33 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About Mongolia

Picture of 33 Fun Facts About Mongolia

Photo by Ariungoo Batzorig on Unsplash

1. Nearly Everyone Lives in The City

It is estimated that 1.6 million Mongolians live in the capital city Ulaanbaatar, which translates to roughly 50% of the entire population. It is down to work opportunities, lack of infrastructure outside of Ulaanbaatar and extremely bad weather during early 2000 has resulted in the mass migration since the mid-90s.

2. Second Largest Landlocked Country

Mongolia is the 2nd largest landlocked country in the world after Kazakhstan. Sandwiched between the two giants of Russia to the north and China to the south. The nearest third neighbouring country is Kazakhstan to the west and it is separated by only 50km…so near but so far.

3. Largest Country by Land Area Per Capita

Mongolia is the least densely populated country thereby making it the largest country in the world when it comes to the land area per capita. Not to be confused with Greenland and Falklands as it is a territory and not a country.

4. Largest Land Empire 

Mongolian Empire once ruled the largest contiguous land in the world (in case you didn’t know) in the 13-14 century. As with everything, good things never last forever as the empire size shrunk to an even smaller size than before the empire. Nevertheless, Mongolia is still quite a big country, and it is currently ranked the 18th largest in the world. You can fit 5 European countries inside Mongolia, such as Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and Poland. Therefore, size is no longer an issue for Mongolians, but they do complain about missing out on a seaside and a port connection to the rest of the World.

5. Both handed drive

Officially Mongolia drives on the right-hand side, however, the majority of the cars on the road are left-hand. This is the result of the influx of cheap second-hand vehicles imported from Japan.

6. Oldest National Park in the World

Mongolia is home to the oldest national park in the world, the Bogd Khan Uul National Park. It predates the Yellowstone National Park by over 100 years. Best of all it is located in the capital city Ulaanbaatar, so you don’t need to go too far for a hike up and tick it off your bucket list.

7. City with Communist Name

The capital city was formerly called the Urga (Örgöö) until the declaration of the Mongolian People's Republic in 1924. Ulaanbaatar means ‘Red Hero’, and the name was kept even after the fall of communism.

8. Chinggis (Genghis) Mania

Once upon a time, not everything was called Chinggis ‘something’. Only after the fall of communism, the name was safe to use, and it was applied to pretty much everything including the airport was renamed Chinggis Khaan International Airport, there is Chinggis Beer, Chinggis Vodka, Chinggis City, Chinggis Hotel and so on. Even the famous Sukbaatar Square was briefly changed to Chinggis Square for 3 years, but thanks to some common sense it was reverted…. phew. Jokes aside, the reason why everything is called Chinggis was to stop other countries from claiming the Chinggis name/brand as their own.

9. The Biggest Equestrian Statue

Mongolia holds the record for having the biggest equestrian horse statue in the world, and you might have guessed, it is called the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue and Complex.

10. Love of Dairy 

Mongolians love all things related to dairy. Breakfast is made predominantly of soft cheese, milk tea, clotted cream. Day snacks and refreshments consist of different types of dry curds, fermented horse milk and natural yoghurt. Mongolians are probably the highest consumers of dairy products in all of Asia or perhaps in the world (per capita), and there is no word for lactose-intolerant in the dictionary.

11. Vegan Nightmare

If you are vegan it is probably better to stay away from the Mongolian countryside. There are only 3 things that exist in the countryside - meat, dairy and wheat flour. However, farming and locally produced vegetables are in high demand as the country imports most of its fruit and vegetable consumption from abroad.

12. Writing System

Officially Mongolia uses 2 different writing systems, these are known as the traditional Mongolian Script and the Cyrillic Script. The Mongolian Script was the first-ever writing system for the Mongolian language introduced around the time of the Mongol Empire in 1204. The Cyrillic Script was introduced in 1946 and it has since become the dominant writing system in the country. After the breakup of communism in the early 90s Mongolia has been trying to re-introduce the Mongolian Script as the main writing system without much success.

13. Largest Desert in Asia

Gobi Desert is the biggest in Asia, spanning from Southern Mongolia to Northern China and it covers an area of 1,295,000 km2.

