What are Coke and chocolates? Can you tell me more about them?” It always works, and we have a good laugh about it too. In reality, our capital city, Ulaanbaatar, is very urban. We have commercial buildings, brand-name hotels, and beautiful art spaces too.
But all too often foreigners fixate on what Mongolia lacks. They look at our massive, untouched landscape, traditional nomadic lifestyles, and see it as a sign of poverty. And I disagree. In fact, I think there's a lot we can learn from ancient Mongolian nomads that will help us survive in the years and decades to come.
This is a picture of me playing Mongolia’s most celebrated traditional instrument, morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. I started playing the instrument when I was only nine, and by 11 I was traveling the world representing Mongolia at international festivals, living and studying in places like Japan, China, Finland, Germany, and Sweden.
But then suddenly, when I was 21, I lost my loving mother, and just two years later I lost my father. As an only child, I was devastated and lonely. At the time, the only thing I had left was my country, so I decided to move home.
When I was lost with sorrow, my country gave me a feeling of safety and belonging. I imagined eternal the blue sky of Mongolia as my father and the untouched, gorgeous landscape as my mother. Having lived in developed countries for over a decade, I became very distant from the nomadic lifestyles, so I wanted to reconnect and experience it for myself.
I often journeyed away from the city toward my grandparents' provinces in rural Mongolia to see where my parents and I came from, and better understand my own identity. Growing up, I'd always heard stories about how Mongolian nomads were the most hospitable people on earth, and I wanted to see with my own eyes whether they really feed and give shelter to a stranger.
So I set off to the countryside, driving along dirt roads for hours. What's incredible about Mongolian nomads is that the neighbors are often 40 kilometers apart, and there's no private land ownership of pasture land in Mongolia.
In a way, Mongolian nomads have complete freedom, moving about the gorgeous landscape as they wish. Eventually, I spotted to humble yurts and I pulled over. Yurts, or ger, are a traditional Mongolian dwelling.
They’re made from one hundred percent natural material, a wooden frame and floor, leather rope, and thick blankets made from felted sheep’s wool. And it takes about only three to four hours to assemble or disassemble and keeps them warm through the minus 50 degree Celsius winters.
Outside the yurt, the kids were playing with sheep and goats, and as I greeted them, their parents welcomed me inside. The wife poured me nice, warm milk tea, and the husband offered me food that they had already prepared on the table.
After some casual chitchat, the husband politely asked my purpose, so I replied bluntly that I was just traveling and exploring my grandparents' roots and that I needed a place to stay as the sun was setting.
And guess what? He said I could stay as long as I needed to, on one condition. He asked if I would play the morin khuur, our traditional Mongolian horsehead fiddle. In my head, I couldn't believe it was coming true.
And the horsehead fiddle was like a ticket. When Mongolians find out that you can play morin khuur, you're instantly respected. They say its two strings express all the events of the world. I ended up staying with them for nine days, and they didn't even ask me to leave.
I think if I tried to stay there for two months, they would have let me. And here's the thing: before I met them, I assumed that Mongolian nomads were hospitable out of kindness like anybody else.
But then I realized it was more than that. It was about surviving as a community. Because nomads live in extremely remote areas, they are completely at the mercy of nature. Heavy snowfall, a sudden flood, or a raging storm can devastate a nomadic family.
Today, it's a stranger who needs help, but tomorrow, it could be you. That's why they look out for each other and welcome anyone in need of help. This really touched my heart, because I feel like we humans are becoming more and more selfish.
Staying with a truly nomadic family awakened me. It was nothing like I've ever seen in developed countries. The wife of the family showed me how they produce organic dairy products from scratch, like white cheese, yogurt, tsegee, and even a traditional vodka made from cow milk.
And every tool they use is made from natural material by hand. And inside the yurt, we burned dried cow dung to stay warm instead of using fuel. Everything stood in sharp contrast to my city life filled with plastic and steel.
And this was a five-senses experience to me, a completely different form of sophistication. The more I traveled across remote and rural destinations in Mongolia, the more I understood how ancient nomadic lifestyle was powered by Mother Nature.
Nomadic life is truly zero waste. Over the course of six years, I visited more than 20 families, and my experience was always the same. They invited me in, offered me food, and gave me a place to stay if I needed it.
I was surprised by how little they owned. At first, I thought it was because they moved about four times a year. OK, that's a very simple logic to understand. You only carry what you need. But then I learned there's a deeper philosophy behind it.
Historically, nomads believed that we are only passing through this life, that people come and leave naked, so they believe that there's no point in building anything that destroys nature or in being greedy for materialistic things when your life expectancy is only less than 100 years.
Instead, they invest in tradition, heritage, history, and pass it from generation to generation. This ancient nomadic philosophy made me realize that I should think bigger and further than my own convenience and comfort.
In the Mongolian countryside, I felt a true form of freedom, and every time I came back to the city, I looked for ways to live more minimally. I digitalized all of my company's paper procedures. What once took 20 packs of A4 paper now takes just one.
I downsized my apartment, reduced my carbon footprint, and picked up a habit to rethink my actions, like purchasing, choosing transportation, and many other lifestyle choices at home and work. And most importantly, I stopped working on fast-moving consumer-goods marketing projects and now work with organizations that promote sustainability.
But by far the biggest change is that I've started to see development with fresh eyes. In cities, living in a traditional yurt as a nomad and having less is often interpreted as a sign of poverty, not just abroad but at home in Mongolia too.
We think that the end goal for every developing country is to become the next Tokyo or New York City, with their skyscrapers, big shopping malls, and toll roads. Communities around the world are abandoning their traditional lifestyles in pursuit of material wealth.
But let's not forget, the developed countries are the ones most responsible for climate change. So we have to ask ourselves, why do we keep on following the same blueprint when we know it causes harm to the world? We've all experienced the consequences of our choices over the past eight months.
So doing right by Mother Nature and focusing on earth-friendly, zero-waste habits is not an option anymore. And who knows the key ingredients better than our ancestors, the ones who survived without the media or technology but with wisdom alone? As a citizen of Mongolia, I grew up hearing that developing countries are inferior, and I really took it to heart.
But today, I want to say loud and clear that I don't see disadvantages from developing countries anymore. On the contrary, I see countries that have the biggest opportunity to do things in the right way, countries that can define their own kind of development and have the most advantage to build a better and safer environment for everyone.
What worked for our ancestors for thousands of years can work for us now, and in the future, when combined with the latest innovations. After all, we're all guests in this world, so let's do right by the earth and each other just like the ancient Mongolian nomads did.