NOMAD LIFE

NOMAD LIFE

Much of Mongolia has changed little since the days of Genghis Khan. A significant portion of Mongolia's population are herders or nomadic. Sometimes you can travel the steppes and deserts and not see a soul for miles and miles, and suddenly a herder will come from out of nowhere with his animals. [Source: ; Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein, National Geographic, May 1993]

Rural population: 28 percent. Most of these people are nomads or herders not farmers. Many people have given up herding. In the early 2000s, the rural population was still around 40 percent. In the early 1980s it was around 50 percent. In the early 1900s, it was presumably around 90 percent.

Describing some Mongolian nomads, Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein wrote in National Geographic, "They appeared suddenly from a ravine, two nomad horsemen driving a herd of sheep across the path of our truck. On and on the animals came, a sea of brown, black, and white against the golden grasses of the broad plain. The herders, darting here and there on mounts no bigger than ponies, ride with fluid grace worthy of their famed ancestors, the Mongol cavalry."

Mongolians have traditionally grown up on horseback, with horses playing important parts in their lives. Every Mongolian male traditionally proved his worth by showing good horsemanship and archery as well as wrestling. A red or green waistband a with flint steel, snuffbox and knife in an ornate sheath for cutting meat are accessories common to all men and women on the steppe. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

Nomads are largely self-sufficient. One nomad said, "Because we have our own animals to give us much of what we need, were are better than the people in the cites." If some disaster strikes and the nomads lose their animals, they are in big trouble. They are helpless and face death. Herders often put the welfare of their animals above the welfare of themselves.

Book: Changing World of the Mongolia Nomads by Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein, professors at case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Shiki Yuboku (Four Seasons, Nomadism) is a seven-hour-40-minute film about Mongolian nomads by Japanese film director Yoji Yamada.

Pastoral Nomadism

Almost every aspect of Mongolian society has been shaped by pastoral nomadism, an ecological adaptation that makes it possible to support more people in the Mongolian environment than would be true under any other mode of subsistence. Pastoralism is a complex and sophisticated adaptation to environments marked by extreme variability in temperature and precipitation, on time scales ranging from days to decades. Mongolia's precipitation is not only low on the average; it varies widely and unpredictably from year to year and from place to place. The dates of first and last frosts, and hence the length of the growing season, also vary widely. Such general conditions favor grasses rather than trees, and they produce prairies rather than forests. Grain can be grown under such conditions, but not every year. Any population attempting to support itself by cereal agriculture could expect to lose its entire crop once every ten years, or every seven years, or every other year, depending on the localities they were farming. Because ecological systems adapt to extreme limiting conditions rather than to the mean of variation, agriculture is not adaptive to Mongolian circumstances. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Pastoralism, however, permits societies to exploit the variable and patchy resources of the steppe. The key to pastoralism is mobility, which permits temporary exploitation of resources that are not sufficient to sustain a human and herbivore population for an entire year. Pastoralism may be combined with agriculture if a stable resource base, such as an oasis, permits, or agriculture may serve, as in central Mongolia, only to supplement herding and may be practiced only to the extent that labor is available. *

A host of features of nomadic life reflect the demands and costs of mobility and of dependence on herds of animals to convert the energy stored in grasses to the milk and meat that feed the human population. Such societies commonly develop a conscious and explicit nomadic ethos, which values mobility and the ability to cope with problems by moving away from threats or toward resources and which disparages permanent settlement, cultivation of the earth, and accumulation of objects. *

Societies based on pastoral nomadism do not exist in isolation, and nomads commonly live in symbiotic relationships with settled agriculturalists, exchanging animal products for grain, textiles, and manufactured goods. Both the nomads and the agriculturalists can, if necessary, survive without the goods provided by the other, but under most circumstances both benefit from exchange. Mongols typically dressed in sheepskin tunics covered with Chinese silk; drank tea from China; consumed a certain amount of millet, barley, and wheat flour; and used cooking pots and steel tools produced by non-nomadic smiths, some of whom were Mongols and some Turkic speakers or Chinese. However, the scattered nature of the population and the necessity of moving trade goods long distances by camel caravan limited the quantity of bulky goods available to nomads. *

