Buddhism facts

8 wild and sprawling facts about Mongolia

A country of just over 3 million people in East Asia, Mongolia is often overlooked, especially compared to its dominant neighbors Russia and China. But this landlocked country has a rich mosaic of cultures, geography and political history that is definitely worth exploring. Here are eight fascinating facts about Mongolia.

1. Mongolia is totally landlocked

Mongolia is a landlocked country with only two official neighbours: Russia to the north and China to the south. “I like to call it a ‘sandwich country,'” says Christopher Atwood, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages ​​and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire”. “That is, a country that only has two neighbours. And that creates a really interesting dynamic.”

“Both countries had a significant influence on Mongolia, with Russia assuming a particularly vital role for most of the 20th century, shaping Mongolia’s economy and political institutions on the Soviet model while determining its foreign policy” , writes Jonathan Addleton via email. However, in recent years, China has assumed the dominant economic role in trade and investment with Mongolia.

Addleton served for three years as U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia between 2009 and 2012; he is also the former executive director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies and author of “Mongolia and the United States: A Diplomatic History”.

Due to the influence of these two dominant powers, Mongolia adopted the so-called “third neighbour” policy with countries such as the United States and Japan. “The idea is that Mongolia is trying to find a metaphorical third neighbor, given that it doesn’t have a real third neighbor,” Atwood explains.

2. Mongolia is a democracy with a checkered political history

Did you know that there are historically two distinct regions called “Outer” and “Inner” Mongolia?

“The old maps designate the territory that is now [present-day] Mongolia as “Outer Mongolia”. As for ‘Inner Mongolia’, it’s a province of China that borders Independent Mongolia,” says Addleton. “[Inner Mongolia] also home to most of China’s Mongol minority. »

How did this split happen? The answer can be traced back to the rise of the Chinese Qing (Manchurian) dynasty and its conquest of Mongolia in the 1600s and 1700s. [of] Outer and Inner Mongolia is a direct result of the Manchu conquest,” says Katarzyna Golik, Ph.D., a scholar affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences and an expert on China-Mongolia relations.

After the period of revolutionary Soviet influence in the 20th century, the government of Mongolia (formerly known as Outer Mongolia) made rapid progress towards democracy.

“During the 1990s, Mongolia made its ‘decision for democracy’, replacing the political system it had inherited from the USSR with a functioning parliamentary system and a market economy,” Addleton explains.

3. Genghis Khan (or Genghis Khan) was a big deal

History-savvy readers will likely have heard of Genghis Khan (also known as Genghis Khan in Mongolia). He was the bellicose tactician and Mongol leader who brought the various tribal groups of Mongolia under his control in the early 1200s and then began the conquest of China, which was fully conquered by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. And it is quite important in the country.

“Chinggis Khan is widely regarded as the founder of the Mongol nation, having united the Mongol tribes and conquered much of Eurasia,” says Addleton. “His image appears everywhere – in government offices and on stamps, billboards, vodka bottles and monuments across the country.”

For a major tourist attraction, Addleton says you can visit the enormous Khan monument atop a horse, which was built to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongol Empire. This stainless steel monument is said to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.

4. Religion in Mongolia is complicated

More than 50% of Mongols were followers of Tibetan-style Buddhism in 2010. But a high percentage (nearly 40%) of Mongols said they did not believe in any religious practice.

Atwood explains that the Soviet-backed revolutionary government in Mongolia essentially imposed atheism on the country’s citizens — and also suppressed Buddhism — which had lasting effects on the people’s ties to organized religion.

Nevertheless, Buddhism still plays a fairly central role in the daily life of the Mongols. And there is a rather important figure at the heart of Mongolian Buddhism: the Bogd Khan.

“So Bogd Khan was really important in Mongolia, especially the Khalkha group, which is about 85% of the Mongolian population,” Atwood explains. “They originally formed as followers – the people who looked up to Bogd Khan.”

Addleton elaborates on the central political role of the Bogd Khan in Mongolia: “The Bogd Khan was the last theocratic ruler of Mongolia, assuming a role in both the religious and political life of the country. He is credited with leading the movement which culminated in the reassertion of Mongolia’s independence from China in the early 1900s.”

5. Mongolia’s geography shapes its culture

If you want to experience the vast beauty of Earth’s topography, you need look no further than Mongolia, which spans snow-capped peaks and vast desert regions.

