What to Expect at the Mongolian Dinner Table

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is a huge country with vast open grasslands, mountains and deserts. Harsh cold winters and gusty winds make it difficult to grow much here. Therefore, the nomadic Mongol diet relies mostly on animal products, such as meat, cheese, yogurt and milk.

So what to expect to eat as you travel through Mongolia?

The capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB) is comparable to any metropolis in Central Asia. Here you will find all sorts of restaurants, cafes, bars and grocery stores. There are traditional Mongolian places, as well as tourist-friendly international restaurants serving American, Russian, Irish, Japanese, and Italian food. Korean cuisine is perhaps the most popular as many Korean tourists visit Mongolia (it is an easy 3 hour direct flight from Seoul). I even found a few Indian/ Hazara restaurants in UB.

Indian food in Mongolia

A visit to the State Department Grocery Store in UB gives a good perspective on the produce that is imported from abroad. There is generally a small section of fresh organic Mongolian produce, which is more expensive than it’s Chinese counterpart. The variety of fruits and vegetables is plentiful, though not as appealing as I am use to. Think overripe bananas, pale red apples, softening grapes. Isles of sausages and cheese from Russia can easily be found. There are plenty of packages food though – cookies, chocolates, nuts, chips – practically everything you can think of. The cooked food section boasts kimchi, fried snacks and noodles, favoring the spicy tastebuds of the locals.

Outside of UB, there are supermarkets selling all of needed essentials. In some of the smaller towns that I visited, the amount of produce diminished significantly. Here street vendors could be found selling freshly harvested green onions, peaches and watermelon.

While staying at luxury tourist ger camps, we were served three meals daily. Breakfast typically consisted of an assortment of bakery items (bread, cakes, pancakes, waffles), cheese, yogurt, cereal, tea, canned fruits and eggs made to order. I don’t think Mongols are very good bakers as most of the cakes were very dry and flavorless. Some of the places only had instant coffee.

breakfast at ger camps

Lunches were generally picnic style as we were out sightseeing at remote areas. The hotel would pack a lunch box – wraps, salads, sandwiches, noodles, etc. that we carried with us.

picnic lunch in Gobi desert

Sometimes we went to traditional Mongolian restaurants, which I really enjoyed. At the 13th Century National Park, we sat on the floor, watched live performances, while eating delicious Khuushuur stuffed with ground beef (and a vegetarian version for me). This is also the most popular thing to eat (like a hot dog) at the Naadam festival.

Modern Nomads in UB is always packed with visitors who want to try traditional Mongolian dishes in the city. Buckets of grilled meats (Khorkhog) along with chilled beer is the perfect campground treat. Strangely they had chewing gum listed as a snack on the menu!

It is important to note that the Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) as it helps retain fat and heat during the long winters. Though vegetarians wouldn’t have survived here in the past, today there are many meat-free options for those traveling through the country.

mongolian bbq

When we were out visiting nomadic camps, we were offered hot milk tea known as Süütei Tsai (made from horse, camel or cow milk), along with local fried cookies, Boortsog and dried cheese, Aaruul. It is customary to accept the offerings from your hosts, even if you are not hungry.

mongolian snacks at Naadam

At dinner, we enjoyed international dishes, such as fresh salad with tomatoes, olives and cheese at Dream Terelj Lodge; pizza at Peace Pub Restaurant; grilled chicken or fish with roasted potatoes or french fries at Dream Gobi Ger Lodge.

All the restaurants served alcohol, beer and wine; vodka being the most popular drink. There are many Mongolian brewed vodkas (many of them named Chinggis) and they are actually very good.

I discovered that there are no Mongolian dessert except for sweet dried fermented cheese, but with the international influence, bakeries have popped up in the city. One that I frequented was Caffe Bene that served gelato, cakes, coffee and juices, and Grand Khaan Irish Pub for drinks and desserts.

