Mongolia is most famous for its remoteness and for its greatest hero, Genghis Khan. Both have influenced the culture and development of the nation in such a way as to make it a unique and fascinating place which has retained its own identity despite it's position sandwiched between giant neighbours Russia and China. Mongolia is the 19th largest country in the world, yet with a population of less than 3 million most of whom live in the capital - it is the most sparsely populated independent country of all.
These days Mongolia is recognised to be a relatively safe and peaceful nation, on friendly terms economically with its neighbours.
Since the recent discovery of vast gold and coal reserves in the Gobi Desert it has been regarded with much greater interest and respect by other nations, resulting in a sudden influx of foreign investment and very fast progress and development, particularly in the capital Ulaanbaatar. Designer shops, expensive cars and glossy magazines for the wealthy to display their opulent lifestyle contrast markedly with the struggling families living on the edge of the city in the ger districts without running water or a public sewage system.
Compare with the nomads still living a self sufficient existence out in the countryside with their herds of animals; one can only wonder at the remarkable rate of change that has occurred in the space of less than 20 years. Prior to 1990 Socialist Mongolia was strongly influenced and supported by the Soviet Union and there was no such wealth disparity. The peaceful Democratic Revolution of 1990 with the introduction of a multi-party system and a free market economy, has led to where we are today. Of course, still with the same problems of small population, massive land mass and extreme weather conditions.
Mongolian languages, one of three subfamilies of the Altaic language family. The Mongolian languages are spoken in Mongolia and adjacent parts of east-central Asia. Their sub classification is controversial, and no one scheme has won universal approval.
The central Mongolian languages are usually divided into a western group, consisting of the closely related Oirat (spoken in Mongolia and in the Xinjiang region of China) and Kalmyk (Russia), and an eastern group, consisting of the closely related Buryat (Russia) and Mongol (Mongolia and China) languages. Outlying languages - Moghol (spoken in Afghanistan), Daur (Inner Mongolia, China), Yellow Uighur (Gansu province, China), and the related groups of Monguor (Tu), which are spoken on the border between the provinces.
The history of the Mongolian language, both spoken and written, consists of three periods. The divisions of the spoken language are Old, or Ancient, Mongolian (through the 12th century), Middle Mongolian (13th–16th centuries), and New, or Modern, Mongolian (17th century to the present).
The Mongolian vertical script language developed at the end of the 12th century; the oldest extant text dates from roughly 1225. The Pre-Classical period of the written language corresponds to Middle Mongolian. The conversion of the Mongols to Buddhism (c. 1575) ushered in the Classical period (17th and early 18th centuries) of translation of scriptural texts from Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese, and this period corresponds to the commencement of the Modern period of the spoken language.
The split between Eastern Mongolian (Khalkh, Buryat, and the dialects of Inner Mongolia) and Western Mongolian (Oirat and Kalmyk) occurred at a later stage than that between the peripheral languages and the central group. Eastern and Western groups that most contemporary linguists no longer consider the east-west split the primary division in the genealogy of the Mongolian languages.
Buryat differs from Mongol principally in its Russified vocabulary and in a few features of its phonology and morphology, most notably the change of /s/ to /h/ and the development of personal endings on the verb. The spoken languages of Inner and Outer (Khalkh) Mongolia, apart from vocabulary, likewise do not constitute distinct groupings.
Set in the heart of Central Asia, Mongolia is a vast country covering an area the size of Western Europe. The climate is extreme, with winter temperatures falling to - 30 °C or lower and summers + 30 °C or more. This is why the tourist season is short, lasting from June through to September.
The summer months June and July are also the "rainy season", such as it is. That doesn't mean it will rain every day all day long, but there is a reasonable chance of rain (sometimes heavy) and the rivers swell making river crossings difficult later in the summer.
At 1,564,116 sq km (603,909 sq miles), Mongolia is the world's 19th largest country and it lies between latitudes 41° and 52°N (a small area is north of 52°), and longitudes 87° and 120°E. As a point of reference the northernmost part of Mongolia is on roughly the same latitude as Berlin (Germany) and Amsterdam (Netherlands) while the southernmost part is on roughly the same latitude as Rome (Italy)
and Chicago (USA). The geography of Mongolia is varied, with the Gobi Desert to the south and with cold and mountainous regions to the north and west. Much of Mongolia consists of steppes, with forested areas comprising 11.2% of the total land area. The highest point in Mongolia is the Khüiten Peak in the Tavan Bogd massif in the far west at an altitude of 4,374 m (14,350 ft).
Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world: The Mongolian climate is really harsh so the tourist season is restricted to June to end of September.
Outside those months it is too cold and most tourist facilities close down. In January average temperatures regularly drop as low as −30 °C (−22 °F), but there will be snow, blue sky and sunshine almost every day. A vast front of cold, heavy, shallow air comes in from Siberia in winter and collects in river valleys and low basins causing very cold temperatures while slopes of mountains are much warmer due to the effects of temperature inversion (temperature increases with altitude).
The Flag of Mongolia consists of three equal bands of alternating red, blue and red, with the soyombo national symbol in the first band. The central blue band represents the eternal blue sky, while the side red bands represent the ability of Mongolia to thrive in its harsh environment.
he Soyombo signifies freedom and independence and was the first letter of a complicated alphabet created by Zanabazar, a living Buddha, in the seventeenth century. It is a columnar arrangement of abstract and geometric representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water, and the Yin-Yang symbol known as "two fish" in Mongolia.
Mongolia's history can broadly be divided into "Ancient History" meaning from the time of the earliest evidence of man in Mongolia, the "Middle Ages" which includes the Mongol empire and the centuries under Chinese domination, and "Modern History" of the 20th Century up to the present day.
Despite this history of domination by Mongolia's giant neighbours, China and Russia, the culture and lifestyle of Mongolia's nomads has changed little for centuries. This can be largely attributed to the harsh climate and sparse population, allowing no better alternative, but also to the character of the people, who remain fiercely independent on a personal and national level.
The Mongolian people have lived a largely nomadic existence throughout history until the present day and evidence of their whereabouts, culture and lifestyle have been obtained from objects and remains found scattered across the country. We can also learn a lot from the stories and songs passed down through the generations. The first written accounts are taken from "The Secret History of the Mongols" written in the thirteenth century after the death of Genghis Khan.
Man has existed in Mongolia for at least 50,000 years. Stone tools found in Bayankhongor on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert prove that stone age people inhabited the central steppe regions from those early times. Right until 2000 BC the way of life was mainly agricultural (not nomadic), combined with hunting and gathering.
For many centuries before the infamous Genghis Khaan, a succession of powerful empires existed in this part of Central Asia. Their history was recorded in songs and monuments. Rock engravings, stone figures, graves and ruins found in Mongolia are evidence of the highly civilized and cultured peoples living in the area.
With the introduction of metal working and the domestication of animals during the Bronze Age (1300BC - 600 BC) many people in Central Asia shifted towards a nomadic lifestyle, with herders existing alongside sedentary agricultural populations.
There was a cultural divide between the people, some tribes being of rather more Turkish origin and others of predominantly Mongol extraction. One could tell by the type of burial performed to which culture a people belonged. In the western Altai mountains warriors were buried lying on their side with knees drawn up. The graves were flat or mounded and marked by stones in various arrangements. Many examples can be seen along the Kharkhiraa river of our Uvs hiking trek.
In the Khangai and Khentii mountains of Central and Eastern Mongolia the people were more Mongol and their graves were of the cist type, pits lined with stones and the body laid on its back. Examples can be found in Arkhangai province, site of several of our tours. Stones engraved with stylised deer marked the graves and the best examples of deer stones in Central Asia are to be found near to Moron town, south of Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia.
By the Iron Age (first millennium BC) nomadic pastoralism became the dominant way of life. Riding saddled horses enabled people to move over increasingly large distances with a requirement for more grazing land for their herds. There were violent conflicts between tribes for control over pasture for grazing and in the second century BC the Xiongnu came to dominate the greater part of Mongolia and created a powerful empire which occupied the same territories later controlled by Genghis Khan and his ancestors ("the Mongol Empire"). The capital was established in the Orkhon valley near Kharkhorin. In order to keep the Xiongnu out of China, the Chinese built the first section of the Great Wall on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
Following the dissolution of the Xiongnu Empire in 155AD, the area was dominated by the Xianbei and then the Ruan-Ruan, who formed another vast empire stretching from Russian Turkestan to Korea. In turn, they were destroyed by the Tujue Turks from the Altai whose empire was again a great threat to China and caused the second period of construction of the Great Wall.
