailed it. I did not spend much time in Mongolia (only 3 months, in the dead of winter), but it was the most fascinating place I have ever been. Excellent description. and... now I'm Mongolia-homesick. Again.

I love this list! Great job capturing the appeal of Mongolia in a few words, and you've made me, a new expat, even more excited to be here.

Pepper McFarland wrote 10 years ago:

Exactly why I love Mongolia and miss it every day now that I'm not there.

The Real C wrote 10 years ago:

Ah, brings back memories. The three that always come to mind when I think about Mongolia is ger, vodka, and wrestling...Others too :)

Maryam Al Musafri wrote 10 years ago:

Love reading your posts about Mongolia and this one is really intriguing. Makes me want to come and visit...

Megan Geshel wrote 10 years ago:

Love it! Just when I think I have done/seen a lot in Mongolia, your alphabet proves otherwise! Thanks for adding even more fun things to my bucket list!

Kelli Grondahl wrote 10 years ago:

this was an amazing post! super informative and very helpful for new expats to mongolia.

Allison wrote 10 years ago:

Becky - Always love reading about your adventures, and you'll be my first info stop should I ever actually manage to travel myself!

Sara wrote 10 years ago:

Wow! Never in my life have I thought of Mongolia as a vacation destination, but this blog has me convinced it would be worth it. Except in winter. I'm still not convinced I'd like it enough to purposely freeze my rear end off.

JC wrote 10 years ago:

If only Mongolia weren't so darn cold! I've always wanted to visit, though, and your list gives me motivation...

Kristen Beth Shaffer wrote 10 years ago:

Wow, what a wonderfully informative and interesting list! Love the alphabetical schema, and in all honesty, I learned something I didn't know before about Mongolia in every single letter point. What got me the most though, and is always a strong selling point for me, is how your appreciation and love for this beautiful, mysterious and untamed place, despite its ups and downs, flowed through your words. I love seeing people's hearts shining through their first-hand accounts, the anecdotes, and "say-what-you-will-about-__X__-but-this-is-why-I-like-it-and-I'm-sticking-to-it"-ness. Very well written, creative, and inspiring. I'm definitely more excited about visiting you there and exploring the place for myself one day if I get the chance. Thanks, Becky!

Laura wrote 10 years ago:

Very entertaining as all of your blog posts are! Sharing to help you win...

Barbara Mutrux wrote 10 years ago:

carry on the writing is a winning example of creativity

Jeremy Mutrux wrote 10 years ago:

Sis- that was outstanding, very well written and imaginative. Everytime I read one if your Mingolia blogs you make me want to come visit you!

George Heusner wrote 10 years ago:

Great to read your blog... Those little things that one should know about life in Mongolia. It's great to read your blogs and live it through your words!!

Betty Gamblin wrote 10 years ago:

Thank you for sharing your experiences. I may never visit Mongolia, but thanks to your writing I do appreciate the culture.

John Mutrux wrote 10 years ago:

Wow! What a stunning and impressive blog post! I confess that I've hardly ever thought about Mongolia, which makes your list and comments even more ev- and pro-vocative. If, in fact, there's life after Butterfly Labs, Mongolia is now on my list of places to visit. I'm especially intrigued to hear your report on the Soul of Mongolian women and girls. Bravo! to you all.

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