Nomad Traditions of the Mongols

But despite increasing urbanization and industrialization, a large portion of the population lives either by the traditional methods of pastoral nomadism--moving their herds (sheep, horses, cattle, goats, and yaks) from one area of temporary sustenance to another--or in a close symbiotic relationship with the nomads. Despite its hardships, the nomadic life provides Mongols with national values and a sense of historical identity and pride. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Nomadic peoples of uncertain origins are recorded as living in what is now the Mongolian People's Republic in the third century B.C., and archaeological evidence takes human habitation in the Gobi back a hundred centuries or more earlier. Warfare was a way of life, against other nomadic peoples in competition for land, and in the south against the Chinese, whose high culture and fertile lands were always attractive to the Mongols. China responded with punitive expeditions, which pushed these pre- and proto-Mongol peoples farther north, west, and east and resulted in periods of Chinese hegemony over parts of Inner Asia. *

Until the twentieth century, most of the peoples who inhabited Mongolia were nomads, and even in the 1980s a substantial proportion of the rural population was essentially nomadic. Originally there were many warlike nomadic tribes living in Mongolia, and apparently most of these belonged to one or the other of two racially distinct and linguistically very different groupings.

Nomadism and Traditional Mongol

Mongolia's modern rulers, using common Marxist categories, describe society before 1921 as "feudal." The term, although not totally accurate, better fits traditional Mongolian society than it does many other societies that have undergone communistdirected revolutions. In traditional Mongolian society, almost all statuses were hereditary. Most exchanges were embedded in long-term, multifaceted social relations rather than transacted in an impersonal market through money; the political system was based on a hierarchy of all-embracing service owed to hereditary overlords; and such limited formal education and social mobility as existed took place within the monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism. The society was dominated by hereditary nobles, who claimed descent from Chinggis Khan and governed the commoners. The nobles were vassals of the Manchu emperors of China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and the hierarchy continued down to the level of the common herders. In this system, people owed broad and ill-defined service, including military duty, the temporary provision of horses to those traveling on official business, and the supply of sheep and livestock on both fixed and special occasions to their overlords. Mongol social life was marked by an elaborate etiquette that expressed degrees of hierarchy and deference through words and gestures. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Above the level of the herding camp, Mongols were enrolled in larger groups that had exclusive rights to use of territory and were, in their formal structure, hereditary military units. Such groups, the names of which varied from place to place and from time to time (banner, aymag, and so forth), were established by political rulers, and people originally were allocated to them regardless of kinship or preexisting social bonds. Membership in such groups was thus fundamentally a political status. Although Mongols recognized exogamous lineages based on patrilineal descent, lineages were not political or property-holding groups, and their membership commonly was spread over several territorial groups. *

Commerce was in the hands of foreign merchants, most of them Chinese. Traditional Mongols exhibited a cavalier disdain for money and practiced careful pecuniary calculation. Mongol aristocrats ran up huge debts to Chinese and Russian merchants, and when pressed by creditors, tried to exact more livestock or services from their dependent commoners. The merchants controlled the interface between the internal Mongol economy--which operated largely with the social mechanisms of reciprocity and redistribution--and the larger market economy, and they profited in the conversion from one economic sphere of exchange to the other. During the 1920s, foreign merchants were expelled from Mongolia, and the debts owed to them were repudiated. *

The only alternative to the all-embracing feudal system of subordination was provided by the Tibetan Buddhism, which recruited both young boys and men as monks, or lamas, and offered careers to those with talent. Although rational and bureaucratic in its organization and accounting, Buddhism was distinctly otherworldly, not interested in progress, and, with some justification, was considered the major obstacle to the modernization of Mongolian life. Between 1925 and 1939, it was destroyed as a significant political and social force. *

The structure of traditional Mongolian society consisted of a large number of equivalent units: herding camps; basic-level territorial units; and Buddhist monasteries, integrated only through their common subordination to political superiors and the shared values of Tibetan Buddhism and Mongol ethnicity. Most of the population occupied only a few occupational roles; herders and ordinary monks accounted for more than 90 percent of the population. Hereditary aristocrats--8 percent of the population-- occupied a larger range of occupational roles and offices as political leaders and administrators; so did the higher monks, with their more differentiated internal organization. The society was traditional in its preference for status relations over contractual ones, for ascribed statuses over achieved ones, for functionally diffuse over functionally specific organization, and in its very low levels of division of labor. *