14. Endangered Animals Native to Mongolia

Mongolia is blessed with many different animals that are predominately found in Mongolia. These include the Takhi (Przewalski's horse), the last surviving wild horses, 2 humped Bactrian Camel and its cousin the Wild Bactrian Camel, the monster river fish called Taimen (Siberian Salmon), and the extremely rare and endangered Gobi Bear (Mazaalai).

15. Livestock Outnumber the People

From the 2020 annual census, Mongolia had 67.1 million livestock compared to only 3.2 million people, and it is the biggest asset Mongolia has other than mining.

16. There Are Two Mongolia’s 

There are 2 Mongolia’s known as Outer Mongolia (independent) and Inner Mongolia (autonomous region in China). Outer Mongolia is commonly referred to as Mongolia because it is an independent country, however, the official name is Mongol Uls which translates to the State of Mongolia. The classification comes from the time during the Qing Empire, Inner Mongolia was directly controlled by the Qing and it was the closest to its headquarters in Beijing. However, Outer Mongolia was further away on the other side of the Gobi Desert and it had a greater degree of self-government, therefore, it was referred to as the outer, hence why it was referred to as Outer Mongolia. However, Mongolians from both sides refer to each other as Ar Mongol and Uvur Mongol, from the context of standing at the north (Ar) or south (Uvur) side of a place e.g Ger (yurt) or mountain.

17. Country of Contrasting Lifestyles

Each geographic area of Mongolia offers unique lifestyle and way of life shaped by the terrian, climate and animals. In the western part of Mongolia roam the famous Kazakh eagle hunters, towards northern Mongolia the tsatan people herd their reindeers, in the vast steppe of the central and eastern Mongolia the horse is the king, and in the great Gobi of southern Mongolia camels are the preferred animals for the nomads.

18. Archaeologists Paradise

Mongolia has many hidden treasures scattered around its vast land, and the modern-day Indiana Jones movie was inspired by Roy Chapman who ventured to Mongolia in the hunt for treasures and found the first-ever fossilised dinosaur eggs. Apart from the big extinct lizards, there are many petroglyphs, deer stones, cave paintings, grave mounds, ruins, and the chance to uncover the Genghis Khan’s tomb.

19. Mongolian Lock

It is a unique key lock system created by Mongolians and it resembles a mini version of the Avdar (wooden storage chest). The design of the lock is unique and when torn apart it looks like a maze. Watch video about the Mongolian lock.

22. Horsehead Fiddle (Morin Khuur)

Morin Khuur is the national musical instrument of Mongolia which has a wooden horse head with strings made of real horses’ tail hair. The strings are made from stallion and mare's hair to create the unique sound. It is put on the list of UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, which means it is cool and you should hear it and buy it as a souvenir when you travel to Mongolia.

23. The 1 Ship Navy 

Mongolia has a single navy ship/tugboat called Sukhbaatar (3rd incarnation) that is used to patrol the Khuvsgul Lake in the Khuvsgul province. Since Mongolia does not see much naval action the ship has mainly been used for local tourism and moving cargo between Khatgal and Khankh these days. Oddly the real navy uses speedboats in the Buir Nuur lake in Dornod (province) as it shares a natural eastern border with China.

24. Most Northerly Sand Dune in Mongolia

Altan Els (Golden Sands) in Uvs and Zavkhan province is claimed by Mongolians to be the most northerly dune in the World and lies within the Uvs Nuur Strictly Protected Area. However, the most northerly dunes are the Athabasca Sand Dunes in Canada, but we aren’t complaining because who doesn’t like a great story.

25. Gobi Is Not Just a Desert

When you think of Gobi, images of sands and big dunes come to mind however the ecology is much more diverse. Yes, it does have sand, but it is a semi-arid desert consisting of canyons, mountains, lakes, wetlands, grasslands and it is thriving with many different mammals, migratory birds, flora and fauna. You will be asking the question, ‘is this a desert’ when visiting the Vulture Valley (Yoliin Am) in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park.

