Mongolian habits

driving back to Ulaanbaatar

Before I close out the blog entries on Mongolia, I decided to add a few observations.  I don’t mean these to be culturally insensitive; I just am trying to help my readers (friends and family) to know my travels more intimately.  The recent addition of video seems to be a big hit as many of you can now see and hear in motion some of what I’m seeing.  However, there are some things that you just can’t catch on video unless you are rolling 24/7.

I first experienced this in China, and later in India, and now again in Mongolia – throughout this entry, substitute Chinese or Indian for Mongolia or vice versa.  The ever constant “clearing of the throat” followed by the spitting that can best be described as cough, spit, splat.  Mind you, this isn’t your typical western style throat clearing.  The Mongolians seem to make a grand show of clearing their mucous and then launching the (often yellow or green) contents onto the sidewalk with a jolting splat sound.  The women are no different, I’ve watched a group of old women gab and splat spit as if it were an Olympic sport.  No matter how much I hear it, it still makes my skin crawl.

The other “interesting” habit is the “snot rocket.”  In the cold weather, one’s nose tends to run a bit.  I use some tissues to blow my nose or to wipe.  Instead, the Mongolians cover one nostril with their fingers and blow a sharp exhaled breath out of the other nostril.  A large “snot rocket” (often yellow or green) explodes out to the ground – if its big enough, it also makes  a “splat” sound on impact.  In front of large department stores or at bus stops, there are literally thousands of snot rocket remains on the ground.  During cold weather they freeze leaving a wonderful flem and mucous garden behind.  I was always sure not to slip on these treasures…

bus stops – watch out for snot rockets!

And the last habit that I found (find) interesting is the chewing of food with the mouth open.  It is “normal” to chew with one’s mouth open.  I wonder if it is to say, “Hey chef, the food is good, look here – you can see me chewing it!”  They talk while eating with full mouths and there is no mystery as to what one is eating as you can (literally) watch the digestion process in action from its earliest stages.  Oddly, following the meal, one must cover their mouth while using a toothpick.  This I can’t understand – why is it impolite to pick a small piece of food from your mouth when you’ve just showed everyone your whole meal as you chew?

Not that any of these customs or wrong, they’re just very different and do take a little adjusting to get used to.

Sumo wrestling on the big screen…


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drinking rules in Mongolia

We stopped again in Itrindala Village on our way out of town.  A light snowfall began as we pulled in to the gas station and continued to build as we picked up some groceries.  I watched and in the span of only about 15 minutes the snowfall fell heavier and heavier.  I sat in quiet anonymity inside our truck and snapped photos of the Mongolians as they leisurely chatted in the snow as if it was a warm sunny Los Angeles day.

Back at the house we plugged in our phones and computers to charge them; it was very nice to have running water and electricity again.  The family was watching Sumo wrestling; the sport is as popular here as it is in Japan.  My hosts proudly proclaimed that Mongolia had won some Olympic Medals in wrestling and that Mongolia had several world champions.

After dinner, we toasted our hosts and they toasted us as visitors.  I learned the complex ritual of drinking in Mongolia that included dipping a finger and flicking a drop (as I posted in an earlier blog entry).  I found that the Mongolians had the same tolerance for drinking vodka as did the Russians and Ukranians.  The end result was that I spent most of my time trying not to drink so much; I just couldn’t keep up.  In the morning, I found that the prefered Mongolian “hair of the dog” (hangover remedy) amounted to more shots of vodka!

Throughout the night, I learned more and more cultural customs.  For example, it is considered impolite to offer or to receive a drink with one hand; you must use two hands when taking or giving a drink.  If the glass is small, you can hold it with one hand and hold your forearm or elbow with the other hand.  It seemed to me that as long as both hands were involved in the process it would suffice as sufficiently polite.

After our party, Simya and our host played some chess while I blogged.  The family was very hospitable and made me feel right at home.  I really enjoyed their company.


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Irtindala Village

Every time I thought we were about to get lost, Simya and Soyoloo would stop, talk, and then continue driving.  Even when the “road” disappeared below the snow, they always seemed to find their way.  And the end of a long second day of driving we arrived at Irtindala Village.  I shot a few photos as we drove into town trying to catch the local dress of the people.

When we arrived at our overnight lodging the weather was about as cold as I had ever experienced; the low that evening was -30 degrees celsius (-20f).  When I went outside to use the phone at midnight I was quite warm with all of my new gear on.  I understand now how people in Siberia and Alaska survive; it’s all about being dressed for the weather.  The only part of my body that was cold was exposed skin (my face).

Our hosts took very good care of us and cooked hot meat filled dumplings.  I had a few faux pas moments when I inadvertently broke some social “taboos.”  After I came in from my late night phone call, I announced, quite confidently, that I had seen 4 shooting stars (a good omen in the west).  My guide and hosts looked down at their Chai cups and appeared distraught.  Soyoloo leaned over and told me that this was “bad luck” in Mongolia, that 4 people had just “died.”  I tried to make light of the situation and said, “Well, I’m sure they were bad people.”  The joke didn’t carry well…

Later, Soyoloo looked at me with his eyes wide open and asked me to unfold my legs.  I had one foot over my knee and the sole of my foot was pointed towards the wall where the Buddha statue sat.  He explained that it was quite rude to show the sole of your foot to the Buddha.

We were never cold in this house; the coal stove ran day and night.  In fact, I stripped down to only shorts and a t-shirt and I was still warm.  Above the stove is a poster of Lhasa in the capital of Tibet.  I found it interesting that my Muslim hosts in Bayan Ulgi had photos of the Ka’ba and our Buddhist hosts here have a photo of the most famous Buddhist temple.

A shot of the living room where we enjoyed spending some down time and where we also enjoyed some creature comforts like constant heat, tv, electricity, and running water.  The sumo wrestling seems to be a big hit on Mongolian tv…

The next morning as we departed, I took a shot of our other host.  The morning was sooooo cold, it seemed to take a half hour before the car warmed up.

Later, I found a list of Mongolian social taboos in my book and I chastised myself for not having read this page before my visit.  Here is a list of cultural norms and social taboos in Mongolia:

  • Say hello (sain bai-na uu) when you arrive (but repeating it again when you see the same person is considered strange to Mongolians).
  • Avoid walking in front of an older person; or turning your back to the altar or religious objects (except when leaving).
  • Leave weapons outside.
  • If someone offers you their snuff bottle, accept it with your right hand.  If you don’t take the snuff, at least sniff the top part of the bottle.
  • When offered some vodka, dip your ring finger of your right hand into the glass, and lightly flick a drop (not too much – vodka is also sacred!) once towards the sky, once in the air ‘to the wind’ and once to the ground.  If you don’t want any vodka, go through the customs anyway, put the same finger to your forehead, say thanks, and return the glass to the table.
  • Don’t point a knife in any way at anyone; pass a knife handle first; and use the knife to cut towards you, not away.
  • Don’t point your feet at the hearth, at the altar or at another person.  Sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.
  • If you have stepped on anyone, or kicked their feet, immediately shake their hand.
  • Don’t stand on, or lean over, the threshold.
  • Don’t lean against a support column.
  • Don’t touch another peron’s hat.


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