Mongolia’s history and culture date back millennia, and are based on the nomadic lifestyle which continue almost unchanged into the 21st century. Once the heart of the great empire carved by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the country saw the Imperial Chinese, Russian Empire and Soviet Communists come and go before achieving independence without sacrificing its traditional rural way of living.
The history of Mongolia is an impressive tale of the continuation of pastoral nomadism in its almost original form, from as early as 4,000 years ago up to the present day, along with the great empire-builders who straddled this isolated land. Almost all of the major Mongolian confederations found themselves in conflict with Imperial China, the first being the Xiongnu raiders who forced the construction of the Great Wall 2,000 years ago with its 300,000 military guards. After the fall of Xiongnu, the Mongol Rouran formed a massive empire that lasted for decades until their defeat by the Uyghur Khaganate in 840 AD. This pattern repeated itself until the late 12th century.
This iconic time in Asian and history spawned one of its greatest and most merciless leaders, the Mongol Genghis Khan, born of the chaos in the region. The great Khan ruled with an iron fist over Mongolia and a massive empire stretching from Vietnam and the Gulf of Oman in the south to Siberia in the north, and Korea and Poland in the east and west. The Mongol Empire was the largest in history and upon his death, was split into four sub-divisions, with one, the Great Khaanate, including China to become the Chinese Yuan Dynasty under his grandson, Kublai Khan.
Kublai Khan reigned as the Yuan Dynasty Emperor in Beijing and was succeeded by his son, cementing a century of dynasty rule until Chinese armies reclaimed their country in 1368, forcing the Mongols back to their homeland and forming the Ming Dynasty. Genghis Khan’s original capital, Karakorum, was sacked by the Chinese, but can still be seen today. Chinese invasions continued throughout the Ming Dynasty, adding to the misery caused by power struggles between various local groups until the early 16th century when the land was reunited by Batumongke Dayan Khan.
Several decades later, a meeting between powerful Altan Khan and the Tibetan Dalai Lama sparked the second introduction of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia, with Abtai Khan of the Khalkha converting and founding Erdene Zuu Monastery in 1585. The last Mongol Khan to rule the country was Ligden Khan, who found himself in conflict with the Chinese over his armies’ looting border cities. Most tribes were alienated by his actions and he died in 1634 while fleeing into Tibet with the Chinese forces in hot pursuit. Two years later, most Mongolian tribes had capitulated to Imperial China and in 1691, all of Mongolia was ruled from Beijing by the Qing Dynasty Manchu Emperor.
The Qing Dynasty retained its grip on the country until the Last Emperor in Beijing was overthrown in 1911, thus ending a millennia of Chinese Imperialism and power. By this time, corruption and mismanagement had wrecked Mongolia and forced its people into poverty. Its ruler, Bogd Khaan, declared independence in 1911 for the region known as Outer Mongolia, although Inner Mongolia was, and still remains, a Chinese vassal state. China wasn’t about to give up its former possession and invaded again in 1919, immediately after the Russian Revolution.
Russia followed in 1920 and, five months later, the Chinese had been removed and Mongolian forces, supported by the Bolsheviks, took over. The following 70 years were spent with close ties to the Soviet Union, its results bringing partial destruction to Buddhism, many of its monasteries and a large number of its monks during the Stalin purges. Mongolia’s Communist years as the Peoples’ Republic, with its attendant personality cults and occupation by Soviet troops, continued until Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost era led to a peaceful democratic revolution, independence and the 1992 Constitution.
The major influences on Mongolian culture are the millennia-old nomadic way of life and the esoteric, ritualistic Tibetan Buddhism which became the dominant religion in the 17th century, edging out previous shamanistic beliefs. Other notable influences over the ages include the Chinese and, since the 20th century, Russian culture. The felt ger (yurt) is a symbol of the country and its peoples’ national identity, with a large part of the population still living in the traditional circular tents, even within the border of the capital.
Mongolians are superstitious people, with good or bad omens taken very seriously. For example, negative speech is believed to attract ill-fortune or the unwanted attention of a malicious shaman, and children’s names are believed to impart destiny, fate and character. Hospitality is taken for granted due to its life-saving importance in the harsh winters, and ancient, epic warriors and heroes such as Genghis Khan are still greatly respected and admired. Mongolians are people of the horse, with riding in their blood and, in the steppes, children are put on horses at a very early age.
The country’s ancient musical tradition continues virtually unchanged in modern times, with iconic "throat-singing" a key element. Costumes are still worn in many places, with adjustments according to the tribe of the wearers. Chess, one of the world’s oldest games, is popular here, and Mongolia officially supports its traditional medicine practitioners, also highly regarded and developed in China up to the present day. Travelers visiting nomad settlements will unintentionally break taboos and make cultural gaffes from the minute they arrive, but the locals invariably understand and make the necessary allowances in accordance with their tradition of hospitality.