From the times of the Turkish Khanates until Genghis Khan, the Orkhon valley (site of present day Kharkhorin) was the political center of the nomadic tribes. The Turks left many monuments, the most common being "man stones", human figures located at the burial sites of important warriors, depicted holding a cup and dagger to symbolize participation in their own funeral banquet. Zoomorphic statues such as turtles and lions are also from this period, and several monuments have been taken to Kharkhorin and displayed in the grounds of Erdene Zuu monastery.
The Uighur period (754 - 840 AD) came after the Tujue Turks, and was important because they quickly developed a highly civilized culture, including a written script based on Aramaic (the forerunner of the Mongol writing system). The capital, Khar Balgas, was founded by the Orkhon river at Khotont on the road which now leads from Kharkhorin to Tsetserleg (capital of Arkhangai province).
The Uighurs were finally weakened by a series of political crises and an exceptionally hard winter during which millions of cattle perished. The Khirghiz took advantage of the Uighur's weakness and seized power after 20 years of failed attempts to dominate the region.
The Kirghiz came from Siberia and were not greatly interested in the area of Mongolia, and they were soon beaten back northwards by the Qidan from Manchuria (north west China). No nomadic confederations were able to prevent the growth of the Qidan empire, which included a large part of Central Asia.
They built cities of economic and military importance, and controlled the salt and iron trades as well as the "Silk Road" caravan route. Farmers grew mulberry trees for the silk worms and craftsmen produced silk cloth, ceramics and jewelry. The state religion was Buddhism, but like the Mongols who followed, the Qidan did not restrict other religious practice, and Buddhism existed alongside Taoism, Confucianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manchaeism.
As we all know, Genghis Khan rose from the steppe, united the warring tribes of Mongolia and went on to create the largest Empire the world has ever known. His sons and grandsons succeeded him, moving the capital from Kharkhorin to Beijing. After Kublai Khan the fortunes of the Mongols changed and when the Manchurian Ming dynasty established itself, it gradually held more and more power over Mongolia, principally by supporting the Buddhist Lamas who ruled the country during the 16th - 19th centuries.
From the beginning of the 12th century Mongolia returned to a state of disorganized warring tribes until the emergence of the leader Genghis ("Chinggis") Khan who unified the nomadic clans, including the Turks and Tartars, creating a single nation which took the name of the dominant tribe: Mongolia. His success was based upon the creation of a highly developed military organization, rather than on tribal loyalties.
When Genghis Khan died he was succeeded by his third son, Ogodei (there was some doubt about the legitimacy of the eldest son, who was born nine months after Genghis Khan's wife had been released from capture by an opposing tribe). During Ogodei's reign the area controlled by the Mongols extended as far as Hungary in Europe, and would in all likelihood have continued unabated but for the death of the Khan. All senior personnel turned round and returned to the capital in Kharkhorin, Mongolia, to elect the next ruler.
Monkhe, nephew of Ogodei, was elected Khan and the empire continued to be ruled from Kharkhorin until Kublai Khan, one of Genghis Khan's grandsons, moved the capital to Beijing and created the Yuan dynasty in China. The Mongol Empire stretched from Vietnam to Hungary and from Siberia to Persia. This was a golden age of commercial and intellectual exchange between East and West, but the magnificent wealth and life of luxury of the rulers finally led to their own downfall. The Yuan dynasty was superseded by the Ming dynasty in China, and thus ended the last of the great nomad empires.
Mongolia returned to its previous existence of warring nomadic tribes for the next 300 years until it came under Manchu control. The Manchurian administrators encouraged Buddhism as a means of pacifying the warlike people of Mongolia. The monasteries became increasingly wealthy, and by the end of the nineteenth century nearly half the male population were religious monks. Despite administration by Manchuria, Mongolia was ruled internally by a series of reincarnate Lamas known as Undur Gegeen or Bogd Khan. This Buddhist ruler was Mongolia's equivalent to Tibet's Dalai Lama, and ranks third in importance after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama in China.