Read Mongolian Cuisine Is a Carnivore’s Dream Come True on MilesAway blog.

Why Mongolia’s Naadam Festival Should be on Your Bucket List

When I first read about the Naadam Festival in Mongolia a few years ago, I was fascinated by it, and added it to my bucket list. The annual sporting event takes place on July 11-13 and can be termed the ancient Olympics of Asia. The festival is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO. It measures courage, strength, daring, horsemanship and marksmanship of the nomadic people and warriors.

THE SCENE

Though the games take place over only three days, the entire country is on holiday for almost a week. Festivities start with a parade of uniformed guards, attended by the president and VIP’s at the Genghis Khan square. The same afternoon, there is a traditional costume parade and musical concert.

Fair Food at the Festival/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Fair Food at the Festival/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos

On day one, nine horse tails, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, are transported from Sukhbaatar Square to the Stadium to open the Naadam festivities. At these opening and closing ceremonies, there are impressive parades of mounted cavalry, athletes and monks. Kids perform drills and thousands of people gather to watch.

Opening Ceremony at the Stadium in UB/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Opening Ceremony at the Stadium in UB/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos

Outside at the stadium it looks like a fair. There are shops selling trinkets and food stalls as far as you can see. Mares milk, horse meat, candy floss, meat kebabs…and most importantly, the traditional Naadam treat, Khuushuur, are enjoyed by fans.

THE SPORTS

Mongolia has three national sports that come from the warrior history of Mongolia, known as Danshig games. At the Naadam festival, you can also see men gathered in a tent playing ankle bone shooting. Crowds cheer on as players carefully strategize with their fingers and shoot shagai or sheep anklebones into a wooden cupboard that acts like a target.

WRESTLING
The first noticeable thing about the wrestlers are their costumes – bright red and blue underwear and a top that looks like a reverse bra with sleeves. It is believed this is designed such that women cannot disguise themselves and participate (it actually happened once which led to the design of the current uniform).
Wrestling match / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Wrestling match / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
When the wrestlers enter the field, they do an eagle dance, flapping their arms like an eagle, then they crouch down and slap their thighs on the front and back. It’s to show their strength and power. The goal of this sport is to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body between the knees and the shoulders. There are no rules – you can even tug on his underwear!  The winner of a match also does a victory eagle dance at the end of the match, which lasts 9-10 rounds.
HORCERACING
Children in Mongolia start riding horses as young as 4 years old and the competitors in the Naadam horserace are only 6-12 years of age. They have to ride 10-30 kilometers (depending on the age of the horses) in the countryside. As many as 1000 horses compete in the competition all over the country. The kids ride solo, on dirt fields, at high speeds. It is a true test of skill and endurance starting at a young age!
Twins Races/ / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Twins Races/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
There is also a fun matching competition, where identical horses and riders go in sync. The crowds decide the best in class by clapping and cheering. The winners receive a medal, money, and sometimes dinner (live goat).
ARCHERY
Contestants use compound bows made with sinew, wood, horn and bamboo, and strung with bull tendon. Men shoot 40 arrows made from willow branches and griffin vulture feathers from a distance of 75 meters, and women deliver 20 arrows from 60 meters at a target.
Archery Competition/ / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Archery Competition/ / photo by Sucheta Rawal
In accordance with ancient custom, several men stand on either side of the target singing a folk song to cheer the contestants and then use hand signals to indicate the results.
WHERE TO WATCH 
It is not easy to watch the entire festival as it is spread around different venues. Tickets to the main event at the stadium in Ulaanbaatar sell out months in advance. Here you can watch the opening and closing ceremonies, parades and wrestling. It can get hot and crowded while sitting out in the sun all day.
Archery competition takes place at a separate venue located near the stadium, but for horse racing you need to go to the countryside (1-2 hours drive). Families gather at the start and end points of the race, making a day long picnic out of it. Here they eat, drink, shop, play, fly kites, and watch the race on a big screen in the lawn.
Another option to watch all the events at the same venue is by going to one of the privately held Naadam festivities, such as the one at Mongol Nomadic Tourist Camp, or the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Desert. Voyage Unique Mongolie tours organize transportation, lodging and visits to all of the Naadam activities, as well as sightseeing all over Mongolia.