26. National Sport of Mongolia

The national sport of Mongolia is wrestling (Bukh) and is closely followed by horse racing. Particularly the wrestlers are respected like royalty when they go on to become National Grand Champion. The rich history and tradition of Mongolian wrestling have resulted in several Mongolian born wrestlers becoming Yokozuna (highest rank) in Japanese Sumo wrestling and have been dominating the sport for almost 20 years. The ordinary Mongolians have a simple expression for this, ‘meat vs sushi’.

27. Buddhist Inspired Ger’s

Most Mongolian Ger is heavily influenced by Buddhism, such as the crown (toono) representing the wheel of dharma, and the choice of colours (orange), carving and ornaments are all in the style of Buddhist Monastery. So, if you happen to walk inside a ger pay close attention to the details.

28. Marmots are Mongolian Delicacy

Even though Marmots is commonly associated with causing bubonic plague outbreaks, it hasn’t stopped the Mongolians from enjoying the Marmot Boodog BBQ cuisine for centuries. Only recently in the past 20 years, the government started to ban hunting of Marmots due to the increased risk of plague outbreaks with modern transport, and to sustain the population of the Marmots as it's the natural pray for wolves.

29. The Largest Animal in Mongolia

Moose is the largest animal in Mongolia which measures up to 300cm in length, 230cm in height and up to 500kg in weight. Sadly, it is an extremely endangered animal and can only be found in the northern Khuvsgul province.

30. Mongolians Don’t Have Surname

Mongolians only have one name throughout their life and don’t have such thing as a surname, instead, patronymics are used. For example, if Dorj had a father called Bayar, he would be called Bayar(iin) Dorj, and if Dorj had a daughter Naran, she would be called Dorj(iin) Naran. Thankfully to avoid confusion with the foreign naming convention/passport model patronymics is now used as a temporary surname. This is an example of how Dorj’s family would look like when submitting their details for the foreign holiday:

  • Bayar Munkhjav (father of Dorj)
  • Altanchimeg Ganzorig (mother of Dorj)
  • Dorj Bayar (father)
  • Saran Batmunkh (mother)
  • Naran Dorj (daughter)
  • Bilguun Dorj (son)

31. Taking Snuff (Khoorog) is a Big Thing in Mongolia

Smokeless tobacco snuffing is still a big thing in Mongolia, it has become part of the greeting customs since its introduction to Mongolia over 200 years ago through the Qing Empire. The snuff box/bottle which contains the snuff is called Khoorog, and it is on the must-have accessories list for every Mongolian man.

It is customary to greet with a snuff bottle and inhale the smokeless tobacco through the nose. The ritual can happen anywhere anytime and is usually performed by men when greeting and exchange each other’s snuff bottles. In a gathering of family or friends snuff bottle is passed around and snuffed by everyone including kids.

32. 9911 Status Symbol

When Mobicom introduced the first mobile phones service in Mongolia during the mid-90s it offered customers the choice to buy the sim card service on a monthly contract or pay-as-you-go. The mobile number starting with 9911 was offered to those opting for the monthly contract until 2000 when all were claimed. As the monthly contracts required documents and proof of financial stability to pay the bill at the end of each month regardless of the cost, only the wealthy could afford it and it has been associated with wealth ever since.

Fast forward 20 years, it is now worth over $30,000USD to buy the 9911 number on the black market as demand increased due to more wealthy people and fewer 9911 numbers to go around for everyone. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people exchanging their luxury car or a house for the 9911 number. Those who have the 9911 number wield greater status, privileges and sometimes it opens up more opportunities for doing business or getting your kids into a better school...the list can go on.

33. Coldest Capital City

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world with an average winter temperature of -30C and it is not uncommon to see temperatures reach -40C. The winters are long in Mongolia, and temperatures usually fall below -10C towards the end of October, and by December temperatures reach -30C. January is the coldest month and you wish for holiday to the North Pole as its warmer. Gradually the weather starts to warm up after the Tsagaan Sar (Lunar Moon) festival late Febraury or beginning of March. Snow and cold weather will linger on through the Spring and snow in June is not uncommon.