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boy and horse

A young Mongolian boy takes a break from tending his flock

Mongolia Facts and History


Material in brackets added for comparative purposes. Nearly all the following material was gleaned and simplified from either information given in the Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia, or the CIA World Factbook Mongolia webpage.

I. Physical Geography

A. Location

General: Mongolia is the area of central East Asia between China and Siberia encompassing the Gobi Desert
"Inner Mongolia" is that part south of the Gobi and is now part of China
"Outer Mongolia" is that part north of the Gobi, and is now an independent democratic republic (and formerly a Soviet satellite state)
Coordinates: 46° N, 105° E
Area: >1.56 x 106 km2 (>600,000 mi2)
[a little bigger than Alaska; 7 times bigger than Minnesota]
Topography: ~ 500 m to 4,400 m
(Hoh Nuur at 518 m to Nayramadlin Orgil at 4,374 m)
Avg. altitude: ~ 1,500 m (almost 5,000 ft)
About 1000 m (about 3,330 ft) in Valley of the Great Lakes in western Mongolia. Our sites ranged from about 1000 m (3,300 ft) to 2,600 m (8,500 ft)
[St. Croix River is about 675 ft at Stillwater, MN]

B. Land and Water

Mountain ranges: Altai in west
Khangai in central part of country
Plateaus: Mongolian Plateau in east
Valley of the Great Lakes between Altai and Khangai
Deserts: Gobi in the south
Land cover: <1% arable, mostly for wheat
Khangai Mountains have Siberian larch, and some spruce
Altai Mts. have larch on some north-facing sloped in the north, but are treeless to the south (too dry), except for riparian zones
Mongolian Plateau has grassland
Short-grass "desert" steppe covers southern Altai and the Valley of the Great Lakes; "gobi" is sparse pastureland that can (barely) support camels
Gobi Desert has very sparse to no vegetation
Drainage: Central Mongolia is a major continental divide: north drains to Arctic Ocean, east to Pacific, and south to closed basins and desert (endorheic area)
Vocabulary: nuur = lake; gol = river
Major rivers: Selenga Gol in east-central; Khovd Gol in west
Lakes and lake regions: Hovsgol (north); Valley of Great Lakes (west); Valley of Lakes (south); many small mountain lakes

C. Climate

Controls: Uvs Lakes Basin is near the center of the Asian winter anticylone -- also called the Siberian High
Rainfall: <10 to >40 cm/yr (<4” to >16”)
[the Twin Cities in Minnesota get about 30”]
Our study area:
<10-20 cm/yr -- Valley of Great Lakes
20-30 cm/yr -- Foothills
30-40 cm/yr -- Mountains (Altai & Khangai)
Temperature: For Uvs Lakes Basin area (desert steppe):
Mean annual = -2° C (30° F)
January = -24° C (-11° F)
July = 20° C (68° F)

D. Resource management

Hazards: Drought, grass/forest fires, "zudh" (extreme harsh winter)
Issues: Urbanization, coal burning
Overgrazing (esp. in the gobi), subsequent desertification
Erosion of soil from new agriculture, mining (copper, gold)
Deforestation of riparian areas
Hydroelectric developments
Protections Uvs Lake Basin Strictly Protected Area (SPA) (71,250 km2)
Khar Us Nuur National Park (85,000 km2)
Khyargas Nuur National Park (32,000 km2)
Programs: Uvs Lakes Basin one of 10 sites selected worldwide for global climate change by IGBP (Shiirevdamba 1998)

II. Cultural Geography

A. People

Population: 2.8 x 106 (2006)
[MN: ~5 x 106; not quite twice that of Mongolia]
Population density <1 person/km2 (about 2 people/mi2)
[MN: 23 people/km2 (60 people/mi2)]
Population distribution: About 50% rural, 50% urban
Ulaanbaatar has 820,000 people (30% of population)
Ethnicity: 85% Mongol, 7% Turkic (Kazakh), 5% Tungusic, 3% other
(CIA web page gives 95% Mongol and 5% Turkic)
Religion: 50% Buddhist (Tibetan Lamaism), 4% Muslim, 6% Shamanist and Christian, 40% none
Lifestyle: People of the Five Animals (horses, camels, yaks & cattle, goats, sheep)
Diet dominated by meat and dairy products (cheese and yoghurt)
Education: 97-99% literacy depending on source (may be much lower in rural areas)
Soviets began education system in 1920s, boosted it significantly in the 1940s, and by 1960s it was mandatory and available for all. Boarding schools set up in outlying cities (sums).
Currently, schooling is from age 7 to 17, but recent economic problems have slashed what the government can provide, and the need for family income has forced more drop-outs -- percentage completing this education fell from 87% in 1990 to 57% in 1995.
1960-90: Scientific research training of Mongolians in Russia; Mongolian Academy of Science established in 1961.
Holidays: Naadam is the national holiday, celebrated now on 11 July to coincide with independence day
Naadam has been celebrated for centuries and is centered around contests in the three manly sports: horse racing, archery, and wrestling

B. Government

Independence: 11 July 1921 (from China) -- National holiday = Naadam 1990 (from USSR); constitution 1992
Government: Parliamentary, with president and prime minister
Unicameral legislature (State Great Khural), with 76 seats
Politics: Dominated by two main movements, the more-socialist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) versus the more-capitalistic parties that have formed coalitions over the years.

