In 1918, when the population was 648,100 and the density was 0.41 person per sq km, Mongolia faced a precarious future. The population has increased to about 2.3 million, but this still only represents 1.4 persons per sq km.
Inspired by classic Mongolian nationalism, the government actively promoted population growth, which now stands at 2.58% annually – the highest in North-East Asia and one of the highest in the world. Until recently, Mongolians were offered all sorts of incentives and subsidies to reproduce. Women who produced five children were awarded the Order of Glorious Motherhood Second Class, and those with eight got the Order of Glorious Motherhood First Class. Couples with many children received cash awards, whereas those who remained childless were penalized with higher taxes. The distribution of contraceptives and abortion were made illegal.
The pastoral economy could not sustain a large population increase without greater competition for grazing land and damage to the environment. Some of Mongolia’s rapidly growing workforce was exported to Siberia, where labourers were badly needed, but the majority wound up in the cities. The government actively encouraged migration to urban areas in the belief that this would increase industrialization and productivity. However, these days, there is a severe labour shortage in agriculture. (Half the population still lives in a handful of urban centers.)
In the early 1990s, the government was unable to meet the needs or urban Mongolians, and many returned to relatives in the countryside. Nutrition dropped to bare survival level, even for soldiers, and child deaths rose sharply.
Families are now being encouraged to take up farming again. The punitive taxes for remaining childless have been removed, and there are no longer any prizes for prolific reproduction. The international aid agencies promote family planning, but Mongolians, aware of how outnumbered they are on all sides, are reluctant to curb family size. Couples can now have as many of as few children as they wish. The only means of birth control available to some Mongolians today (but very rarely in the countryside) are condoms and abortion, both of which were prohibited under communism.
More Mongolians live outside of Mongolia than in it – about 3.5 million in China and nearly a million in Russia. Even along the Caspian Sea, thousands of kilometers from Mongolia, there are descendants of Mongolian armies. Those armies impressed Europe with Mongol unity, but throughout history nomads have usually preferred to go their own way, scattered across a huge land, with their primary loyalty being to their tribe.
The great majority (about 86%) of Mongolians are Khalkh Mongols. The other major ethnic group, the Kazaks, make up about 6% (130,000) of the population. Most Kazaks live in western Mongolia, mainly in Bayan-Olgii aimag, but their numbers are decreasing as more and more return to Kazakstan.
Barga. Originally from the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, they number about 2000 and live in remote pockets of Dornod and Tov.
Bayad. Once a powerful race; about 40,000 live in Uvs.
Buryat. Also found in Siberia, they number about 47,500 and congregate in the northern provinces of Bulgan, Dornod, Khentii and Selenge.
Dariganga. About 32,300 live in southern Sukhbaatar.
Darkhad. Descended from the Turks; there are about 15,000 in Khovsgol.
Khoton. Of Turkish descent; about 6000 live in Uvs.
Myangad. Also of Turkish descent; about 5000 live in Khovd.
Oold. About 11,400 live in Khovd and Arkhangai.
Torguud. About 10,500 live in Khovd.
Tsaatan. Also known as the ‘reindeer people’, they are perhaps the smallest ethnic group; only about 200 live in northern Khovsgol.
Uriankhai. About 21,000 live in the Mongol Altai Nuruu mountains in Khovd and Bayan-Olgii.
Uzemchin. Only about 2000 live in Dornod and Sukhbaatar.
Zakhchin. About 24,700 live in Khovd.
Before 1990, Russians constituted about 1.5% of Mongolia’s population. Very few remain, as the rouble has sunk even faster than the tugrik, and trade has withered. Except for some Mongolians who’d been educated in the USSR at Soviet expense, most Mongolians resented the Russians’ colonial arrogance. Mongolian drunks have beaten and stoned Russians in the streets.
Kazak nomads first started to come to what is now Bayan-Olgii in the 1840s (and a few made it all the way to Tov in the 1860s). The nomads came to graze their sheep on the high mountain pastures during summer, and spent the winter in Kazakstan or Xinjiang province in China. After the Mongolian revolution in 1921, a permanent border was drawn by agreement between China, Russia and Mongolia, but Kazaks remained nomadic until the 1930s, crossing the border at will.
