Mongolia - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

 Abridged from the History section in Mongolia: the Bradt Travel Guide

The Mongol Empire to Manchu control

The Mongols

The Jürchen, a Tungusic people, fought several unsuccessful battles against the Borjigin Mongols, a clan that emerged in central Mongolia in the 12th century. In 1161, however, the Jin defeated them by joining forces with the Tatars, their former enemies, who lived on the river Kherlen. Yesügei, a descendant of the Mongol Qabul Khan had a son, born in 1162, whom he named Temüchin, after a Tatar captive. This child was later to become the greatest of all Mongolians, known to the world as Genghis Khan. Temüchin’s father was murdered by the Tatars and he, his mother and brothers were forced to scavenge on the steppe for their survival. To nourish her children, Lady Ho’elun, their mother, used a pointed juniper stick to dig up wild leeks, onions, and garlic which they ate with freshwater fish.

Genghis Khan achieved his vision of forging a Mongol world empire, a legacy which he passed to his sons and grandsons, who further enlarged it to form different khanates extending from Mongolia and China.

It was a hard struggle for the family to survive and during his youth Temüchin learned the value of building strong friendships. As a young man he made alliances and rallied tribal leaders. Charismatic and with a strong personality he had natural qualities of leadership and from obscurity he shot to the rank of a world leader. In 1189, the Mongol tribes proclaimed him Genghis Khan of the Mongols. In 1198 and 1202 he twice defeated the Tatars, and after the submission of the Naiman, the Mongol tribes were eventually united.

In 1206, Genghis Khan was proclaimed the Great Khan of all Mongolia. He then began a series of campaigns against neighbouring states – the Tangut (1207), the Uighurs of Turfan (1209), the Jin (1215), the Qidan (1218), and Samarkand (1221) – and died in 1227, having finally destroyed the Tangut. Genghis Khan achieved his vision of forging a Mongol world empire, a legacy which he passed to his sons and grandsons, who further enlarged it to form different khanates extending from Mongolia and China: the Golden Horde in Russia, the Chaghatai Khanate in central Asia and the Ilkhanate in Persia.

Genghis Khan mausoleum, Inner Mongolia by Fanghong, WikipediaThe Mausoleum of Genghis Khan is located in Inner Mongolia, an Autonomous Region of China, and it is a temple of worship © Fanghong, Wikipedia

Natural history

People travel to Mongolia to discover another world. They see the wonders of nature and find themselves overwhelmed by examples of its rare animal life and unusual plant species. Fly-fishing and wild flower walks are hugely enjoyable. Remember to bring a rod and a plant identification book and prepare to be amazed. Part of the country’s allure lies in its wildness and undisturbed natural beauty. The play of light and shade upon this wild landscape has a magnetic charm that pulls the traveller back. Mongolia’s geological assets, the bedrock of the country, are as varied as they are beautiful. Fragments of life millennia ago are found in fossil and skeletal remains – particularly dinosaurs, for which Mongolia is famous. Gems and rich mineral deposits are another legacy of prehistoric times found underground. Geologically, Mongolia comes under the Ural-Mongolian fold belt and flying over Mongolia on a clear day is the best way to see the land formation. You will see numerous mountain folds descending south in smooth, curved arcs. 

People travel to Mongolia to discover another world.

Large tracts of Mongolia, around 12% of its territory, have been turned into national parks with the aim to place approximately one third of the land under protection in the future. Mongolia is a huge country and its national parks are a wonderful help in safeguarding the countryside, habitats and millions of species. In fact Genghis Khan, the great 13th-century ruler of the Mongol Empire, certainly visited and appreciated one of the world’s earliest nature reserves in the territory of Bogdkhan Uul, near the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Although officially set up in 1778, Mongolians nonetheless credit the Great Khan himself with the idea. Bogdkhan Uul, my favourite park in Mongolia, protects six kinds of the world’s cranes, the symbol of longevity, including the Demoiselle crane. This park leads the way in cross-border conservation in an international agreement between China, Mongolia and Russia to protect the whole area, part of eastern Mongolia’s Daurian Steppe. 

