Travel in Mongolia

Mongolian Customs

Mongolians are very tolerant people and most will not take offence when a foreigner is unfamiliar with local customs. It is not possible or even expected of you to know all the customs of the Mongols in the course of a short trip. However, Mongolians are always happy and appreciative when a foreign visitor takes the time to learn some of their customs and shows this during greetings or visits. We’ve noted some of the most important customs below. Taking the time to read through them and remembering a couple of them will delight your Mongolian hosts and friends.

Greetings and Socializing

  • Most greetings with strangers are informal, so a nod and a smile, with the greeting , "Sain bain uu?" (Are you well?') usually suffices. The expected response is “sain” (well), even if you are not feeling your best that day.
  • It is oddly redundant to say, "Sain bain uu?" to the same person more than once in the same day.
  • In a formal greeting (during Tsagaan Sar) you roll down your sleeves and extend both arms. The younger person should support the elder person’s arms below the elbow. The older person will ask “a-mar bain noo?” (how have you been?) and the younger responds “a-mar bain aa” (well). If a khatag is being offered, fold it lengthwise and hold each end in your extended hands as you give the greeting, then place the khatag into the person’s hands afterwards. Mongolians greeting one another rarely kiss each other on the cheek. An older person will often grasp the head of a one younger during the greeting and smell their hair or face.
  • Use both hands, or the right hand, to offer or to take something.
  • During formal celebrations or occasions, food, tea or vodka should be given and received with the right hand extended and the left hand supporting the right elbow.
  • Roll down your sleeves before taking or giving something, or before being introduced to an older person.
  • A conversation should begin with an inquiry about the wellness of the family, the livestock, the condition of pasture or grazing, etc. Then you may discuss other matters.
  • Hold a cup by the bottom, not by the top rim.
  • When giving knives or scissors, offer the handle, never the blade.
  • If offering a cigarette, you should also offer to light it. Cigarettes as gifts must be accompanied by matches. Two people may light their cigarette from one match, but three is not permitted. Lighting a cigarette from a candle is considered bad luck.
  • It is not polite to say no when the host offers tea, food or dairy products. You should accept it and taste (or pretend to) before placing it on the table.
  • It is rude not to offer a guest a cup of tea or coffee, some candy, etc.
  • When offering a drink, consider that it is better to present a cup without cracks or a damaged rim.
  • Passing a snuff bottle is a formal occasion. Always accept it with your right hand and with an open palm. You may take a pinch of snuff or just sniff the bottle's top. Before passing the bottle to another person, you should offer it back to its owner. Do not replace the cap firmly before passing the bottle back - simply leave it on bottle, with the snuff blade inside.
  • When offered vodka or airag (fermented mares’ milk), accept it. Drinking it is not necessary, you can dip the tip of your ring finger (using your right hand) into the drink, raise your hand above your head, and flick your finger to the four winds. This is offering a taste to the gods. You can also just touch the rim of the cup to your lips. Once you have sipped from the cup or bowl, or made an offering of it to the gods, you should then return the cup or bowl to the person who handed it to you. Mongolians will be impressed if you down the drink, but beware that you may be offered more!
  • It is normal for Mongolians to not introduce friends they are with to the friends they meet. It is also normal for Mongolians to ask strangers where they come from and who their father is.
  • Mongolians touch each other more than Anglo-Saxons do. It is normal to see men or women holding hands or putting their arms around each other's shoulders. Mongolians tend to touch one another, even those whom they do not know.
  • Mongolian friends sometimes visit each other's house without calling; it is not considered rude.
  • It is impolite to put your feet or shoes on chairs or tables. To show the bottoms of your feet when sitting in close proximity to another is offensive.
  • If you step on, kick or touch someone else's foot, offer them a quick handshake.

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Do’s and Don’ts in a Mongolian Ger

  • When Mongolians arrive at a ger, they yell, "Catch your dog!", or simply enter. This is because every ger is protected by one or more guard dogs. Do not leave the vehicle or approach to near a ger until the owners or your guide confirm the dogs are ok.
  • Do not attempt to pet Mongolian herder’s dogs, they are not pets but guardians.
  • Knocking on a ger door is not necessary, if you are staying with a family, just enter. If you are calling for the first time, clear your throat or call out “no-khoi kho-rio: (hold the dog) so you’re the family knows someone is there and can prepare themselves to come out and greet you.
  • Mongolians do not speak to each other across the threshold of the door, or stand on the threshold of the door.
  • When you enter a ger, do not step on the threshold. Usually, guests move in a clockwise direction when entering a ger, first to the west and then north (ger doors always face south). The east side of the ger (on your right as you enter) is normally where the family will sit and the west side (on your left as you enter) is for guests. Food and cooking implements are stored on the right side, or women’s side of the ger, saddles, bridles, and things associated with men’s work on the left or men’s side.
  • Do not walk between the central supports of a ger, or pass something between them to another person.
  • Do not lean against the central supports of the ger, the walls, or the furniture.
  • Sitting on the beds in the ger is not considered rude, these double as seats, sometimes even if someone is sleeping in them.
  • Hats should always be placed with the open end down. A man's hat and belt should never be placed on the floor, and should not touch other hats or belts.
  • Women do not sit cross-legged in a ger.
  • Do not whistle inside gers or any kind of building.
  • Avoid standing up when drinking tea or other beverages.
  • If food or other items are placed out when a group sits together, they become communal property (edited by jeffrey driedger). Cigarettes, for example, placed on a table belong to the group.
  • Do not throw any trash or litter into the fire. This is disrespectful to the fire. Put the trash into the fuel bin or the metal pan in front of the stove. It will be saved to start the next fire. ‘Trash’ is transformed into ‘fuel’ by this brief stop in the fuel bin.

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Other Customs

  • Do not step over the long wooden pole used by herders as a lasso, if it is lying on the ground.
  • If you see a lasso or wooden pole planted in the ground, avoid the area, going back or far around. This signal is a request for privacy by whoever placed it upright.
  • Usually, you must not give things to others by holding the item between the lateral edges of your fingers. Hold them in your palm.
  • If Mongolians spill airag, milk or other dairy products on the ground, they will dip their fingers into it and touch it lightly to their forehead.
  • If Mongolians see a shooting star, they think someone is dying, and so spit over their shoulder and say, "It's not my star!"
  • Some Mongolians have names like "Not This", "No Name", "Vicious Dog", etc. These names are given to protect a child, especially if parents have lost a child or misfortune has been predicted. The names confuse evil or jealous spirits, and thus misfortune is avoided. Other examples include "Don't Know", "Not A Human Being", "Nobody", "Not At All", "Not This One", and "Not That One".

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Other Travel Tips

  • Do not walk across an area where women are milking their cows or other animals, go around… you may spook the animals.
  • Do not step across any lines or ropes that animals are tethered to.
  • Mount and dismount a horse from the left side.

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