Minimalism: 3 Lessons from Mongolia

Nomadic Wisdom

Back to the Basics

In the West, we tend to view minimalism as the pursuit of less. But what if minimalism was much greater than a reductionist mindset.  

What if minimalism was a lifestyle of disciplined intentions? Desiring only what you need – nothing more, nothing less. A lifestyle where reduction is redundant. 

Since 8,000 BCE, Mongolian nomads have been the archetype of minimalistic lifestyle. They’re a people who have thrived in extreme conditions with only the bare necessities. Thankfully prior to the pandemic, we were able to spend two weeks in rural Mongolia learning from four nomadic families in different parts of the country.

Through our experiences, we essentially time-traveled to a simpler era – one defined by subsistence living, strong communal ties, and a profound respect towards nature. 

Lesson 1

Subsistence Living

Convenience is the antagonist of gratitude and discipline. But first, lets digress…

Imagine being hungry. Your stomach rumbles and your mouth salivates at the thought of Thai green curry. But your favorite Thai place is 15 minutes away and parking is a nightmare, so you pick up your smartphone instead. You open up UberEats and scroll through some food porn, until you find that delicious green curry you’ve been craving.   

But now, the game has changed. Fried spring rolls. Pineapple fried rice. Singha. It all sounds so damn good. So what the hell, you deserve it right? You’ve been working hard, you tell yourself. So the next thing you do is click a button and voila, 45 minutes later your equivalence of the last supper arrives – still hot and oh so savory. 

Lets think about that for a second: to eat, all you had to do was press a button. Literally.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario, ask yourself this: do frictionless results warrant gratitude and discipline? Truth is, the answer is much more complicated than Yes or No. But the reality is simple: no work or real effort was involved on your part.

In contrast, the nomads of the Mongolian steppe are self-supporting on principle – otherwise, they’d starve. Convenience is a luxury they can’t afford.

With a diet that primarily consists of dairy and meat, nomadic life revolves around migration 2-4x a year in search of fresh pastures – ones that’ll sustain their herd. It’s a constant battle against the volatility of the elements.

And to survive throughout the year, both the animals and herdsmen have developed a symbiotic relationship – an inseparable bond.

In the spring, summer, and autumn months, the animals will return to the owner’s ger at night for protection against blood-thirsty wolves – since each family has 1-2 large mastiffs on guard. And during the six months long winter, the animals are fully dependent on the nomads for protection against the extremeness of the elements – dipping below -30C (-22F) isn’t uncommon.

In exchange, the nomads rely on the milk from their goats, yaks, and horses. From it, they make long-lasting dairy products like Aarul (rock-hard curds), Airag (fermented horse milk), and butter. Each of which, are their main sources of food during the unforgiving white-out winters. Without these items, the nomads wouldn’t be able to survive winter.

With that in mind, lets step back for a second and widen our aperture…

Imagine having to look after of a herd of goats, yaks, and horses on a daily basis – all of which are completely free to roam the land. And remember… there are no fancy RFID tags or drones to get a visualized report on a laptop screen. 

The only monitoring resource at their disposal is an archaic one – daily surveyance on the back of a half-wild steed. For nomads, there are no shortcuts and if they don’t do their job well, day in and day out, it’ll come back at them in the form of starvation.

As beautiful as nature is, it’s also unforgiving for the unprepared.

Ultimately, the daily discipline of herdsmanship instills a deep sense of respect within nomads – especially in regards to consumption.

All of the hard work that goes into the maintenance and the livelihood of each and every animal, makes them value “food” to a significantly higher degree than most people.

Therefore, no part of an animal is spared when it’s sacrificed as dinner. It’s either eaten or recycled into something else. Even the fire for cooking utilizes dried animal dung (a fancy way of saying “poop”) as fuel. Out on the steppe, food waste is non-existent – in actuality, it’s not even a train of thought.

In stark contrast… within developed cities, it’s easy to take for granted all of the hard work that goes into the production of the food that we eat. 

As modern consumers, we’re not aware of all of the steps along a product’s supply chain – all we see is the end result. A shiny wrapper with a price tag on a shelf. 

For traditional nomads, the production of food is solely reliant upon themselves. And for their most consumed items like butter and curd, it’s an incredibly time intensive process. From caring for their animals, to milking them, and then safe storage – it takes months or even years to see an edible result.  

In rural Mogolia, every step of the food production process is done by hand. No excuses.

