Volunteering in Mongolia
Discover volunteering opportunities in Mongolia, a country of immense, rugged beauty.
Mongolia is the world’s second-largest landlocked country, positioned between China and Russia. Its population of 3.2 million people live across a large territory of 1.5 million square kilometres, making Mongolia the world’s most sparsely populated country.
When you think of Mongolia, visualise vast sweeping plains and wide-open spaces. Mongolia’s steppe is home to one of the world’s last surviving nomadic cultures, and around one quarter of households live a nomadic life in the country.
Its capital, Ulaanbaatar, is a cosmopolitan counterpoint to the vibrant and vast landscapes. Surrounded by hills and with nature at its doorstep, ‘UB’ is a modern city with skyscrapers, bustling traffic and a rapidly growing population.
In the south of the country lies Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi, which was once a paradise for animals, plants and dinosaurs – it’s where the first positively-identified dinosaur eggs were found.
The population is predominately ethnic Mongolian (94.9%), with Kazakh people (5%) and Turkic, Chinese and Russian people making up the remainder of the population.
1921 marked the successful People’s Revolution in Mongolia, which succeeded with the help of the Russian Red Army. Mongolia became the second socialist country in the world.
For the following 70 years Mongolia existed under a Soviet-dominated communist regime.
In March 1990, a democratic revolution that started with hunger strikes to overthrow the government led to the peaceful renouncement of communism. Over the ensuing three decades, Mongolia has emerged democratic and open.
Mongolia is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Its political system can be characterised as semi-presidential, with the Prime Minister as the head of government being elected by parliament and a directly elected President as the head of state.
Following the 2020 parliamentary election, the Mongolian People’s Party gained 62 seats in the 76-seat parliament. The opposing Democratic Party won 11 seats, and the remaining three seats were won by an independent, and two coalition parties.
The 2017 presidential elections resulted in Kh. Battulga, the candidate fielded by the opposition Democratic Party, taking on the non-partisan office of President for four years.
Thanks to outward-looking reforms, Mongolia is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with a strong mining sector. While recent economic growth has helped the country reach lower-middle income status, Mongolia’s poverty rate remains relatively high, with about one-in-three people still living in poverty.
The Mongolian economy relies heavily on its mineral sector. A softening of global mineral demand and economic growth in China presents Mongolia with significant development challenges in managing its economy.
An economic model based heavily on mining and agriculture, combined with rapid urbanisation and mass domestic migration, has put considerable pressure on ecosystems. Mongolia is highly vulnerable to climate change and environmental issues having seen average temperatures increase faster than global average.
Australian volunteers in Mongolia
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of Mongolian partner organisations to achieve their development goals since 1998.
Volunteering opportunities in Mongolia support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Supporting a well-managed economy
- Community/social development
- Youth development
- Human rights
- Disaster risk reduction
Like many arriving in Mongolia for the first time, Australian volunteer Zach’s introduction to Mongolian cuisine was Tsuivan, a simple dish of noodles, meat, and vegetables.
Download the recipe for Tsuvian
Life as a volunteer in Mongolia
Culture and religion
In the Soviet era there were restrictions on religious activity, however since the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion has made a comeback and monasteries have been rebuilt. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia in the 16th century, and Buddhism remains closely linked with the country’s cultural traditions. According to the 2010 national census, 53% of Mongolians identified as Buddhist, 38% atheist, 3% Muslim and 2% Christian.
Mongolian culture is heavily influenced by the nomadic way of life. Elders and herders in the country mostly wear the Mongolian traditional garment called a deel, a long, loose gown with long sleeves, a high collar and a wide overlap at the front. It’s girdled with a sash. Each ethnic group has its own style of deel, distinguished by cut, color and trim. In the cities, Mongolians wear deels on special occasions.
Ulaanbaatar is a modern and fast developing city, and foreigners are unlikely to attract any attention towards their clothing. However, when traveling in the countryside, women should wear conservative clothing.
The felt tent called a ger is an integral part of the Mongolian national identity. A large share of Mongolia’s population continues to live gers, even on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolian is the official national language. As a product of its time as a Soviet satellite, Russian was the preferred second language for most Mongolians to learn until the early 2000s. The younger generation of Mongolians now prefer to learn English due to the influence of Western culture, with Korean and Japanese also popular for political and economic reasons.
In Ulaanbaatar, most people tend to understand basic English and will be able to point you to your destination when asked. However, when visiting the countryside, foreigners will need basic Mongolian to communicate as it will be difficult to find people who understand English.
Mongolia has a harsh continental climate. Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city, and temperatures can range from extremes of -40°C in January to 30°C in July.
The cold winters have led to air pollution becoming a serious health and environmental issue, particularly in Ulaanbaatar. The main cause is the burning of raw coal in ger districts for heating in the winter months. Volunteers living in Ulaanbaatar during the winter months will be provided with face masks with air filters, and an air purifier for their home.
Climate change remains a key challenge for Mongolia, as demonstrated by natural disasters such as dzud (severe winters), drought, floods, extreme wind, and extreme cold and hot temperatures.
SIM cards and data packages are inexpensive, and there is good mobile phone coverage across Ulaanbaatar. Reception is also available in regional areas, and often out into the countryside.
Diet and dining out
A high-protein, high-fat diet, with lots of meat and dairy products, is part of the traditional Mongolian nomadic culture and continues today. While meat (particularly mutton) is an important part of the diet, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and rice are also a significant part of the modern diet. When milk is abundant in summer, Mongolians prepare dairy products such as dried curd, which is cheese made from sour milk and melted butter, that can be stored during the long winter.
Ulaanbaatar is a modern city, and fresh fruits and vegetables are available year-round, however, the variety and quality may be less than volunteers are accustomed to in Australia. Being a vegetarian can be challenging, especially during celebrations like Tsagaan Sar, however, most places (including tourist ger camps out of the city) can accommodate requests for vegetarian meals.
Wheat is popular in Mongolia and some establishments cannot accommodate gluten-free requests. Gluten-free products can be purchased at supermarkets around Ulaanbaatar but availability is unreliable.
There are two important holiday periods for Mongolians.
Naadam is the main summer holiday. In towns and cities across the country, people come together to take part in events that celebrate the ‘three manly sports’ of horse racing, archery, and wrestling.
Tsagaan Sar is the traditional lunar new year celebration, which is a time to catch up with family. Lots of buuz (mutton dumplings) and boiled mutton are eaten, alongside cups of airag (fermented mare’s milk) and salty milk tea. Tsagaan Sar is rich in ritual, with younger relatives meeting their elders with special greetings.
Volunteers will be supported to find suitable accommodation upon arrival in Mongolia. In major cities like Ulaanbaatar accommodation is generally in furnished apartment buildings within the CBD that have centrally-operated heating to counter the cold winter temperatures.
Across the country, particularly in cities, most cars will operate as informal taxis and hailing is as easy as sticking out a hand on the side of the road. Volunteers will be supported with information on registered taxi companies upon arrival.
Ulaanbaatar is supported by a large bus network, and has rail connections to China and Russia via the Trans Mongolian Railway.
Safety and security
Mongolia is a land of temperature extremes. Volunteers need to take care when outside, particularly in the freezing winter months.
Air pollution can pose a health risk to volunteers, and volunteers on assignment during winter months will be provided with face masks and air purifiers on arrival.
If applying to take up volunteering opportunities in Mongolia, it is a requirement that you research your assignment location. Successful applicants will discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
Dumplings, hikes and wildflowers: How Australian volunteers make the most of weekends in Mongolia