C. Economics

Per capita GDP: $2,200 (CIA: 2005)
Resources: Livestock, coal, copper, molybdenum, gold, and limited petroleum
GDP composition 21% agriculture (for 40% of population)
1% arable land farmed, mostly for wheat; some barley and potatoes
Commodities: livestock, cashmere, camel wool, hides, other animal products
21% industry
Cashmere and other wool manufacturing
Mineral resources: copper, molybdenum, fluorspar, gold
Highly vulnerable to price fluctuations in copper and cashmere
58% services
Trade partners: China, Russia, USA, South Korea, Germany, Japan
Foreign aid: Overall, $200M/year, much from Japan; about 1/3 of GDP
USAID >$10M/year, much rural development: Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative and farmer-to-farmer programs
Peace Corps -- some environmental programs

III. History

2000-1000 BC Bronze Age; deer stones erected Animal domestication (horse, yaks, and camels); nomadic herding lifestyle established
1000 BC - 500 AD? Xiongnu (Turkic) control; invasions into China
500? - 840 AD Uighurs (Turkic) gain control; "Turkic" period Man stones erected Traditional Mongolian script Generally peaceable and agrarian society; religion followed Persian saint Mani, who was much influence by Christianity Uighurs defeated by Kyrgyz
840 - 1206 AD Mongolia a no-man's land, with various invasions (Kyrgyz and Kitans from N parts of China), eventually a loose confederation of nomadic tribes
1206-1227 AD Chinggis Khan unites tribes, proclaims himself ruler of Mongolian empire China invaded, Beijing captured Invasions and conquests of Persia, Middle east, and Russia (to Moscow) Main warfare technology was great horsemanship combined with a composite recurve bow made of wood, sinew, and bone, which could shoot twice as far as the European longbow; also, siege warfare perfected
1227-1259 AD Other Khans -- mostly sons of Chinggis -- take over Karakorum built
1259-1368 AD Kublai Khan, grandson of Chinggis, begins rule Completes conquest of China, move capital to Beijing, and establishes the Yuan Dynasty
1275-92 AD Marco Polo in China Kublai Khan dies (1294), and eventually (about 1368) the Mongols are driven out of China; end of Yuan Dynasty
1400-1911 AD Generally a period of alternating scenarios, with Mongolia being a group of internally warring tribes, or being overrun by China, with various treaties from time to time
1514 AD More contact with Western influences (via China)
1507-83 AD Altan Khan briefly united Mongolia, then had to sign a treaty with China, sending troops to battle the Tibetan. But he became a devout Buddhist and made Buddhism the state religion of Mongolia.
1635-1723 AD Zanabazar and the Mongolian artistic renaissance; proclaimed to be one of the reincarnated Buddhas. Skilled artisan (bronze casting), reformed the Mongolian script, and designed the "soyombo," the national symbol of Mongolia
1912-21 Back and forth tussle between Russian (1912-19) and Chinese (1919-21) control
1921-90 White (anticommunist) Russians booted out the Chinese, and were in turn booted out by advancing Bolsheviks and the Mongolians, led by Sukhbaatar.
11 July 1921 Independence Day (Nadaam) for newly declared People's Government of Mongolia
1924-28 MPRP gains power
1928 the last Bogd Khan dies; a successor is not allowed to be named
1928-52 Choibalsan (selected by Stalin) rules country by power of terror; 36,000 people disappeared in these 20 years (about 5% of the population); many were monks, in an effort to break religion and make all members "contribute" to society...; main purge began in 1937, when 17,000 monks disappeared (died by execution or in Siberian work camps) and about 700 monasteries were destroyed -- only 4 were allowed to remain. In 1920, there were 100,000 monks; in 1990, only 80. (The monks not killed simply merged into the mainstream society.)
1939-41 Mongolia and USSR fended off attacks by the Japanese
1961 Mongolia admitted into the United Nations.
1981 Mongolia's first cosmonaut
1990-2004 Collapse and withdrawal of USSR
1990 and 1992 Elections Won by MPRP
1996 Elections Won by DUC (Democratic Union Coalition), which instituted many changes after winning in 1996 -- but then:
2000 Elections Won again by MPRP with a landslide 72 out of 76 seats in the Great Khural
2004 Elections Resulted in a split, with the DUC and MPRP each winning 36 seats, giving the 4 remaining seats held by other parties significant leverage