The first Undur Gegeen was Zanabazar, a great politician, writer and artist. His works of art, including many exquisite bronze religious icons,can be seen in several museums around Mongolia. Zanabazar was such a talented and popular leader that the Manchus eventually decided to get rid of him. He was invited to Beijing, murdered there, and his body returned to Mongolia where it has been enshrined at the monastery of Amarbayasgalant in Selenge. In fact, Zanabazar was so successful that after his death the Manchu rulers ensured that his reincarnation be found outside Mongolia in China or Tibet.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the eighth Bogd Khan held power. His palace is now a museum located on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar on the road leading to the airport. Despite his excesses, such as his own personal zoo of rare animals from all over the world and a ger made from the skins of snow leopards, he is remembered positively by Mongolians for his efforts to establish independence from the Manchus.
Mongolia in the 20th century has a history of power struggle between the Mongolians and their neighbours, Russia and China. Throughout the century Mongolia fought for and retained its independence through political alliances and by taking advantage of external chaos to develop it's own rule. Thus Mongolia arose from being a Feudalist state under the control of the Chinese Manchu dynasty, progressed through 70 years of Socialism, and finally in 1990 became a fully democratic State with a free market economy.
In 1901, when the rule of the Qing leaders in China began to weaken, they began to introduce some reforms in Mongolia as part of their overall New Administration policy. Chinese settlers came to Mongolia introducing new farming methods and utilising water sources. The Mongolians naturally saw this as a threat to their territory and customs and in 1911 a National Revolution occurred which led to the separation of Mongolia from China. The head of state and religion of the newly independent Mongolia was the 8th Bogd Khan, a reincarnate Lama (see above).
New progressive changes took place: a Parliament was established, the army was modernized, schools were opened, commodity and money relations developed and small businesses increased.
In 1915 a three party agreement was signed between China, Russia and Mongolia defining the relationship between the 3 nations. But the 1917 revolution in Russia destabilized the agreement and Mongolia was invaded by Chinese Kuomintang troops from the south and by Russians under the fugitive Barn Ungern from the north.
In order to protect their independence, in 1921 a revolution led by Sukhbaatar with the assistance of Soviet Russia, expelled foreign aggressors from the country and established the Mongolian People’s Party.
The MPR was declared in 1924 under the leadership of Sukhbaatar. The transition from an absolute monarchy to a limited one with people's government, and then gradually to a Republican form of government was indeed a great progress in the evolution of the State structure. Under Sukhbaatar’s administration, with support from Lenin in Russia, there was positive development in Mongolia.
When Stalin took power in Russia in the late 1920s, Sukhbaatar and some of the original Party leaders died in Mongolia. Choibalsan was nominated as leader and under his watch occurred the purges of the 1930s during which many monasteries were destroyed and people killed or disappeared in the name of the class struggle. The dictatorship took as universal guidance the destruction of the rich by the poor in order to ensure social development, and as a result , many of the genuine patriots - hundreds of outstanding Party, State and army people that had distinguished themselves during the revolution, a well as honest members of the Party, monks and clergymen, ordinary citizens fell victim to the persecution.
Although Choibalsan can be held responsible for the destruction of nearly all Mongolia's Buddhist monasteries, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of religious, intellectuals, and moderates, he is nevertheless also remembered as the master who prevented Mongolia from being incorporated into the USSR. His statue stands outside the main entrance to the State University of Ulaanbaatar. For eighty years Mongolia remained an independent state.
Tsedenbal was more liberal than Choibalsan and during his years of power there was relative peace and relations between Russia and China improved. Soviet Russia held great influence in Mongolia and many young people were sent to Russia or to Eastern Europe to study technology, arts, sport, medicine, etc.. The standard of living for most Mongolians improved with health, education, industry, sport and the arts developing to a high standard.
In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia itself held pro-democracy protests which were not crushed by the Government and the army, and which resulted in the creation of a multi-party State with freedom of speech and religion. The Constitution was revised and elections held. The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, who actually were the Socialists who had been in power for the preceding 70 years, won power, but their direction had changed.
The Ministry of the Interior was dismantled and most of the Russian advisors sent home. Mongolia is now an independent, democratic state with a freely elected government. Over the past 15 years there have been many changes, including frequent changes of government, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and successful development of the free market economy.
