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Etiquette Guide - Tips for Travelling in Mongolia

There are many behaviour rules in place in a traditional society which may not be immediatly obvious to visitors. Some of them have a religious background, others developed from the practical requirements of the nomadic life, and of course there are also instances of plain superstition. The following explanations will make it a bit easier for you to avoid the most common pitfalls during your visit in Mongolia.

In the city, people will allow the foreigner a very wide margin of error, and many Mongolians don't strictly follow all the rules either. Even people with little contact to foreigners will generaly be very tolerant, but you can clearly make a better inpression by acting as close to their expectations as you can. Even a clumsy attempt will be much appreciated.

Head and Feet

In the buddhist culture (as well as in other asian cultures) there's a distinct hierarchy between head and feet. The head is an elevated body part in symbolic terms as well, and the feet have accordingly lower status. Understanding this basic principle can already help avoid lots of embarassment.

A hat is a very personal item, and is never lent to other people. If possible, you should avoid touching other peoples hats, let alone to sit or stand on one.

Never point your feet towards other people or other important items like the hearth or the altar.

If you accidentally touch someone with your foot, then you can balance this by immediately grabbing their hand.

Right and Left Hand

As in many cultures, the right hand is considered the good hand in Mongolia. It gets used for tasks of high status.

If you pass an item to another person, always do so with your right hand and support your right elbow with the left hand, at least symbolically. The recipient of course performs the same gesture.

Presents are handed over with both hands.

If possible, hold any items so that the opening of your hand points up. For example, a drinking bowl should stand on top of the open hand, and not be picked with the fingers from above.

There are few other standard gestures with the hands. The most important exception is the stretched out little finger, which is a strongly negative signal (as the rised thumb is a strong positive signal in the west).

The Duties of the Guest

If you are served a snack, you should at least try a little piece. A negative response is impolite in many other situations as well. Try to communicate your wishes with a positively phrased statement.

At a reception, it is customary for a little bowl of liquor to make the rounds. It is not necessary to actually drink from it, but at least bring it to your lips symbolically.

When Vodka is served, many people will dip their ring finger into it, and throw a few drops to the sky, "into the wind" (to the side), and to the floor. If you don't want to drink, you can still perform this ritual, then touch your forehead with the finger, and put the glass back on the table.

Traditional men celebrate the exchange of snuff bottles (Khöörög, Хөөрөг) when they meet each other. It takes a little practise to mutually pass the bottle to each other with only the right hands. They will not actually snuff very often, but just sample the smell of the tabacco.

As a Guest in a Yurt

People don't knock at the dor of a Yurt. Instead, they shout loudly "Nokhoi khor!" (Нохой хор!). This translates literally to "hold the dogs!", but in reality just means "can I come in?"

When entering, never step on the threshold, or bad things will happen (different things depending on the source). Most likely the real background is this: A person standing in the door will block the sun in summer, and allow in the cold air in winter.

Fire is sacred. It is never put out, but may die on its own when it isn't needed anymore. By principle, no garbage is ever thrown into the fire (animal dung is valuable fuel, though).

Even when sleeping, the feet never point to the altar (in the back), but always to the door.

The two centerposts have symbolic significance. They support the Yurt like husband and wife support the family. For this reason, you'll never walk between them, but always take the way around. Even touching the posts can be considered impolite, let alone to lean against them.

Topics for Conversation

When people meet, the conversation will at first always involve the obvious topics like the trip of the guest, the state of the host's animals, the quality of the pastures, and the weather. Only after quite a while is it appropriate to turn to more personal topics.

Talking about bad things (sickness, death, accidents, etc.) is taken as a bad omen, and should be avoided as much as possible.

If you ride in a car (or fly in an airplane), then you should never make any jokes about possible defects. The topic is too serious for that. A person doing something potentially dangerous has accepted the danger, and there's no need to comment on it further, not even in jest. As the proverb goes: "If you are afraid to do something, don't do it. And if you do something, don't be afraid of it".

Other Rules

Red is a special color. Try to avoid using a red pen for your mundane notes.

A knife held in the hand must never point against another person. And of course, you only give a knife to someone with the handle ahead.

You never walk over a lasso pole lying on the ground (Uurga, Уурга), but walk around it.