Good Manners in Mongolia: Best Behavior Tips When Visiting a Family Ger
Mongolia, a nation famous for its breathtaking landscapes and brilliant blue skies, is home to one of the world’s last remaining nomadic cultures. Though facing pressure from the challenges of modernization and globalization, today’s nomads still live largely traditional lifestyles, and abide by a strong code of hospitality that has changed little since the days of Genghis Khan.
Mongolians are generous and welcoming, and enjoy showing off their traditional culture to visiting guests. In fact, MIR travelers returning from Mongolia often remark that visiting with nomadic families in their gers is one of the most memorable highlights of their trip. That being said, Mongolians do practice long-standing customs that may be unfamiliar to Western travelers. Learning the cultural norms will not only impress your hosts, but can also help to forge deeper bonds with the local people you meet.
Here are several “best behavior” tips to keep in mind as you visit nomadic gers across Mongolia:
When your hosts come to receive you, officially greet them with “Sain bainu,” the Mongolian way to say hello. Literally it means, “How are you?” so your hosts will typically answer you with “Sai an bainau.” (“I’m well”). Some Mongolians may shake your hand upon exchanging greetings, while others might feel comfortable enough to give a big bear hug. Either way, expect an open and warm-hearted welcome from your ger hosts.
As you enter the ger, be sure not to step on the threshold. Once inside, don’t lean against the central interior posts or the ger walls. These are all important structural elements, but they also carry sacred significance for Mongolians, as they symbolize how the ger protects and supports the entire family throughout the seasons.
Stools and benches will be set out inside the ger if your hosts have them, otherwise guests will be asked to kneel or sit cross-legged on the floor. Sitting with your feet out in front of you is considered impolite, so tuck them in whenever you’re seated. Avoid leaning on or resting your feet on top of any furniture inside the ger, and don’t remain standing over the threshold, even if there’s little room inside for you to sit.
Since Mongolians are Buddhist, they often have family altars set up in the back of their gers. If possible, try not to sit with your back to the altar, which is seen as disrespectful towards your hosts. Fires are also sacred to Mongolians, so if your hosts have one lit inside the family fireplace during your visit, don’t put it out or throw garbage in it, regardless of whether the items are biodegradable or not.
Always receive tea with your right hand, never your left, which is seen as impolite. It’s customary to receive tea by holding an empty teacup flat in your palm, while touching your left hand to your right elbow; this gesture symbolizes gratefulness for the generosity of your hosts. Once your tea has been poured, be sure to hold the cup by the bottom instead of the top rim.
Small snacks are usually served with tea as an accompaniment. Your hosts might present you with a variety of sweet and savory offerings, including candy, bread, biscuits, cookies, or a favorite Mongolian snack called aaruul, a type of dried cheese curd made from soured milk or yogurt.
Only your right hand should be used for taking food, as well as for passing dishes to other guests. Your hosts will generally offer forks and spoons as necessary, but it is perfectly acceptable to eat with your hands, as long as you use only your right hand both when touching food and using utensils. If you’re given a knife, avoid pointing the blade-end at another person, which Mongolians view as a threatening gesture.
Gifts are commonly presented to your hosts at the end of your visit. When presenting your gift, offer it with both hands as a sign of respect. Hosts may present you in return with a small gift, in which case you should never refuse it.
Finally, don’t fret if you forget any of the above etiquette tips during your travels. These are by no means hard and fast rules, and most Mongolians are very understanding of foreigners who are unfamiliar with the ways of their traditional culture. Often they will be very appreciative of the effort travelers make to understand their customs.
Travel to Mongolia with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of experience handcrafting tours to Mongolia. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
You can experience traditional nomadic lifestyles and enjoy a chance to practice good manners the Mongolian way on one of these small group tours and rail journeys by private train:
Small Group Tours
- Siberia & Mongolia: Spirits & Nomads
- Mongolian Explorer: The Gobi & Beyond with Naadam Festival
- Mongolia to Moscow: A Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure
Rail Journeys by Private Train
- The Trans-Siberian Mongolian Route with Naadam Festival: Westbound
- The Trans-Siberian Express Between Moscow & Beijing: Eastbound / Westbound
You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on a private journey to Mongolia, customized to your desired dates and style.
Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your travels today.
(Top photo: A Mongolian greets visitors on the steppe. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen)
PUBLISHED: January 31, 2018