The word kazak is said to mean ‘free warrior’ or ‘steppe roamer’. Kazaks trace their roots to the 15th century, when rebellious kinsmen of an Uzbek khaan broke away and settled in present-day Kazakstan. In Kazakstan, but less in Mongolia, Kazak women wear long dresses with stand-up collars, or brightly decorated velvet waistcoats and heavy jewellery. The men still wear baggy shirts and trousers, sleeveless jackets, wool or cotton robes, and a skullcap or a high, tasseled felt hat.
Kazaks generally adhere rather loosely to Sunni Islam, but religion is not a major force because of the distance from the centre of Islam, their nomadic lifestyle, and the suppression of Islam by Stalinism. Islam is making a comeback in Bayan-Olgii following the lifting of restrictions against religion, aid packages from other Muslim countries, the construction of a mosque in Olgii, and the first hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, in 1992.
Kazaks speak a Turkic language with 42 Cyrillic letters, similar to Russian and a little different from Mongolian. The Mongolian government is trying to placate the Kazak minority and stop them from returning to Kazkstan by encouraging the Kazak-language schools in Bayan-Olgii – but it has not been successful.
Half of the 420,000 Russian Buryats live in Buryatia (around Lake Baikal), while many more Buryats live in northern Mongolia. Some believe that Chinggis Khaan’s mother was a Buryat from near Lake Baikal, and many Buryats joined Chinggis’ hordes which invaded Europe.
The Buryats have a separate language, which is not widely spoken, and there are attempts to revive the Buryatian script (written, like Mongol, from top to bottom). The Buryats have always been Buddhists (except during the communist reign), but have never fully given up their shamanistic beliefs.
Not far from Khovsgol Nuur live the Tsaatan people, named from the Mongolian word for reindeer, tsaa. Their entire existence is based on the reindeer, which provides milk, skins for clothes, transport and, occasionally, meat.
The Tsaatan are part of a Tuvan ethnic group which inhabits nearby Russia, and they speak a Turkic language, different to Mongolian. There are only about 200 Tsaatan people, spread over 100,000 sq km of northern Mongolia. They are extremely nomadic, often moving their small encampments (called ail every two or three weeks while looking for special types of grass and moss loved by the reindeer.
Visiting the Tsaatan people is truly difficult and exhausting. Also, the mosquitoes are legendary, and the climate is exceedingly harsh, so the handful of tourists who currently make the effort have a negligible effect on the Tsaatan people and the environment. But anthropologists are worried about the negative impact of increasing tourism. Read a recent article on the Tsaatan by clicking here.
Ethnographers divide Mongolia’s population according to their ethnicity, but all Mongolians have one thing in common: they are nomads, or nomads at heart, even if they are urbanized. About half of the 2.3 million people live in gers, and 390,000 herdsmen look after nearly 30 million livestock. They are truly nomadic, moving their gers and animals several times a year, constantly searching for better feed, water and weather.
The life of a nomad, and therefore Mongolia, is inextricably linked to the environment and animals. Nomads learn to ride as soon as they can walk; they spend half their time looking for stray animals (there are almost no fences in Mongolia), carrying a type of lasso called an uurga. Mongolia’s paintings, music and literature are dominated by the beauty of the landscape and animals, and the isolation of the countryside. Urban Mongolians love to go to the countryside during their holidays and often dream of retiring to a ger on the steppes.
While you are travelling around the countryside for a week or two in summer, you may think the simple nomadic life is ideal, but the long winters are desperately harsh, the food is unchanging, and looking after animals, preparing food and finding water is very hard work.
The communists failed to conquer the nomads with collectivism, but, ironically, capitalism may threaten the nomadic lifestyle through strict regulations, consumerism (26,000 nomadic families own motobikes and 16,000 have TVs), private ownership of land, urbanization and unequal distribution of wealth (69% of nomads own less than 100 livestock head).
People of the Felt Walls
The 'People of the Felt Walls' were the nomadic tribes, Mongol and Turkic, who rallied to Chinggis Khaan’s banner. The term is still used today, and embraces such peoples as the Kazaks and Kirghiz with their post-communist independent states, now usually called Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan.
You can find out more about Mongolia's various nationalities
in the In The News section of the Mongolian page.
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet – Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 29-31, 231, 200 & 196, respectively.
The section on the people of the felt walls was taken from Sanders & Bat-Ireedui’s Colloquial Mongolian – The Complete Course for Beginners, First Edition, Routledge, London, 1999, pp. 204-205.