Random Mongolia Fact #7: The Mongolian Language

I will obviously be learning the language spoken in Mongolia during my 3 months of pre-service training, and that language is *drum roll* Mongolian! No, they do not speak Chinese. No, they do not speak Russian*, although if someone were to look at a random sign in Mongolia they might assume Russian is the national language…

Mongolian sign

Uhhhh, yeah, that’s what I was gonna say

People who are familiar with what Russian looks like could be forgiven for thinking Mongolians speak Russian, because they both use the Cyrillic alphabet**. Back when Mongolia was a satellite of the Soviet Union, Mongolians were forced to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet, and it just kinda stuck.

Anyway, the Mongolian language is the most well-known member of the Mongolic language family, which itself is (according to some linguists but denied by others) a member of the larger Altaic language family, which includes the Turkic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese languages.

Mongolian is apparently a very difficult language to learn, not helped at all by the fact that it’s not really similar to any other language. So no matter what your native language is, trying to learn Mongolian as a foreign language will suck. Yay!

I’ve decided that learning at least a little bit of the language before I leave for Mongolia would be a good idea, although I haven’t gotten much further than struggling to comprehend the alphabet. But that’s a post for another time!


*Obviously there are some people in Mongolia who can speak Chinese or Russian, just like there are people in any country who can speak a foreign language. Here I’m referring to the national language of Mongolia.

**The Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet is only used in the country of Mongolia. People in Inner Mongolia (which, as you’ll remember, is part of China) still use the traditional Mongolian script.

Random Mongolia Fact #6: Sports in Mongolia

A few days ago, my family went to a hockey game (yes, ice hockey does exist in some parts of the South), and my dad asked me if hockey was a popular sport in Mongolia, to which I replied, “Uhhhhhh…”

It turns out Mongolia does have a national ice hockey team, but hockey would hardly be considered a “popular” sport there (note: sharing a border with Russia does not automatically make hockey a big deal in some countries). In actuality, the three traditional Mongolian sports are still the most popular and ARE a big deal: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. These three sports are the highlights of Naadam, the main national festival in Mongolia.

Which itself is kinda a big deal.

Which itself is kind of a big deal.

Mongolian wrestling is the most popular of the three sports. During Naadam, hundreds of wrestlers from across the country compete in the main competition in Ulaanbaatar, while additional smaller competitions take place in each aimag (province) and sum (district) around the country.

And yes, they all wear that outfit.

Only the manliest of men can pull this off.

Only the manliest of men can pull this off.

And the wrestlers start very young:

Dawwwwww, can I keep him?

Dawwwwww, can I keep him?

Horse racing is another of the sports featured during Naadam, as horseback riding is central to Mongolian culture. Unlike Western horse racing , where races are typically shorter sprints (up to about 2 km) around a track, Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event (with races 15 to 30 km long). Also, the jockeys are typically children between the ages of 5 and 13.



Recently, girls have been allowed to participate in the horse racing events right alongside the boys.

Mongol Derby 2013

And finally, there’s archery.

Both men and women participate in the archery events at Naadam.


Like horseback riding, archery has a strong tradition in Mongolia (think back to Genghis Khan’s army). Although mounted archery is not as widespread today in Mongolia (or anywhere really) as it once was (for example, at most Naadam festivals, the archery and horse-riding competitions are separate), there has recently been a desire to bring back the tradition.

Mounted Archery

Which is great, because if I haven’t learned to shoot an arrow while riding a horse like Legolas by the end of my service in Mongolia, I will be extremely disappointed.

Random Mongolia Fact #4: Mongolia vs. Inner Mongolia

For the record, Inner Mongolia is not actually part of the country Mongolia. Inner Mongolia (officially the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) is one of five autonomous regions in China, similar to other Chinese provinces but with more legislative rights and with a higher population of a particular minority ethnic group (e.g., Mongols in Inner Mongolia).

Inner Mongolia in red

Inner Mongolia in red

Mongolian is an official language in Inner Mongolia (along with Chinese), but it is written in the Mongolian script rather than the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet currently used in the country of Mongolia. I’ll probably do another post in the near-ish future regarding the Mongolian language and writing system(s).

Random Mongolia Fact #3: Weather in Mongolia

In honor of the snowpocalypse currently terrorizing the southeastern US…

Georgia: where we wear rain boots when it snows because no one owns snow boots

Georgia: where we wear rain boots when it snows because no one owns snow boots

…I thought I would do a post about weather in Mongolia. All I really knew about the climate in Mongolia prior to learning I would be living there for over 2 years was that it’s COLD!!! Like, regularly-dropping-to-minus-40-degrees-in-the-winter cold! And considering I’ve only ever lived in Atlanta and New Orleans (cities not exactly known for subzero temperatures), that’s really, really cold to me!

"Nope, I'm good. A little frostbite never hurt anyone..."

“Nope, I’m good. A little frostbite never hurt anyone…”

The extreme cold is due in part to the fact that Mongolia is so far inland and also at a high altitude (much of the country consists of plateaus and mountains). But it’s not always cold! In fact, temperatures in the summer can get up to 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) in parts of the Gobi desert and up to 91 degrees F (33 degrees C) in the capital of Ulaanbaatar.  But, since the summers are short compared to the long, cold winters, the average annual temperature in Ulaanbaatar is still 26.8 degrees F (-2.9 degrees C), making it the world’s coldest capital city!

And although there isn’t too much annual precipitation in Mongolia, I’m pretty sure their lives don’t come to a complete standstill when it does snow. Unlike some other places I know…

Traffic in Atlanta at the sight of even a flurry of snow

Traffic in Atlanta at the sight of even a flurry of snow

Random Mongolia Fact #2: Mongolian Geography

For the geography-challenged among you, Mongolia is here:

Mongolia Map

Sandwiched between giant Russia and China it looks pretty small, but Mongolia is actually the 19th largest country in the world, and it’s the 2nd largest landlocked country (after Kazakhstan there to the west).

In addition, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country* in the world (with a population density of just 1.77 people/sq.km).

*There are a few places that have a lower population density than Mongolia, but they are dependent territories like Greenland (which is part of Denmark), and not independent nations.

(And yes, I know that was more than one fact. Deal with it.)

Random Mongolia Fact #1: The People of Mongolia

Considering that your average person really doesn’t know that much about Mongolia (other than all that stuff about some guy called Genghis Khan), and that I am apparently now the de facto expert on Mongolia among my family and friends, I thought I would occasionally post a random fact about Mongolia as I begin learning about the country in preparation for my Peace Corps journey.

So while visiting my grandfather earlier today, he asked me what you call a person from Mongolia. My first thought was “Mongolian,” but there’s also the term “Mongol,” so I wasn’t 100% sure.

I later did some research and found that the demonym for the people of Mongolia is Mongolian. On the other hand, the term Mongol refers to the ethno-linguistic group that 95% of Mongolians belong to, which would explain why the terms are often used interchangeably.

So most of the people who live in Mongolia are ethnic Mongols, but Mongols can (and do) live in other countries (such as China and Russia). Likewise, Mongolians (people living in Mongolia) include the Mongol majority but also some smaller ethnic minority groups (such as Kazakhs and Tuvans).