Buddhism came to Mongolia initially during the 13th and 14th centuries with the creation of the Mongol Empire by Genghis Khan and the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in China. Mongol conquerors in China took control of Tibet and it was the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, with its shamanistic associations and leanings, that intrigued the Mongols. During the Yuan dynasty, many of the Mongols converted to the Tibetan form of Buddhism and many high Tibetan monks (lamas) lived in the Mongol capital of Dadu (present day Beijing).
Perhaps the most important event leading to conversions was the invention in 1269, of a block script in which to write Mongolian, by the lama, ‘Phags pa. This resulted in the translation of many Buddhist scriptures into Mongolian and the greater accessibility of these scriptures to Mongolian monks and nuns. In spite of these translations, Buddhist conversion was mainly limited to the nobility and the ruling families; the ordinary people, mostly nomads, continued to practice their traditional shamanism.
In the 13th century, when Kublai Khan ruled the whole Mongol Empire, Buddhism was favoured amongst all the religions represented in the Mongol Court.
Zanabazar (1635 - 1723) was the first Bogd Khan, a line of reincarnate Lamas who ruled Mongolia's spiritual and secular affairs. He was a great artist and politician.
Jebtzun Damba (1870 - 1924) held spiritual and secular power in Mongolia after the 1911 Revolution when Mongolia became independent.
Tibet's leader, Sonam Gyatso, met the Mongolian Lama Altan Khan in 1578 and was given the title "Dalai Lama", a Mongolian name meaning "Ocean of Wisdom".
During the 1930s, the Soviet Communists campaigned against religion, destroying most monasteries and the Lamas were killed or disappeared.
Since the Democratic Revolution of 1990 there has been complete religious freedom in Mongolia. Monasteries have re-opened and new ones built.
Mongolia's economy is quite unique in the world with one third of the population being nomadic and self sufficient. Since the 1990s when Mongolia ceased to be dependent upon the Soviet Union, the economy has developed well. At first there was a severe recession, but the industries of tourism, cashmere and copper mining were consistent. During the past decade the mining industry has dominated the Mongolian economy, although concerns over foreign ownership of the mines and issues relating to protection of the environment have slowed the booming economy.
The Mongolian tourism industry has undergone significant changes in the past few decades. Throughout the socialist period the industry was controlled by the state owned Juulchin, which catered almost exclusively to tourists from the former Soviet Bloc. Following the political transformation in the early 1990s, changes to the country’s immigration policy in 1998 saw a spike in international visitors. Western Europeans, North Americans, Japanese and Koreans quickly emerged as the primary leisure tourists. Meanwhile, numerous international development agencies began to address tourism, hoping to transform it into one of Mongolia’s major growth industries. Unfortunately, the tourism industry has failed to realize its potential. The country suffers from significant seasonality resulting in an influx of visitors during the summer months that place strain on the country’s infrastructure and a dearth of visitors during the cold winter months. This in turn increases the cost of tourism products and reduces the attractiveness of careers in tourism.
Mongolia’s economic growth is largely controlled by the exploration and exploitation of its mineral wealth. There are many individual mines around the country containing different minerals including gold, silver, copper, coal, and molybdenum. Mining is not a new phenomenon in Mongolia. Operations began during the Socialist period and even then sustained the country’s economy, albeit on a much smaller scale and without the influence of foreign capital.
One example of a successful existing project is the Erdenet copper mine. Established in 1978, it still has enough reserves to keep the mine producing for up to 40 years in the future. This mine is 51% owned by the Mongolian Government and 49% by the Russian Government. Mongolia is ranked second in the world in terms of copper reserves and the Oyu Tolgoi copper deposit in the Gobi Desert is considered to be over three times larger than the Erdenet mine.
The building industry has boomed in Ulaanbaatar over the past decade. The size of the city has grown enormously as people move in from the countryside and foreign workers are employed by the big mining companies. Cashmere has been a successful industry for a long time, with Mongolia producing some of the world's best quality wool. This has attracted foreign designers to produce more unusual and exotic styles. Nomadic herders can get a good price for their raw cashmere, which is the under fluff of the goat that can be gathered by frequent combing. Herders have been encouraged to increase the number of goats so that they can sell the cashmere, but this has not been good for the environment because goats tend to pull up grass and plants together with the roots, which sheep do not.
Other industries in Mongolia include wool production (from sheep and camel wool) and food / drinks.