Culture and tradition play a big part in everyday Mongolian life. If you step on someone's foot, you immediately have to shake their hand. When you receive a gift, you accept it with both hands, sleeves rolled down. Gifts should consist of items that open up to the sky (i.e. cups and bowls), not ones that open down (i.e. hats). Among this deep and imbedded culture lies ceremonial snuff traditions and protocol.
I do not know the exact history of snuff in Mongolia, but based on my observations, I would say that the two major factors that contributed to the snuff culture here are Buddhism and Mongolia's storied history with China. You can walk into any Buddhist store and see a fine selection of Indian snuff (5 Photo, 6 Photo, 41 White Elephant, among others) readily available (I once saw a tin of Poschl). Snuff bottles, which originated in China, are still used today as the main way to house and store snuff (these things can get INSANELY expensive).
Despite a widespread usage of tobacco products in Mongolia (mostly cigarettes), snuff is not used recreationally here. From what I am told and from my own experience, snuff is only used during Tsagaan Sar
, the Mongolian Lunar New Year, and other holidays, weddings, funerals, and other special events, and when visiting family or friends that you have not seen in a long time. Whatever the occasion may be, sharing snuff follows a certain protocol.
- The owner of the snuff bottle takes the bottle out of its case (usually made of cloth or sometimes leather), unscrews the top, uses either the built-in spoon or takes a pinch from the spoon, and then places the top back on the bottle (keeping it unscrewed).
- The owner then uses their right hand to hold the snuff bottle (hand should be open, the bottom of the bottle rested on the pinky and ring fingers, and the thumb used to secure it) and, while their left hand touches their right elbow, passes the bottle to another person (the person receives the bottle in the same manner: right hand, open, left hand touching the right elbow).
- The person who receives the bottle lifts the top, uses either the built-in spoon or takes a pinch from the spoon, places the top back on the bottle (keeping it unscrewed), and passes the bottle back to its owner in the same way outlined above.
- The process is then repeated with other people until everyone has had a turn, the owner then takes one last pinch (the bottle is never screwed shut during sharing until this last pinch), screws the bottle shut, and puts the bottle back in its case.
The process kind of gets complicated when there are two or more snuff bottles circulating, as there is a possibility you pass and receive a bottle with the same hand at the same time (so for a short moment you have two bottles in your hand while the other person has the same two bottles in their hand).
This process can occur anywhere. Anywhere. And with anyone. I have taken taxi rides where the driver offers me his snuff bottle and we go through the motions. Once, during a long train ride, I had to be woken up to accept some stranger's snuff bottle. It is a beautiful thing.
The snuff bottle I own and use cost 60,000 Tugriks (something like $50), which is INCREDIBLY cheap (I believe it was second-hand and is made out of some precious stone). The one that I wanted was 630,000 Tugriks and I have exchanged bottles with people who have paid upwards of 1,000,000 Tugriks for theirs. Insane.