Learn about the dos and don'ts of staying with Mongolian people
One of the best experiences you’ll have when travelling Mongolia is staying with a Mongolian family and really experiencing the life of the Mongolian people. Nomadic people have a very different lifestyle to what we may be used to in Western cultures, so if you’re planning to stay with a Mongolian family during your Mongolia travel, it’s important to learn about these cultures and specific etiquette before you go, so as to avoid any awkward cultural blunders.
Staying in a Mongolian Ger will give you the opportunity to really get to know and understand a completely different way of life, and will certainly be something you won’t forget quickly.
So let’s look at the Dos and Don’ts of Mongolian family etiquette when staying with Mongolian people.
Mongolian People: DO
DO: Say “Nokhoi khor”
If visiting a Mongolian family dwelling alone, it’s good to call out "Nokhoi khor”. This means, "Hold the dog". This is traditionally how Mongolians say hi to neighbours, friends and family. This will save any embarrassment of being chased, and at worst savaged by the large guard dog.
DO: Enter from the left-hand-side
As a visitor, and not a relative of a Mongolian family, it’s always polite to turn to the left-hand-side of a ger when you enter. Entering to the right is the way of the family.
DO: Be respectful
Visiting a Mongolian family and entering a Mongolian ger for the first time will be something you’ve never seen or experienced before. You’re going to want to capture the moment and take a bunch of Instagram-worthy shots to show off your Mongolian people nomad experience. Remember to always ask to take photos. Generally, this is just a formality and polite to do so. In fact, you’ll probably be encouraged to take lots more! ushered to take more and are free to continue.
DO: Ask if unsure
The Ger, whilst to us just a Mongolian tent, is in effect the living room, bedroom and kitchen for the Mongolian people. You’ll be surrounded by personal belongings. Always check if you wish to look at something personnel e.g. medals and trinkets.
DO: Accept food & drink with your RIGHT hand
It’s always polite to accept food and drink with your right hand, and never with the left. If the plate or cup is heavy you may use both or support the right hand with the left.
DO: Watch out for your drinking etiquette
If you are drinking vodka with a family, there are certain peculiar procedures the Mongolian people follow. Accept your drink like a local by following these three steps;
1. Dip your right-hand ring finger into the glass or bowl, and lightly flick a drop once towards the sky (for Tengri, the god of the sky).
2. Flick another drop in the air (to the wind).
3. Flick the third drop to the ground, for Gadzer, god of the earth. If you do not drink or want any Vodka, it’s polite to do this anyway. But you can refuse it by finally placing the finger to your head and return the cup to the table.
DO: Keep an eye on how you’re sat
The best way to sit initially is to sit cross-legged with your feet underneath you. As you become more welcome, you can change your posture and get more comfortable. Bonus points if you fall asleep, since this is a sign of good hospitality!
DO: Bring gifts
Leave a small gift such as flour, pasta, eggs, biscuits and something for the kids. If you’re bringing presents for the children, it’s important to remember to bring a lot of the same gift. Many Mongolian families are large, and you don’t want to give two kids a gift and leave the others without… Apart from being a tad awkward and sad for the left out kid(s), it’s also seen as impolite in Mongolian culture and you may end up offending the Mongolian people.
DO: Shake/touch hands
If you accidentally kick a Mongolian persons' feet, it’s good to shake or touch their hand. Whilst sounding a bit strange, this is common practice that is part of Mongolian culture and happens throughout the country. If you end up staying with multiple Mongolian people it’s something you’ll definitely come across!
Mongolian People: DON’T
DON’T: Refuse food & drink
Upon entering a Mongolian Ger, you will almost immediately be offered food and drink. These will be dairy products, curds, and salty milk tea. Never refuse as this is seen as extremely impolite. If you’re allergic or just hate milk tea, simply put the teacup to your lips. Another tip is to just take a small amount of curd - you can always discreetly slip them into your pocket. (Speaking from experience!)
DON’T: Sit with your back to the alter
Depending on the religion of your Mongolian family hosts, many Mongolian Gers will have some sort of alter at the rear of the home. It’s good not to sit with your back or feet towards this area.
DON’T: Expose your wrists and arms
When visiting local Mongolian people, keep your sleeves rolled. Do not to expose your wrists and arms. This is most important when shaking hands, and when taking offerings of food and drink. If you have only short sleeves, you may wish to pretend to roll them down to be more respectful. And remember to always take off your gloves!
DON’T: Try on the hat!!
The hat is very important to Mongolian people and Mongolian culture. Even in the city, you should never touch or try on other peoples hats. You should also keep in mind your own hat - never place it on the floor or the seat of a chair.
DON’T: Lean against the Mongolian ger walls
Never lean against the central supports or wall of the ger, as they represent stability. Plus, they're also holding up the entire Mongolian family's house. You certainly don't want it to collapse!
Never whilst inside a Mongolian family ger, as this is used by Shamans at times to call spirits.
DON’T: Hang around the door
When entering the Mongolian ger, it’s important to remember not to stand, sit, or lean over the ger threshold. For the Mongolian people, the wooden door seal represents the Buddha’s shoulders.
DON’T: Throw rubbish into the fire
The fire is very sacred to central Mongolians. It’s something that certainly keeps Mongolian people alive during those harsh Mongolian winters! To stay polite, do not throw rubbish/ trash water or any waste onto it.
DON’T: Walk in front of an older person
In Mongolian culture, it is seen as quite disrespectful to walk in front of an older person. If you must, then you should without asking for the right to pass if there is no other way.
DON’T: Waste milk
Milk is seen as sacred to the Mongolian people as it tends to support their life. Try not to spill it or waste it. And most importantly, do not, under any circumstances throw it onto the grass land!
DON’T: Pat heads
For many Mongolian people, patting or touching people on their heads, including children, is a sign of bad luck. Whilst not okay for children, you may do this with babies - and you may ask to carry and hold a baby.
The biggest thing to remember when visiting a Mongolian family is that Mongolian people are so amazingly hospitable, and will do their best to make sure you are happy and comfortable. Do try to accept this hospitality and do your best to abide by the local customs so as to avoid any cultural faux pas.
If you do break some of these rules, many Mongolian people will understand that you are from another country. Similarly, if you do abide by these rules and try extra hard to take into account some of the cultural differences and specific etiquettes in a Mongolian family, this goes a long way and will definitely impress the Mongolian people!
Despite the small population size of Mongolia, the country is filled with a whole mix of ethnicities, and the Mongolian people are a diverse and incredibly interesting bunch. If you do have a guide or are fortunate enough to have a family that speaks English, some amazing conversations about customs take place.
The best way to make sure you get the most out of your experience staying with a Mongolian family is to do it with somebody who has been there before and has a deep understanding of all of these dos and don’ts, so you don’t have to worry about printing off this list or memorising it!