Mongolia’s national flag tells a story. In its left bar, the Soyombo stands proud, a symbol of Buddhism—the sun, moon, stars, and heavens represented in ornate geometric form. It seems simple enough, this national proclamation of united religion. But it stands for a victorious triumph after a long 20th-century struggle under Communism.
In 1924, Mongolia was home to 100,000 Buddhist monks. But as Communism took hold from neighboring Russia, 700 monasteries were closed or destroyed, Buddhist teachings were repressed and monks were killed. By 1990, 110 monks lived quietly in hidden monasteries. A year later, with the fall of Communism, that all changed. Buddhism once again rose as Mongolia’s dominant religion, and other religions such as shamanism also emerged from the shadows.
It’s a long, dark chapter, one that underscores the unwavering passion of a peaceful people. And it holds a lesson: Don’t let Genghis Khan, Kublai Kahn, and the warring ways of the Mongolian Empire fool you. Mongolians are peace-loving, big-hearted, and eager to share their culture with visitors.
Mongolians of today are not defined by borders, but by openness; it might be the wide spaces and vast steppes in which they live that lulls them into kindness. That’s why you’re likely to get invited into many a ger (the circular, tented structures they call home—again, no harsh straight lines here) for tea, mutton soup, or a cup of airag, fermented mare’s milk. Fried dumplings, called khuushuur, might also be on the menu. To be sure, Mongolian cuisine is simple, derived as it is from nomadic ways that require the most efficient use of livestock and humble harvests. And don’t be surprised if you’re invited to wash it all down with Mongolian grain vodka, a holdover from Russia’s occupation.
Seasonal festivals similarly take their cues from a rugged past. The Naadam, for instance, is perhaps Mongolia’s most famous national sport gathering. For three days each July, towns all over the country participate in Olympic-style games of strength and endurance.
Naadam is known locally as “Eriin Gurvan Naadam,” or the Three Games of Men: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. In these modern times, the Games’ title is no longer accurate as women now participate in the latter two. (The wrestling costume, an open-fronted jacket called a zodog, ensures that women do not try to enter that competition.) Naadam is a tradition that dates back 1,000 years, and the events are based on the traditional hunting culture of the Mongolian army. At the largest venue for the Games, in Ulaanbaatar, more than 600 horses stampede across the steppe for ten miles.
The Golden Eagle Festival—founded very recently, in 2000—demonstrates another symbol of military might: the event’s namesake bird. This powerful raptor has long been used to hunt for food and pelts, and each October the best falconers descend on a valley in the Altai Mountains to show off the speed, agility, and accuracy of their birds.
No doubt music plays a part in these celebrations, and most certainly at more intimate gatherings. Like so much of Mongolian culture, the country’s music has firm roots in nature and nomadism. The nation’s most famous instrument—the morin khur, a bowed stringed instrument with a boxy base and long neck—is said to produce a sound resembling a neighing horse or, even more poetically, a breeze blowing through the grasslands. Khoomei, or throat singing, is a haunting multi-tone melody produced deep in the throat. “Long song”—so named not because of a song’s length but because of each syllable’s length within the song—also plays a crucial part in the Mongolian songbook.