10 Things I Love About Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the countries that I was fascinated to travel to, but didn’t know much about. In my imagination, I had pictured a vast barren desert with nomadic culture. Though some of that was true, I discovered a lot more in Mongolia during my one-week visit. Here are some of the most beautiful things that took me by surprise…

Lush Green Landscapes – Yes there is a big desert covering a big chunk of the country, but there are also forests with trees, and lush grasslands. The rainy summer season and the rivers help irrigate the area. In winter, most of the country is covered in snow. Note: Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the coldest capital in the world, having a January average of -20 °C (minimum reaching -45 °C).

Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Free Roaming Animals – During my long drives through the countryside, I saw hundreds of yaks, sheep, goat, cows, horses and camels roaming around on their own. Because Mongolia still preserves it’s nomadic culture, many families keep a herd of animals, and keep moving to different locations for better grazing access. Note: The Mongolian diet is rich in meat and animal products (such as milk, cheese, yogurt) as this is the only source of food in many areas. 

Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Cute Kids – The children in Mongolia have a blend of Chinese, Persian and Russian looks. They are chubby and adorable! The kids who grow up in the countryside learn survival skills at an early age. They ride horses, milk animals, collect firewood and build gers.

Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Sleeping in Gers – While I am not a big fan of camping, I enjoyed staying at the luxury ger camps – Dream Terelj Lodge and Dream Gobi Lodge. Can you imagine waking up to this view? Here I was able to experience a nomadic home which is constructed using minimum equipment (felt, poles, lattice, cloth, ties). There is a door and an opening on the roof which is uncovered to let the light in. My ger also came with a fan, heater, lights and a private attached bath. Did you know? It takes about 2 hours for a family to construct a ger and only half hour to dissemble it.

Traditional Costumes – The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a deel. It is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Female attires are adorned with ornaments and jewelry. There are different kinds of hats and boots, depending on which part of the country they belong to. Travel Tip: There is a costume parade at the opening ceremony day before the annual Naadam festival in July. This is a good opportunity to see families from all over the country dressed in the traditional clothes. Tourists are encouraged to dress up too!

Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Sucheta Rawal
Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Winding Back The Clock –  Mongolia’s ancient culture is well persevered at the 13th Century National Park (located 2 hours outside UB). Here visitors can eat traditional food, visit old gers where Shamans practiced religion and Chinggis Khaan’s teacher lived, learn to write in Mongolian script, and play a horse headed fiddle.

Vastness of the Gobi Desert – The Gobi desert is the coldest desert in the world and home to many important cities along the Silk Road. It is said to be high energy place, covered with fossils as old as 100,000 years. Bayanzag aka Flaming Cliffs is a location where the highest concentration of dinosaur bones and eggs have been found. Travel Tip: Travel through the vast region of Gobi can take several days as there are no roads or signs; there are few flights which can be affected by weather conditions; the region shuts down in winters; and there are not many places to stop and ask for directions! 

Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Warm Hospitality – My hosts for this trip were Voyage Unique Mongolie. Khishigjargal and her husband, Dorjpurev took us around the entire time, giving us a very personal experience showing us their country. It felt like we were on a holiday with the family. We sang songs and ate candy during long drives, and stopped to have picnics in breathtaking sceneries. No matter where we went, we experienced the same level of polite and warm hospitality. Even when language was a challenge, the employees at hotels and restaurants would make a sincere effort to address our needs the best they could.