“Broadly speaking, Mongolia can be divided into several main geographical regions: 1) the Gobi Desert in the south; 2) the Altai Mountains reaching up to 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) in the Far West; 3) a Siberian-like landscape with streams, rivers, lakes and larch forests to the north; and 4) the vast steppe centered on the characteristic high plateau of the center of the country and extending to the Far East,” says Addleton.

But this varied landscape also shapes Mongolian culture in surprising ways. The northern part of the country – which is wetter than the other parts – is known as “Khanghai”. There’s also the “Gobi” in the south, which Atwood says is a general term used to refer to a habitable desert for humans. “The Mongols believe that khanghai and gobi have different personalities,” Atwood explains.

However, the greatest geographical influence on Mongolian culture lies not in the countryside, but in its capital, Ulaanbaatar.

“Ulaanbaatar is the huge urban center. Relatively speaking – it’s about one and a half million people. In Mongolia, it’s almost half the population. So it’s a huge center of all aspects of Mongolian life – political, economic, cultural, social, educational,” says Atwood.

6. Nomadic life in Mongolia includes horses and yurts

Images on Mongolian tourist sites often contain images of the country’s nomads.

“Throughout Mongolia, the best way to use the land is for herding rather than agriculture,” says Atwood. Cattle ranching lends itself well to a nomadic lifestyle.

The five main types of livestock in Mongolia include horses, cattle, camels, sheep and goats, according to Atwood.

“Horses are less important today than they were before, but the heart of the Mongols is still the horse. The horse is to the average young Mongolian what a sports car is to the average young American,” says Atwood.

But perhaps the image most associated with pastoral life in Mongolia is not a horse, but a house. More precisely: the yurt. Atwood says yurts are typically made of a wooden frame covered in felt, which provides plush insulation during the winter. Addleton adds that “the iconic ger (yurt) can be seen everywhere” and the style of the yurt varies from region to region.

“Yurt” is the Russian word for what the Mongols call a ger. The main difference is in the style of the roof. According to Atwood, only one family usually resides in each yurt. Traditionally, if a group of nomadic families – or an extended family – are traveling together, they line up the yurts in an east-west formation, and the oldest members of the clan will be on the right edge of the camp. But those formal rankings have crumbled in recent years.

“Today, most people in the Mongolian countryside – who are cattle herders – still live in yurts, because they are actually very convenient for getting around. A yurt can be taken apart and put on a camel – or a truck, more likely today – and be moved in about an hour, two hours,” says Atwood.

However, the nomadic way of life is in danger. Atwood says the percentage of true nomads in Mongolia can be as low as 15%. Part of the reason for the decline in nomadic life is the rapid urbanization in Mongolia as nomads migrate to urban centers.

7. The main ethnic group of Mongolia is the Khalkha

According to Atwood, the majority of Mongols are known as the Khalkha, which is the dominant ethnic group in Mongolia, comprising over 80% of the country’s population.

However, one ethnic group stands out: the Kazakh population of western Mongolia. The Kazakh people are Muslim by faith – compared to Mongolia’s largely Buddhist and atheist majority – and also speak a Turkic rather than Mongolian language. The Kazakh people are a minority in the country but constitute the majority of the population of the province of Bayan-Ulgii (also spelled Bayan-Ölgii).

Beyond the Kazakhs, there are also a small handful of other ethnic groups. “The Buryats (also known as Buryats) – a Mongol community in Siberia – represent another minority,” says Addleton. And “the so-called ‘reindeer people’ (“Dukha” or “Tsaatan”) living in northern Mongolia are a tiny minority living in the forests around Lake Hovsgol; their traditional houses resemble tepees”.

8. Golden eagle hunting attracts international attention

In 2014, a then-13-year-old girl named Ashol-Pan blew up the internet when a BBC photographer captured the tiny teenager using a large golden eagle to hunt in the Altai Mountains region of western Mongolia.

A team of hunters on horseback will flush out an animal – say, a fox or a wolf – out in the open. A hunter will climb to the top of a cliff or mountain, where he will release the eagle. If the hunt goes well, the eagle(s) will swoop down to kill the prey, providing food and fur for hunters and their families.

Girls like Ashol-Pan helped bring the long-standing Kazakh nomadic hunting practice to the world. Festivals involving golden eagle hunting have also attracted international attention.

This practice has ancestral roots in the country. “In the history of the Mongol Empire, Chinggis Khan and Kublai Khan were famous for hunting with large birds,” says Atwood. “So the Kazakh Eagle Festival, in a way, continues an ancient Mongolian tradition.”