For the nomads, there’s no UberEats or convenience stores around to circumvent the process. Just good ol’ fashioned hard work that compounds over time.

And in the end, it’s hard to imagine not being grateful for the fruits of disciplined labor. 

Lesson 2

Communal Ties

Across Mongolia, gers are absent of locks.

Whether you’re a distant neighbor or a complete stranger, everyone is welcome to show up to a ger’s doorstep without any invitation.  

By nature, nomads are incredibly hospitable and welcoming. Showing up uninvited is likely to yield in an invitation for a meal or even a place to sleep – no questions asked, no money exchanged.

Out on the steppe, traditional nomadic values encourage openness, compassion and a sense of community – a sort of insurance against the unforgiving forces of nature. 

So for every guest that shows up, a warm welcome of suutei tsai (milk tea), orom (clotted cream), and boortsog (pastries) will be served with no expectations in return.

As for invited guests, nomads will even take the time to prepare a delicious Mongolian specialty called Khorkhog (mutton and potatoes cooked over a bed of hot stones inside of a metal container). 

Khorkhog is a meal that’s incredibly time-intensive to prepare and relatively expensive. Even so, its a tradition that’s been upheld for thousands of years as nomads are well versed in the art of community building over food.

Communal dinners help nomads slow down, to talk, to laugh, and to see each other for who they really are. And by giving each other intentional attention, these dinners fill more than their stomachs. They fill their hearts and their minds. Fundamentally, these dinners foster the pinnacle of human emotion, trust.

To build better communities around them, nomads start with food. And they don’t just serve it, they share it.

On a deeper level, sharing is caring out the Mongolian steppe – better yet, it’s life. In a place that has no privatized land, no fences, and no borders, everything is shared.

And knowing that you can safely rely on others during a time of need, is beyond comforting – it’s the lynchpin to survival in extreme environments. 

Lesson 3

Respecting Nature

The landscape of Mongolia is untouched and wild – a striking scenery that transports you back to a simpler time. One where you step back to the reality of the natural world – a place free from the stronghold of industrialism and left as nature intended.  

Considered to be the most sustainable way of life, Mongolian nomads live within the limitations and confines of their environment, rather than conform it for the pursuit of convenience and comfort. They choose harmony over construction.

Outside of Tibetan Buddhist temples, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any permanent structures in the countryside. On the steppe, infrastructure is nothing more than a fairy tale. Even dirt roads are non-descript – just dusty tracks that are void of traffic.

For transportation, nomads still move about on horseback – which is the traditional means of travel within the country. So no cars. No pollution. Just hooves.

In large cities, people tend to be proud owners of fast and flashy cars. In Mongolia, nomads are proud of (and gain status from) their horses.

Across the countryside, horses are the most valuable asset since they are a means of transport, a source of milk, and a participant in time-honored festivals. Instead of coveting material possessions, nomads just want a healthy herd and most importantly, a good steed that’ll stick by their side across incredibly harsh geographical terrains. 

Mongolia’s horse culture is one of important roles and synergies that are also representative of how they interact with nature as a whole. Cultural DNA dictates that nomads must treat all living creatures and ecosystems with compassion, honor, and loyalty – anything less is strictly tabooed.

Over thousands of years, nomads have passed down their wisdom on how to adapt to and live in harmony with nature – instead of being frightened by it and destroying it. This ancestral knowledge has been shared generationally, through songs and folklore. 

While Mongolia’s vast countryside is full of tranquil mountains, calm lakes and clean air, it wouldn’t have remained this way without the preservation of nomadic life. A simplistic lifestyle which acts as a safeguard for Mongolia’s rich natural heritage.

And with a continuance of nomadic practices that focus on giving more than taking, Mongolia’s untamed beauty will hopefully remain this way for many years to come. 

Reflection

Our Thoughts

At the end of the day, while Mongolia’s nomadic minimalism may look different than the Western interpretation of material reduction, the core principle of the lifestyle remains the same: living with clarity, purpose, and intentionality. 

For Mongolians, minimalism is a natural byproduct of their lifestyle. Subsistence living, strong communal ties, and a profound respect towards nature, are a breeding ground for disciplined intention. And this type of fundamental discipline makes minimalism a core function of survival rather than an afterthought or a reductionist mindset.  

Stripped down to the essential values, Mongolian nomadism is minimalism in its purest state – a decision matrix of knowing what not to acquire or consume, rather than a mode of “letting go.” 

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