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Small town life Mongolia

Experience Small Town Life In Mongolia

Small towns in Mongolia often look bleak and unproductive and barely offer a hint at the flow of peoples and the culture that have helped to form them. But, communities, both stationary and nomadic, have existed in these locations for centuries. 

Although most have an extensive history, the buildings you see apart from temple or monastery buildings were mostly constructed in the 1950s onwards – creating the small towns that our guests now experience.

‘Beyond the capital city, facilities in the local towns are dilapidated shells of another era.’ (Living with Herds by Natasha Fijn )

Many were built and owned by state enterprises or cooperatives during the collectivisation of agriculture under the USSR. Other buildings are mainly public service buildings including schools, hospitals, factories and apartments.

‘The town is frontier-like. It summons a full stop our of the infinite steppe.’ (Rough Magic, Lara Prior-Palmer)

Why a blog post on experiencing small town life in Mongolia? Mongolia is frequently depicted as a pristine untouched wilderness little changed since the time of Chinggis Khan. But this is not 21st Century Mongolia – this is stereotype or clichéd Mongolia.  The traditional culture still remains but there is a drive for modernity and progress.

Our trips focus on 21st Century Mongolia – we try to provide a ‘realistic’ overview rather than that portrayed by guidebooks and other tour companies. To just want to experience the life of the traditional nomadic way of life is to ignore a majority of the population. We’re proud of the long-term local community partnerships we have formed with all spectrums of Mongolian society – from a philanthropist in Ulaanbaatar, to female Kazakh eagle huntresses and also the Tsaatan reindeer community. However, Mongolians live in the cities of Darkhan and Erdenet. They also live in the other provincial centres as well as the smaller town and rural communities. There are teachers and Christians and those with disabilities and policemen and musicians and military personnel and accountants and miners and geologists and drivers and shop owners and construction workers and street cleaners – they are all Mongolians.

We ask, don’t come in search of what you term the authentic Mongolia. Discard the perceptions that perpetuate the stereotypes of Mongolia and aim for a more true encounter of real life. We ask you to ditch your preconceptions based on what you’ve read and watched. Instead, come with an open mind and be challenged, surprised and often delighted.

 

Gimpil Darjaalan Khiid, Erdenedalai, Dundgobi Aimag Mongolia - small town life in Mongolia

Gimpil Darjaalan Khiid, Erdenedalai, Dundgobi Aimag Mongolia

Most travellers are keen to get out into the more rural areas but Mongolia’s small towns often provide natural stop-over points on trips and Mongolian small-town life provides a distinct contrast with nomadic life on the steppe – I always thoroughly enjoy the juxtapositions that small-town life creates.

Each of Mongolia’s provinces has a capital with the term aimag given to both a province and the provincial capital. Each of Mongolia’s aimags has its own character and is worthwhile exploring, even if only for a few hours.

It is possible to reach all the provincial capitals and some of the larger towns from Ulaanbaatar via the public bus network although not all of the main road network is paved and sleeper bus services remain limited. If the thought of the 1700km Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii public bus ride fills you with dread, then consider one of the shorter bus options such as Kharkhorin, Tsetserleg or Murun.

 

Small town life in Mongolia

Khutag Undur in Khovsgol Aimag – the centre for EcoSoum (https://www.ecosoum.org/). The organization aims to empower its inhabitants so they can make their soum (village/district) a model of autonomous and sustainable community that can inspire the whole country.

Apart from Ulaanbaatar – Mongolia’s capital city, which has a particular administrative status – Mongolia is divided into 330 soums (districts). Each of these soums possesses a single village, called soum-center. Mongolia is the size of Western Europe and including Ulaanbaatar, the country thus counts in total only 331 towns and villages scattered homogeneously throughout its huge territory.

 

Small town life Mongolia

The small community of Tsengel is Mongolia’s westernmost town. It features in the travelogue Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh (the book describes the year the author spent living in Tsengel located alongside the Khovd River framed by ‘muted mountains’ and under an ‘immense bruised sky’). Tsengel has a tough and stark beauty about it and feels like the end of the world where, as writer Waugh writes, life has ‘been whittled down to its essence, like the core of a fruit.’ A majority of visitors pass through on their way to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park but by spending time here, you’ll get to experience not only the daily reality for a lot of rural Mongolians but also how the landscapes have forged the strength of character of the local people. In the words of Waugh, ‘the mere fact of their survival here is a triumph of the human spirit.’

How To Experience Small Town Life In Mongolia

  • For an overview to each provincial capital, find the local provincial museum. Although small, often the curator is enthusiastic when international visitors arrive. Yes, language can be a barrier but enthusiasm wins through.

 

  • All aimags will usually have a viewpoint (nearly all generically called ‘zaisan’) and a square where you will typically find statues of famous aimag wrestlers (or a statue of a large Mongolian boot and a watermelon in Khovd). The squares are where locals of all ages come to take the air. They are worth spending time in, especially in the evening and you may well be approached by local students wanting to practise their English or who just want to interact with a foreigner.

 

Ulgii - the provincial capital of western Mongolia

The view from the viewpoint in Ölgii, the provincial capital of Bayan Ölgii Aimag.

 

  • Each aimag has its own market. The markets are not tourist markets – they sell products specifically aimed at the locals – but they provide an interesting insight into daily life with sections for dairy produce, ger furniture and clothing including hand made deels. You can often find beautiful, high-quality material for sale including silk. Most markets shut one day per week and often don’t get really going until late morning – 11 at the earliest, often later. Good markets to explore include Arvaikheer (Övörkhangai), Tsetserleg (Arkhangai) and Murun (Khovsgol). “The market in Ölgii (Bayan Ölgii) is also worth exploring for traditional Kazakh items.

Mongolian boots

 

We offer a range of Mongolia Homestay experiences where you as our guest is hosted by families we work in long-term local community partnership with. Although none of our homestay experiences is in a town, the experience allows you to slow down, connect with people from a different culture, share daily experiences with them – such as visiting the local small town – and soak up life from another perspective as you eat, sleep and travel the local way. Get in touch for details.

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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