A GUIDE TO MONGOLIAN GER ETIQUETTE & RULES
We skidded slightly as we pulled up in front of the low, round tent; the wheels drifting over the snow. The little orange door was beautifully decorated, the domed roof meeting at the smoking stove pipe. A traditional Mongolian ger, home to a nomad family of the central Gobi. It promised warmth. It promised hot milk tea.
But first thing’s first… As we piled out of the van, the wind roaring in our ears & the blizzard stinging our eyes, our guide casually threw a bunch of instructions at us - a scatter-gun list of what we definitely shouldn’t do once inside… Cue panic.
Most nomad families who have existing relationships with guides do of course understand that blundering tourists are likely to mess up when it comes to ger etiquette, and one or two slips will be ignored, tolerated or politely corrected. However if you’d prefer to brush up on the rules, etiquette & superstitions that go hand in hand with visiting or staying in ger, look no further. We share the definitive (& fact-checked with a Mongolian) guide on Ger customs.
What to do When arriving at a Mongolian Ger:
When arriving at a nomad family, they may have a spare ger that you can stay in. If they are outside when you arrive, and agree to let you stay, it is customary to go into the main family ger to have tea & talk before settling into your own space. This is sometimes the case for ger camps too but is less frequent
When entering the ger DO NOT step on the bottom of the door frame, make sure to step over it. It is said that this is the neck of the ger, and if you step on it, you’re strangling the home.
When entering you can say hello to whoever is inside using the phrase "Sain bain uu?" (pronounced something like “Sey-Ben-Oo”) - Meaning “how do you do?” If you are entering for the second, third, fourth time, you can just say “Sen-ooo’, meaning “Hi!”.
You can give a small gift on arrival if you wish, though if you are with a tour group, this isn’t typically expected as your guide will usually bring something. If you do, biscuits or sweets are fine. Milk is traditional.
Once inside, you must proceed to the left-hand side of the ger. This is the side for guests. The right hand-side is family, or by invite only. There will normally be a bed to perch on or some low stools to sit on.
Do not walk between the ger struts that hold up the roof. This is bad luck. You have to walk around them, regardless of how inconvenient…
Women should not sit at the head of the ger, opposite the door (i.e. in the middle). The most senior male, or most important family member sits here. Men can get away with sitting a little closer to the centre, but it’s best just to sit along the left unless encouraged to move up.
Giving & Receiving in a Ger
If something is passed to you to take, or when you are giving something back, you must do so with both hands or your right hand. Traditionally your palm should face up & your left hand should be placed under your right forearm/elbow. We didn't find this much observed in the South, but more so in the North.
Make sure your sleeves are rolled down when giving & receiving. Showing your wrists is not considered polite. We were told it’s fine to roll them up the rest of the time, but we kept them down whilst inside the ger… just incase.
You will undoubtedly be offered hot-milk tea, fresh off the stove or from a thermos. This is nothing to be worried about as it’s normally just cow, goat, or sheep milk heated & mixed with tea-leaves & salt. It may not be your favourite, but it can be so, so welcome when cold. Once accustomed to it, you may even look forward to it. It is polite to accept & try at least a small amount. If you don’t like it, it is not rude to leave it.
You will also be offered home-made fried bread, dried curd, or sweets, normally in a large bowl. Again, you pretty much have to take one & try it. Unfortunately it’s just pretty rude to refuse something that is offered directly to you. Thankfully it’s not rude to just try it and put it straight down, so if you don’t like it, you can leave it.
When the bowl is offered to you it is customary to tap your right hand gently under the bowl before selecting something from the top. If it’s placed on the table you can just help yourself.
The rules of vodka in a ger
You may have decided to bring a bottle of vodka on your trip & if you are staying with a nomad family, this is the perfect time to crack it open. You can either offer it as a gift when you arrive, or present it after dinner and pour it for your hosts. If it get’s opened, there’s a little process for sharing the liquor:
It is traditional for everyone to drink from one glass. If you are offered vodka from your hosts, they will pour a shot and pass it to you. Accept with your right hand, left hand below right elbow.
If you want to, you can observe a traditional ritual before drinking: Dip the ring finger of your right hand into the vodka, and then flick this finger with your thumb four times: this is an offering to the four winds, or to gods & ancestors - depending where in Mongolia you happen to be. Press the ring fingers gently to your forehead.
If that seems like too much, just say cheers or ‘Tok-Toi!’ In Mongolian.
Take your shot! If it is a very large shot (VERY likely), you needn’t finish it all. If you really can’t hack it, just place the glass to your lips for a sip before handing it back.
Pass the glass back to the host or to the person who served you (it doesn’t matter if there is still some left). They will then top up the glass & pass it to the next person. Do not pass the glass on yourself.
It is very likely that this will continue until the bottle is gone…
Staying in a ger:
It is considered bad luck to whistle when inside a ger - It is said that you are summoning the wind! When you live under felt & canvas, this is all kinds of bad.
You should not squat when in a ger, either sit on a stool, or on the floor. Our guess is that where many nomad families only have long-drop/pit toilets, or ‘nature’ toilets, squatting has a not-so-nice connotations
You should ask permission for photographing their home or family (kind of true of everywhere to be honest!)
Try not to point at someone, instead gesture using your whole palm
Do not hold your fist up and twist it side-to-side. We learnt the devastatingly embarrassing way that this basically means ‘f**k off’ - Massive faux-pas!
If you’re wearing a hat, this can’t go on the floor either (we’re not sure why)
When you sleep, your feet should face towards the door
Don’t put any rubbish on the fire. Pre-buddhist religion, or shamanism considers fire as sacred, and in some areas believe that deities live in the stoves as protectors of the home.
If in the south where Buddhism is most observed, be careful not to show the soles of your feet to the deity shrine (or touch it). This is more important in the central & southern regions. Shamanism is more dominant in the North.
If you step on, kick or touch someone else's foot, offer them a quick handshake. We had a couple of hilarious moments when people would bump into us and then lunge for a hand or arm to grasp in apology - which was perhaps more alarming! It is almost a knee-jerk reaction for them to do this, a bit like us saying “bless you” to total strangers who sneeze.
Things that are ok to do in a ger:
When we were researching Mongolia ourselves, we read some very varied & strange advice about what is and isn’t ok when staying with a nomad family. We checked some of these with our guides and they confirmed our suspicions that some of them are total nonsense! So just passing on the clarity…
If it is cold, it is ok to keep your jacket/ warm-weather gear on. We read somewhere that it is considered rude to do this where you may be implying that their home is not warm enough - this is not the case. Especially if it’s snowing outside & you’re still warming up.
We also read somewhere that you should be careful not to be too grateful or say thank you too much, the logic being that Nomad culture is based around reciprocity of hospitality, and if you are too profuse with your gratitude you are implying you wouldn't owe them the same. This is not true - say thank you as much as you like.
We were told that all in all there are some 3,000 customs, superstitions & rules about proper ger etiquette, and these vary considerably depending what region you're in, and even who’s in the ger with you. Every Mongolian we met was pretty relaxed about our relative ignorance & were happy to share what was specifically important to them. In the same vein, every Mongolian we met was very appreciative, and in some cases (like the vodka drinking process, out-right delighted that we made the effort to abide by their customs.
Mongolia and the famous hospitality of its people offers such a unique opportunity to be submersed in a totally different culture. So we hope this helps with a little pre-tip swatting up but, as ever, the best way to learn is to throw yourself right in - it’d be rude not to.