Nomad Daily Life

Mongols herd sheep, horses, cattle, goats, camels, and yaks. Although horses are the most valued animal, Mongols actually depend on sheep for their basic livelihood. Sheep provide milk, which is processed into butter, cheeses, and other dairy products; mutton, wool, and hide for clothes and tents; and dung for cooking and heating. Sheep can be herded on foot, with one person and a few dogs responsible for a flock. Mongolian dogs, which are famous for their ferocity and hostility to strangers, do not help herd sheep as Western sheepdogs do, but they protect the flocks from wolves or other predators. Sheep are driven back to the camp every night, both for their protection and to provide a concentrated and convenient supply of dung. The sheep are led out to pasture each day, ideally moving out from the camp in a spiral until fresh pasture is so far away that it is more convenient to move the camp. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Each species of animal is herded separately, and herders must balance, therefore, the expected benefit from each type of animal against the cost of providing human labor to watch each separate herd and to move to the precise environment to which each animal is best suited. Sheep are basic, horses something of a luxury item, and other species are added to the camp inventory as labor power and environmental considerations dictate. The demands on human labor mean that a single household is not the optimal unit for herding.

The basic unit in Mongol pastoralism is a herding camp, composed of two to six households, that manages its flocks as a single integrated economic unit. In the past, the members of a herding camp were usually, though not necessarily, patrilineal kinsmen. Membership of the herding camp was reconstituted on a year-to-year basis, with some households remaining in the same camp, others leaving to join different camps, and some camps dividing if their human and animal populations grew too large for effective operation. Under collectivization, herding camps remained the basic unit of pastoral production. *

Cooking is often done with a wok-like pot. Money earned is used to buy flour, rice, vodka and sweets and biscuits for children and guests. Animal dung, known as argul, is a major source of fuel. It is collected with small rakes and tosses them over their shoulder in basket on their back. From time to time blocks of milk and water are frozen for future use.

Nomad Villages and Homes, See Ger Life

Nomad Food and Drink

Among herders the typical diet consist primarily of milk, milk products, meat from the animals they herded, usually mutton, milk teas, millet, airag (koumiss) and liquor. Milk products have traditionally been consumed fresh in the summer and fall. Butter is made from milk, skimmed of during boiling. The remaining milk is fermented with a special yeast to make various kinds of cheeses and yoghurt. Some milk are fermented and distilled into a special kinds of vodka. After distillation the remaining curdled liquid is mixed with flour, roots and bird cherries and frozen into a solid that was consumed during the winters.

Buryats (a Mongolian group) eat the meat of all kinds of animals but prefer mutton, except in the winter when they like to eat beef. Meat is usually prepared in slightly salted water. The bouillon is used as a flavoring for noodles or millet. Out on the steppe, sheep is boiled in salt water over a stove fueled by cow dung. The Mongols break off large chunks of sheep fat and pop in their mouths. Mutton liver, preferably wrapped in stomach lining, is regarded as a delicacy. Many animals are slaughtered in late autumn and the meat is frozen so it can be eaten in the winter.

Nomads boil and eat the lungs, heart, stomach, liver and intestines of the animals they slaughter. Their favorite food is often pieces of pure fat. Big events are celebrated with a feast featuring a sheep slaughtered by slitting its stomach and reaching inside elbow-deep and squeezing the artery between the heart and brain. Nomads have traditionally eaten the intestines and drank the blood of freshly slaughtered animals. The head and eyeballs are considered special treats given to guests. A sheep bladder filled with blood, tied at the ends and boiled is considered a real delicacy.

A typical nomad "hospitality bowl," which is offered to guest contains chunks of tart homemade cheese, sugar cubes, sweet crackers, hard candies, pastries deep fried in yak or mutton fat, vodka and koumiss when it is in season. Guests are often offered a stew made with animal testicles. On Ewan MacGregor’s motorcycle trip through Mongolia in 2004 he and his riding buddies were offered stew with over 200 testicles from horses, cattle and mostly sheep. They were able to eat the first one but had difficulty downing the others.