Drinking tea at a nomad's home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Drinking tea at a nomad’s home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Modern Mongolian Music and Dance – The traditional Mongolian dance is bielgee, which is performed by both men and women. Rhythmic movements, fast beats and expressive gestures that represent daily life, are simply captivating. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing, and several local instruments, such as the horse head fiddle, drum and gong. These days, techno and rap are being integrated, creating fun modern tunes. Travel Tip: Watch a traditional concert by the band Tumen Ekh ensemble at National Recreation Center in UB.

Naadam Festival – The annual festival celebrates the ancient sports of Mongolia – horseback riding, archery and wrestling. The entire country goes on holiday while families dress up, go for picnics and cheer the contestants. The main competitions take place at the stadium in UB, but events are also spread out. One of the most fascinating aspects of the festival is to see 5-12 year old kids race horses for up to 10 kilometers. They ride solo, at very high speeds, through the countryside! The winner receives a medal, money and bragging rights.

Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Touched by a Mongolian smile

On a trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where I lived for three months, I spent my last day visiting Verbist Orphanage, in the countryside.  Mongolia is a one-city nation, with the vast surrounding land composed of the Gobi desert or barren land.  The extreme temperatures from their minus 40 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius, harbors a harsh environment for the few scraggly plants to try and persist despite the desert clime. It’s not an inviting place, yet I boarded the plane with my ticket in hand for a country few people have ever heard of or want to visit willingly.

volunteering in Mongolia

My travels have been my biggest learning experiences in my life.  They have taught me to be stronger, to adapt to unusual and uncomfortable circumstance, and to survive in some of the hardest situations I’ve dealt with physically and emotionally.  As an orphan given a second life with my parents’ gracious love from America, I was taken out of the scenario I was walking straight into.

volunteering in MongoliaThe children’s faces were confused at first, when my group arrived to the orphanage.  I had gone with a group of Mongolian students learning English.  One of the students had befriended me with her kind heart and shared interest in journalism.  She invited me on this excursion, and I jumped at the chance to visit an orphanage.

We boarded a bus that navigated the country terrain bravely to our destination.  Outside of the city, there are no paved roads in Mongolia.  There is nothing but open fields of nomadic families living off the land and their horses’ back. This is no terrain to take a public transportation bus through.

Upon arriving to the compound, we found the orphanage surrounded by a six foot wall decorated with colorful murals painted by previous visitors.  It was strange to see this compound in the middle of the dessert.  We had not encountered another living person or any sign of civilization for hours.  Our last gas stop to fuel up was more than two hours ago.  There were no buildings out this far from Ulan Bator.

It appeared like a mirage in the desert, but was firm to the touch when I reached for the gate handle.  Children, as young as five-years-old, were chopping wood with an axe by the entrance.  I winced in default as I stopped myself from taking the axe away from them.  This was their life; the way they had to live to survive.   They seemed unsure and scared of us – people from the city with our clean clothes and washed hands.  Many gesticulations later, the children were swarming us with warmth and laughter once the barrier was broken.  I had the toughest time since I couldn’t speak but a handful of words in Mongolian, most of which were nonsensical and useless in my current situation.

“San ban o.”  I said hello and smiled a lot to befriend the children, but they played with me with no inhibitions.  Two Belgium graduate students were spending a couple months living in a Ger in the orphanage compound.  They were teaching them English and writing their thesis on the orphanage; therefore, I gave the children a great outlet to use the handful of words they knew.  Most could say hello, but few were brave enough to venture more conversation.

We played basketball and random games they created on the spot.  We had brought toys and some books to give to them, which brought the biggest smile and a touch of civilization to their orphanage.  There was no electricity or running water.  Non-governmental organizations fund Verbist, just enough for the bare essentials.  I may never see their faces again or hear how their futures turn out, but I know they have touched my life.  Volunteering has a way of helping the volunteers out more than those they seek to help.  It is a gift to lend your hand and time to others, and it is always rewarded with gratitude and a memory you’ll always deeply cherish.

Read more of my trip to Verbist Orphanage.

~ By guest blogger Kate Greer