Same Same, But Different: Life for the Nomads of Mongolia Today

Many recognise Mongolia as the abode of nomads.

But the term ‘nomad’ often brings to mind images of a certain kind. And many a time, these mental snapshots portray a life seemingly detached from the broader world. Could this be because of the way the media tends to portray these nomads? Maybe. Or perhaps it's the classic scenario of "you won't know until you see it for yourself."

Yet, your mental image may not be entirely off the mark. Nomadic culture in Mongolia still thrives in gers, as they hunt with eagles and wear traditional deels. But amid these enduring traditions and rituals, a wave of modernity is sweeping across the region. Gender norms are evolving, and technology is reshaping lifestyles.

In the last five years, Nomadic Road has explored some of the remotest parts of Mongolia on numerous expeditions. Each visit has shattered preconceived notions for travellers, revealing the intricate dance between modernity and tradition.

Here’s a photo essay—a curated selection from our archives, celebrating the intricate yet straightforward, ancient yet contemporary, and traditional yet modern nomads of Mongolia.

Adaptability is second nature to the nomads. Faced with sudden sandstorms or unexpected rains, they seamlessly shift gears (and gers) to navigate nature's unpredictability—a trait unchanged over time. In the contemporary world, they've embraced horsepower over horses to shepherd their cattle.

A common scene in the countryside, a semblance of Mongolian nomadic life: as you overland through the expansive landlocked country, you encounter small hamlets providing access to fuel and essential supplies. During one such encounter, we met an elderly local riding his bike to purchase groceries for his family. 

In a local nomadic family's ger near Orkhon Valley, Nomadic Road travellers witness a timeless gesture. Men exchange small snuff bottles, inhale their contents, and pass them back. This was, is, and perhaps always will be a symbol of mutual respect in the Mongolian nomad culture.

As natural horse riders, Mongols, as young as this kid right here, excel at rearing these mighty animals and learning to hold their reins. In an attempt to recreate Naadam, Mongolia’s national festival, we engaged local villagers in various sports such as horse riding, archery, and wrestling—markers of Mongolian nomadic lifestyle even today.

Mongolia’s nomadic life holds no bar for age. This young talent appeared during our local horse race event, insisting on showcasing his riding prowess. Who were we to deny the budding maestro?

Wrestling has a rich history deeply ingrained in the Mongolian nomadic culture, transcending sport to become a way of life—a test of strength, courage, and skill. This cultural gem was also part of the private Naadam festival we organised.

The locals united to assist us in organizing the exclusive Naadam festival, many of them hailing from nearby villages. While some arrived on bikes instead of horseback, their presence was a testament to the joy these festivities continue to bring to the pastoral Mongols.

Offering a glimpse into the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle, this image captures the quintessential scene of nomads in the countryside. Amidst a dusty open road, the shepherd finds moments of bliss with cattle as companions.

Getting to know people is often best done over a hearty meal and a campfire. During our 2023 winter expedition, we lodged in log cabins near a village. A local family hosted a Mongolian barbecue dinner around a campfire, offering a warm welcome from kids and adults alike.

The Kazakh eagle hunters of Western Mongolia inhabit one of the country's most secluded regions. For centuries, they've employed golden eagles for winter prey hunting. While supermarkets are now nearby, their way of life preserves fragments from the past. Eagle hunting continues to thrive as a vital tradition in Sagsai village, home to many skilled hunters.

Yet another thrilling aspect of the eagle hunting tradition unfolds as men vie for the coveted prize—in this case, a silk scarf belonging to a local woman.

Mongolian tradition is incomplete without archery, a cherished sport of the nomads. They are some of the finest archers in the world—adept at hitting the bullseye even on horseback.

An archer’s bow no longer discriminates. While traditionally practised by men, the current generation encourages young girls to take up archery and eagle hunting and carry the tradition forward. Who knows? Changes like these may ensure the survival of these ancient practices in the Mongolian nomadic culture.

Mongolia's throat singing is a captivating art form that’s weathered bans and Soviet-era suppression. But it resurged in the 1980s, reclaiming its place as a cherished national tradition. To commemorate the last day of our Mongolian adventure, we treated our travellers to an unforgettable sonic experience with some of the country's finest throat singers and musicians.

Preparing to hit the road after a restful night at a local ger, a gracious woman in the Mongolian national costume, deel, sprinkled milk water on our tires and vehicles. In Mongolian nomadic culture, milk and milk tea hold sacred significance. Traditionally carried out by women, this ceremony bid us a safe adieu.

Perhaps soon, men will start performing this ceremony too. Who knows?