Mongolian culture: A sip of Airag, the Best Dressed Foreigner’s Parade, and Tea Time at a Gehr

Wedged between Russia and China, Mongolia boasts a unique history, culture, and terrain. Traditionally a nomadic culture, united by the infamous leader Chingiss Khan, Mongolia later fell to Soviet rule, gained independence as a communist nation, and recently become a democracy in 1990. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the word. Half of the country’s population, 1.5 million, reside in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. In summer, UB is beautiful and inviting. In winter though, temperatures can fall to -40, giving it the title of the coldest capital city in the world. Due to massive coal burning in winter, UB also becomes the most polluted city in the world during the colder months, leading to a new array of health problems linked to poor air quality. The day I arrived was election day, so the entire city was on holiday.  The city is a blend of traditional and western cultures. The streets are packed with Prius’, beautiful Buddhist temples sit next to sky scrapers, an enourmous statue of Chingiss Khan in the main square sits next to a recently constructed Louis Vuitton store. As you go towards the Gehr districts in the outskirts of the city and further into the country, folks reside in traditional Gehr tents, similar to their nomadic ancestors. Many of the Gehrs have a modern twist though, with a solar panel and dish satellite to power their television inside. Being vegetarian in a meat heavy cuisine served to be a bit of a challenge at first. One of the first phrases I learned how to say in Mongolian was “mahk gui”—no meat. As I learned to navigate the city, I grew to love it.

I was lucky to visit during the summer festival of Nadaam. The entire city is on holiday to enjoy three days of horse racing, wrestling, and archery. The opening ceremony was a spectacular show, equal to that of an Olympic opening ceremony. I got to don the traditional garment, the dehl, and march in the best dressed foreigners parade. I even mustered the courage to try the delicacy, airag, or fermented mare’s milk, when we were invited to the Gehr of a winning race horse breeder. It is an acquired taste, I must admit…

The terrain of Mongolia varies drastically from region to region, from dry steppe in the south to lush evergreen forest in the north, with each landscape just as breathtaking as the next. I ventured south to the Gobi Desert and north to Lake Hovsgol. During our Gobi adventure, we climbed the tallest sand dune, rode a two humped camel (only found in the Gobi), searched for dinosaur eggs in the famous Flaming Cliffs, and camped in a Gehr. Up north in Hovsgul, we enjoyed camping in tepees along the green shores of Lake Hovsgol, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Hovsgul is where the elusive Tsaatan reindeer herders may be found. The region is teeming with yaks, evergreen trees, and the occasional reindeer.

Divya Patel is a medical student at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Her project, “Prevalence of Group B Streptococcus in Pregnant Women in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia,” is supported by the Anderson Family Global Health Immersion Fellowship


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