Just Me Travel

Just Me Travel

Solo Travel Blogger

Category: Mongolia

HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS IN MONGOLIA

Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres…

Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising and a payment of money to appease the men who supply wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.

I was mortified by my wrongdoing. Even though this occurred a number of years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I was not new to international travel and would have described myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.

So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us on local customs before our 2-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep sense of appreciation. And that of relief; that I was not going to commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I have a strong belief that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.

So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?

First up, our guide requested we not immediately take photos of the family but to get to know them a little first. This, I felt, was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.

We were then informed that we can ask any questions we want, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak any English. I suspect this also gave the guide the inadvertent opportunity to ‘censor’ any inappropriate questions – a good filtering system.

And…

  • When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, go back to the door and then go to the right.
  • Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder as to do so is taking that person’s luck away.
  • Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you do touch a person’s feet unintentionally, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
  • Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing and throwing a tissue in the fire is contaminating the fire. This was important to know as one by one we were coming down with colds.
  • Whatever is offered (that is, food or drink) must be accepted and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can put your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air. Thereby, flicking drops of vodka in the air.
  • Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
  • When offered something, before taking it, touch it with your right hand while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered or giving a meal.
  • When exiting religious buildings, eg temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.

The children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Whereas boys will have their first hair cut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because it is believed they are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair cutting ceremony.

The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its own unique significance:

  • Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture; representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
  • White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
  • Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. It is given when you greet monks.
  • Green represents earth; being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
  • Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life; of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but is only used in religious ceremonies.

To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect; the ultimate offering. To give a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I would often see sheep and horses with a blue khadag tied around their neck. Our guide explained this is showing respect for the animal and it can’t be killed/eaten.

 

Mongolian cairn with blue khadags

The cairns (shrines) throughout Mongolia are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings.
Photograph by Speak Photography

 

The cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) that dot Mongolia are festooned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism still remains an integral part of Mongolian life. The cairns are erected by locals and travellers as a means of providing offerings to the local spirits; thus, showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune or for much needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, etc or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.

My conclusion? Don’t forget to know before you go.

 

For more about Mongolia:

Unique Horsemanship Skills on Show at a Mongolian Horse Festival

Fossil Hunting at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

12 Comments on HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS IN MONGOLIA

FOSSIL HUNTING AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT

Dear Pip, Deep in the middle of nowhere are Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs. At approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad in the southern part of the Gobi Desert, they are utterly…

Meg at Flaming Cliffs

Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert

Dear Pip,

Deep in the middle of nowhere are Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs.

At approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad in the southern part of the Gobi Desert, they are utterly remote.

I don’t know how our driver found his way through the desert because there are no signs or landmarks that I could discern to guide the way. When I asked (as translated by our guide) how he knows the way, he shrugged his shoulders saying (as translated) he just knows. Beats me!

However, find the way he did.

The Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their ochre and red colour, are famous for the discovery of dinosaur eggs by the American palaeontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews in 1922.

According to our guide, the eggs were discovered when one of Andrews’ crew fell down the cliff into a nest full of dinosaur eggs.

Also known as one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites, more and more bones are exposed through erosion. This excited Meg who scrambled over the cliffs (in thongs!) fossicking for dinosaur bones.

Nearing the end of our cliff walk and exploration, we came across what could be a large bone – possibly a dinosaur thigh bone. Our guide suggested licking the ‘bone’ to test if it is bone or stone. Apparently, when you lick bone your tongue sticks to it but not to stone when licked. Of course, Meg had to have a lick. Her tongue stuck to it – bone!

A bit of trivia for you…

It is said that Roy Chapman Andrews was a bit of a daredevil; a swashbuckler. It is believed he was the inspiration behind the film character Indiana Jones.

Love,

Joanna

Meg licking dinosaur bone

Bone or stone? The lick test!

 

Wanting to learn more about Mongolia? Click on the links to read about:

Unique Horsemanship Skills on Show at a Mongolian Horse Festival

How to Prevent Cultural Errors in Mongolia

No Comments on FOSSIL HUNTING AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT

UNIQUE HORSEMANSHIP SKILLS ON SHOW AT A MONGOLIAN HORSE FESTIVAL

Dear Pip, We spent the day sharing in the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, not far from Tsaidam Ger Camp (our accommodation for the night)….

Ready for competition
Mongolian horsemen ready for competition with their uurgas (lasso poles)

Dear Pip,

We spent the day sharing in the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, not far from Tsaidam Ger Camp (our accommodation for the night).

Learning to ride almost from the day they can walk, Mongolia’s history, culture and peoples are intimately linked with horses. Perhaps inevitable in a country where there are 13 x more horses than people. Throughout the day, I came to appreciate the strong bond the nomads have with their horses.

After Meg shared snuff with the old men and our guide explained what the horse festival entailed, we found a pozzie amongst the locals to watch and photograph the men, dressed in traditional garb, compete in a number of events; events that showed off the nomads’ unique horsemanship skills and the strength of their horses.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about stampeding wild horses being lassoed but did laugh with the crowd when a competitor would manage to lasso a horse, only to end up on his bum, being dragged some distance by the frantic horse. I needed to remind myself, this is their way of life; their culture.

Men riding bucking wild horses elicited shouts of encouragement from the crowd and laughter as they fell off. One man who managed to stay on his horse delighted the crowd as he and his horse disappeared into the way blue wonder. 

I particularly enjoyed watching the men grabbing an uurga (long pole with a lasso on the end) off the ground from a galloping horse. I’m in awe as to how they stayed on their horse as they would be well down the side of the horse, around its fast-moving legs. Some of the younger men even had a go at grabbing a cigarette lighter off the ground from their running horse – some more successful than others.

A great day to remember.

Love,

Joanna

A competitor and his horse
Picking up an uurga off the ground from a running horse
Lassoing wild horses
Lassoing wild horses
Bucking horse
Ouch! Falling off a bucking wild horse
Picking up lighter
Picking up a cigarette lighter off the ground from a galloping horse


For more about Mongolia:
Fossil Hunting at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert
How to Prevent Cultural Errors in Mongolia
8 Comments on UNIQUE HORSEMANSHIP SKILLS ON SHOW AT A MONGOLIAN HORSE FESTIVAL

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search