Shatsagay Nuur lake, Mongolia by Maxim Petrichuk, ShutterstockBeautiful sunlit mountains around Shatsagay Nuur lake © Maxim Petrichuk, Shutterstock

Mongolia’s ecosystems are of global importance because of their diversity, size and continuity. The climate, topography and natural formations divide the country into six zones which comprise desert, Gobi and steppe (grassland) zones, and forest, alpine, and taiga (northern mountain/forest) zones. Mongolia is part of the central Asian plateau. It is a land of contrast and great biodiversity, teeming with rare and exotic species. 

The fauna and flora of Mongolia are as distinctive as the vegetation zones they occupy. This is due mainly to the country’s unique location between the Siberian taiga and the desert steppe. Mongolia has over 4,000 plant species, 136 species of mammals, 436 species of birds, 75 fish species and more than 15,000 insect species. Conifer forests cover around 11.5% of the territory, some 18 million hectares of land. These forests, principally of Siberian larch, form the southern edge of the vast taiga zone, the largest continuous forest system on earth.

Large tracts of Mongolia, around 12% of its territory, have been turned into national parks with the aim to place approximately one third of the land under protection in the future.

Less numerous deciduous species, like aspen, white birch and black poplar, populate the forest-steppe zone. The forests are home to most wild animals and birds, which live undisturbed, since most of the area is uninhabited and inaccessible to human settlement. The rivers are home to fish which grow unusually large like the taimen species, belonging to the salmon family. It is no fisherman’s tale that they can measure over 6ft in length. Numerous insect and tiny rodent species abound. They need specialist classification because of their multiple variations. 

Fauna

Mongolia is rich in fauna and is home to some of the world’s rarest wildlife. The more exotic rare species include the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), the Gobi bear (Ursus arctos) and the wild ancestors of three of mankind’s most important domesticated animals – the wild camel (Camelus bactrianus ferus), the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus luteus) and Przewalski’s horse (Equus przewalskii). Many international wildlife conservation projects are helping Mongolian organisations to safeguard these rare wild animals. Nine species of bird and 38 plant species are on the verge of extinction and there are mounting concerns about the fate of the Gobi bear, the wild camel and the saiga antelope (Saiga tartarica mongolica), among other large mammals. 

Flora

Mongolian flora has remained undisturbed for centuries, in areas of pristine vegetation, often the last of its kind in the world. The Mongolian steppe is unsurpassed as an open pastureland and various types of grasses thrive on different ground and landscape conditions – from mountain to meadow steppe. There are many different types of steppe – generally named after the geographical terrain or a predominant plant species – just as there are many different types of Gobi. Formations and colonies of plants live in harmony with the soil and climate, where the only danger apart from the severe climate is from natural forest fires or desertification.

Mongolia’s diverse and distinctive vegetation includes an important part of Asia’s plant life – over 150 Mongolian plants are listed as endemic species.

But things may change, and the dangers grow as roads develop and tourism opens up the country. Certain plants like peonies thrive in shady or cool places, while others, like saxifrage, can live on dry slopes exposed to the parching wind and powerful sun. Mongolia’s diverse and distinctive vegetation includes an important part of Asia’s plant life. Over 150 Mongolian plants are listed as endemic species; 133 plants are considered very rare and are registered in the Red Book of Mongolia. 

Owing to Mongolia’s severe continental climate and its altitude, the flora of Mongolia is not as rich as that of neighbouring southern Siberia. Where the plateau descends into southern Siberia, summer temperatures become warmer. In northern Mongolia, another point of interest which you might observe is that trees grow well on the flanks of the northern-facing mountain slopes because moisture brought by the wind from the northern ocean falls as rain on that side of the mountains.

People and culture

A musician playing the traditional morin khuur, Mongolia by Zinnmann, Wikipedia

People

Mongolia is a land of horses and herdsmen and one of the last great, undisturbed wilderness areas on earth. Among its 2.9 million people are some of the last truly nomadic pastoralists in the world – but how long they will survive is questionable. About one-third of the scant population is concentrated in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, whereas the dwindling population of nomads, herdsmen with their millions of head of livestock, are spread throughout the country. The people are well matched to the land they inhabit, they are tough, resilient, stoical by dint of necessity, but genuinely fun-loving, easy going and kind. 

Since earliest times, tribes have moved across the great central Asian plains and mountain ranges that cover present-day Mongolia, but little is known of the ethnic origins of the proto-Mongol people. The mystery lies tangled in the fact that we are dealing with a fluid and changeable nomadic society. The division between Inner and Outer Mongolia (Outer Mongolia being a historical concept only, no longer the country name) was effected by the Qing dynasty Manchus of China (1644–1912), who conquered southern (Inner) Mongolia before northern (Outer) Mongolia. This has resulted in differences between the two areas. 

