Compared to almost any other inhabited place on earth Mongolia has an undeniably harsh and inhospitable climate. Although very pleasant for half of the year the rapid change in temperature, heavy snowfall and prolonged winter period mean that Mongolian people have developed some unique strategies for dealing with the weather.
Mongolians typically wear western style clothing (trousers, shirt, etc) but over the top of this they will may wear a large coat known as a Deel (pronounced De’el). This holds in all of the body’s natural heat and keeps herders protected from the wind, snow and hail. These were traditionally made from materials that were available to nomadic people such as felt, leather and animal skins but nowadays they are more likely to be made from a silk/ polyester blend with a quilted lining inside or possibly lined with sheep fleece. As well as deels, Mongolians will wear traditional boots. There are 2 main kinds, embroidered leather (commonly used all across the country) and brushed animal hide (traditionally reindeer but more commonly cow nowadays). The 2nd type were traditionally worn in the far north of the country, produced as a by-product of reindeer herding but have become quite fashionable in recent years. The main type of boots, however, are much more common and are made up of 2 parts, these being a large, stiff felt sock that slots inside the larger leather boot and the boot itself which is made of soft leather. The soles may be made of wood or hard leather with a pointed toe facing upwards to help with walking in the snow. The boots are often elaborately embroidered.
The iconic Mongolian ger (yurt) is an ubiquitous site across the whole country and increasingly around the world. The small round tents were traditionally blue, black or dark grey, which absorbed a lot of heat from the light during the sunny but freezing winter days helping to keep the interior nice and warm at night. In those days a bright white ger was a status symbol as it indicated that you could afford to heat your house independently of the sun and so only the richest people would live in white gers. Nowadays, this association has transferred to everyone and it has become extremely unfashionable to have a ger in any colour other than white but there are an increasing number, particularly of young people, who are eschewing this practice in favour of the more traditional, well insulated and eco friendly dark coloured gers. The ger is made of a wooden trellis wall erected in a circle around a central stovepipe which is then covered in thick natural felt and sheets to protect it from the elements. They are very warm and the round shape means that the freezing wind simply passes around the building without whipping away any of the heat. During summer people can live out in the countryside, exposed to the elements without having to worry about the temperature but in winter families will move to a more sheltered location, usually congregating in small communities that combine their flocks for mutual safety.
In Mongolia there were traditionally separate diets for summer and winter. During the warmer months people would exclusively eat dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Known as Tsaagan Khool or white food this is still a common dietary choice for many people in the countryside who use the warm period to fatten up their livestock for the long harsh winter. Conversely, during winter they would switch to an almost exclusively meat based diet making sure to eat the oldest sheep or those that might otherwise not survive the winter anyway. This way they maximised their resources the whole year round and were able to feed the whole family well. In the past eating meat during summer was seen, like a white ger in winter, as a status symbol as it meant that you could afford to do so and so in modern times many people have foregone the split diet in favour of an almost entirely carnivorous one in some cases even making a virtue out of obesity and overeating as long as they’re eating plenty of meat. This is much more prevalent in the city than the countryside. In addition to their dietary choices, there are also specific meals that are only eaten during the winter in order to warm up the body. One of these is horse meat which is a common dish during winter, often served cold or in a coup of ginger and garlic.
The main tool that Mongolian herders have at their disposal to help them to survive the winter is months of preparation and community cooperation. By working hard all summer to prepare their houses, food and clothing they are able to survive in relative safety and as much comfort as possible in a sustainable and ancient lifestyle.