Declination: A Guide to Mongolian Yurt Etiquette

If you’re lucky enough to be packing your bags for Mongolia this summer, the likelihood is you’ll be spending a night or three in a ger, the traditional felt tents of the nation’s nomads from which we get the word “yurt.” Ah, the magic of sleeping in one of these fabulous constructions, the bittersweet taste of airag (fermented mare’s milk), the sight of a million glittering stars peering through the ger roof. But beware! While Mongolians are legendarily hospitable, they are also extremely superstitious, and life in the ger is bound in a complex web of beliefs and traditions. So you don’t offend your hosts or the gods, here are few pointers as to how to successfully navigate your first ger experience.

  • When you first approach the ger, call out “Nokhoi khor” which literally means, “Hold the dog”. This is the Mongolian equivalent of knocking on the door and will save you being savaged by the resident guard dog.
  • Go to the lefthand side of a ger when you enter; the righthand side is the domain of the family.
  • Be respectful – don’t take photos without asking, don’t touch things in the ger and don’t have long conversations in a language your hosts can’t understand.
  • The first thing that will happen is you’ll be offered food and drink, most likely dairy products (dried curds), salty tea, or airag. As gastronomically unfamiliar as this may be to you, never refuse. Even if you touch the tea to your lips and take a tiny bite of the curds, do try something as flatly refusing will cause your hosts offense.
  • If you are male, you may well be offered the snuff box by your host. If you want some, empty a little bit onto your hand and inhale. Even if you don’t want the snuff, just say yes and go through the actions of taking and inhaling some. Occasionally, the snuffbox may be empty. In this case, pretend there is some and again, go through the motions of taking some and look appreciative. Snuff boxes are carried by almost all Mongolian men in the countryside.
  • Every ger will have an altar at the back. Don’t sit with your back or feet towards it.
  • If you have sleeves, keep them rolled down so as not to expose your wrists, particularly when shaking hands or taking food or drink. If you have short sleeves, pretend to pull them down as a symbol of respect.
  • Always accept food or drink with your right hand (or with both if the dish or cup is heavy), with the left hand supporting the right elbow.
  • Take off your gloves when shaking hands.
  • Sit cross-legged with your feet underneath you.
  • Leave a small gift other than money for your hosts.
  • If you accidentally kick a Mongolian’s feet, immediately shake their hand. This is not refined to gers – you should do this even if you are walking down the street in Ulaanbaatar.
  • When offered some vodka, dip the ring finger of your right hand into the glass, and lightly flick a drop (not too much – vodka is also sacred) once towards the sky (for Tengri, the god of the sky), once in the air (to the wind), and once to the ground, for Gadzer, god of the earth. If you don’t want any vodka, go through the customs anyway, put the same finger to your forehead, say thanks, and return the glass to the table.
  • Don’t lean against a support column or wall of the ger as they represent stability. You might also confuse a column for the stove pipe, which will burn you terribly if you lean on it.
  • Don’t whistle inside a ger.
  • Don’t stand on or lean over the ger threshold.
  • Fire is sacred to Mongolians so don’t throw rubbish or water on it.
  • It’s disrespectful to walk in front of an older person, so try and avoid doing this.
  • Neither touch other people’s hats nor leave your hat on the floor.
  • Every family will have an urga, a long wooden lasso pole. It’s very bad luck to walk over one of these when they are lying on the ground.
  • Milk is also sacred to the Mongols, so endeavor not to spill any.
  • Don’t touch people (including children) on the head or hold their shoulder, it’s believed to take away that person’s good luck.

However, if you do spill milk, walk over an urga and pat the children on the head, your hosts will understand you’re foreign and won’t throw you out in disgust. But a little perceived effort to respect the nomad’s customs will get you a long way and make for an even better stay on the steppe.

Ants Bolingbroke-Kent writes The Itinerant. Ger photo by Shutterstock

Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.

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