(Photo: A musician playing the traditional morin khuur, Mongolia © Zinnmann, Wikipedia)

Mongolia is a land of horses and herdsmen and one of the last great, undisturbed wilderness areas on earth.

On the whole, within the city, the nomadic culture of the countryside mixes easily with the modern urban culture of Ulaanbaatar and the two often combine without fuss. This is best seen in Ulaanbaatar, where a Mongol teenager wearing a silk tunic, fur hat and long leather boots might jump off his horse (which is quickly ridden away by a friend since, according to recent law, animals are not allowed in the town centre), contact his mother by mobile phone to say he will be home late, and then spend the evening with his girlfriend, either shopping in a modern supermarket or dancing in one of the city’s new bars or discos.

What is clear is that the life of the Mongolian nomad is changing fast. On the steppes, there are more satellite phones than people and even more numerous trucks that have taken the place of horse-riding couriers, who in the days of the Mongol Empire covered vast distances at a gallop, bringing news to and from outlying regions. As more modern machinery enters a Mongolia that is beginning to abandon its ancient disciplines, one wonders what it will do to the countryside and its people. The slow and fast tracks of the ancient as well as the modern world have their individual and separate consequences. 

What is clear is that the life of the Mongolian nomad is changing fast: on the steppes, there are more satellite phones than people and even more numerous trucks that have taken the place of horse-riding couriers.

Extreme concerns are that although Mongolia is open to the world of trade and tourism, the natural environmental and traditional livelihood of the nomads is likely to suffer, unless financial assistance for rural development, with stricter laws on planning, and other controls are put in place. This is particularly the case following the hard winters that in recent years have brought about overwhelming livestock losses alongside other socio-economic difficulties. Should this situation last, it could threaten the original identity of all Mongolians, particularly the truly pastoral nomads who embody Mongolia’s cultural heritage. The thought that they might face extinction is an irony because it was their heritage, with its openness and toughness, which helped to make the successful switch from a command economy to a market-orientated one.

Culture

Culture is born of history, language and ideas, and many other invisible strands that make up and characterise a distinct group of people like the Mongols. As the French writer Edgar Morin said: ‘Culture is made up of the totality of knowledge, skills, rules, standards, prohibitions, strategies, beliefs, ideas, values, and myths passed from generation to generation and reproduced in each individual, which control the existence of the society and maintain psychological and social complexity’.

The Mongolian national identity and culture is best seen in practice in the life and traditions surrounding the ger, the nomad’s home, and to a lesser extent in urban life through social customs and business practices. It is clearly present in religious celebrations, national festivals, sport, music, theatre and film. Deeply rooted in the natural environment, Mongolian culture has been moulded under the harshest of climates; the identity of these ancient tribal peoples has survived for hundreds of years within traditional nomadic practices. This is reinforced in a statement, attributed to Genghis Khan, that when the Mongol people lose contact with their nomadic lifestyle, they will lose their true identity.

The Mongolian national identity and culture is best seen in practice in the life and traditions surrounding the ger, the nomad’s home, and to a lesser extent in urban life through social customs and business practices.

Although the Mongols conquered vast territories from the saddle, it was impossible to rule these lands from the back of a horse. Instead Kublai Khan moved the Mongol capital from Karakorum in the heartland of the Mongolian steppes, to Beijing, in northeast China, from where he and his successors ruled the Mongol Empire during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), absorbing Chinese civilisation, although some say it is the other way around. In recent times, Mongolia has absorbed political and cultural influences from both of its big neighbours and has been ruled and further influenced by them with many consequences.

The Mongols are resourceful and resilient. During the Soviet period new opportunities were opened up to them through education in European history and culture. Despite some financial difficulties of the present and purges and revolutions of the past, Mongolians believe that their cultural heritage is to be cherished and kept alive. The isolation of Mongolia during the 20th century – geopolitically, culturally and in other ways – is over. The future looks less culturally isolated for Mongolia’s nomadic population as it becomes linked to the towns and settlements via new roads and mobile phones, which bring all Mongolians in line with the realities of global survival.

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