Mongolian White Food

Milky food, which is called "Chagan Yide" in Mongol, is called of "white food" in Chinese. It is usually made of the pure milk of horse, cow, sheep or camel. It comes in a great variety and Mongolians regard it as very tasty and rich in nutrition at the same time, saying it has "good qualities of hundreds kinds of food". Regarded as the food of daily life, served at feasts to guests and made as a religious offering, Mongolian milky food and the ways of making it varies from region to region but mostly consists of milk skin, cream, cheese and milky bean curd. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Milk skin, "Wu Rimo" in Mongol, is made of pure milk. To make it: 1) pour fresh milk into a pot and it boil with a slow fire. 2) Then, mix with a scoop, pouring fresh milk into the pot from time to time. 3) It is not until the coagulation appears and floats on the surface that the fire can be turn off. 4) Hours later, after alveolate milk skin has coagulated, pick up the milk skin slowly with chopsticks and dry the water embedded on it. 5) Fold it into two. 6) It can be offered as food after dried. Mongolians and many Chinese believe milk skin not only is rich in nutrition, it also possesses medical value as well. It is recorded In “Drinking and Dieting Zhengyao” written in the Yuan dynasty that "as the attribute of milk skin is cool and fresh, it is healthy for clearing lungs. Besides satisfying your thirst and keeping you from cough, it also assists to darken and brighten your hair's color and has the efficacy to cure hematemesis as well." ~

Cream and butter can be prepared and cooked in various ways and has many different names. Usually, it is fermented from fresh milk that kept in bucket, pot or other container. To make cream and butter: 1) Churn milk continuously with a stick after it has turned sour until milk and oil separates. 2) Then, remove the white fat floating on the top, which is cream. Mongolians say it tastes good if the cream is mixed with food, or stir-fried with rice or noodles. 3) If the cream is heated up in a boiler and churned slowly, yellow oil can be extracted. This is butter. The stuff under the butter is ghee dregs. Mongolians and Tibetans believe butter is the essence of milk for it contains multi notorious substance, which is helpful to relieve your mind as well as rest to attain mental tranquility. Moreover, butter can also moisten the lungs and relax the muscles and joints, brighten your eyes and increase life span. ~

Mongolian cheese more or less is the same as yoghourt. To make it: 1) pour fresh milk in a container, such as jar, pot or basin. 2) After letting the milk gradually ferment and coagulate, the concretion separated from the whey is cheese. In the Chifeng area they make cheese by: 1) heating up fresh milk in a boiler; 2) then mix with a scoop while separating out the floating foam and placing it into another pot, becomes cheese (yoghurt) after coagulation. Cheese can be either consumed alone, or mixed with rice or other food. Mongolian say it is tasty and delicious, plus it can also relieve summer heat as well as help one to refresh oneself. ~

Milky tofu is a way of making tofu from milk: To make it: 1) pour yoghurt that has already been extracted from cream into a pot and boil it so that the moisture in it evaporates. 2) After the milk solidifies, place it into molds. It usually eaten after being dried in the sun or shade. Another way to make it is: 1) cool down the yoghurt after heating it up, and 2) then put it into a piece of coarse cloth to filter and extrude. 3) Press into different shapes. Depending on the making process, milky tofu tastes sweet or sour— generally, sweet if sugar is added; and sour without sugar. Dried tofu can be stored for a long time. It can be stir-fried with rice, use to make milk tea and taken as solid food while out in the pastures or on a long journey.

Animal Herding in Mongolia

Two out of every five people in Mongolia make their living herding livestock. Herders generally keep sheep, goats and horses, and sometimes camels and cattle. Mongolians have traditionally referred to themselves as the people of the “the five animals” or the “five snouts,” with the animals being goats, horses, sheep, camels and cattle (including yaks). Chickens and pigs are generally not kept in Mongolia.

The ratio of animals to people is roughly 10 to 1 or higher. In 2004 there were 31 million animals and 2.5 million people. In 2010, according to World Almanac, there were 2.2 million cattle, 426,000 chickens, 24,842 pigs, 14.5 million sheep, 13.9 million goats and 2.8 million people. In 2000, there were 700,000 Bactrian camels, 3.1 million horses, 3.1 million cattle and yaks, 15 million sheep, and 11 million goats. In the mid 1990s, there were over 26 million cattle, horses, sheep and goats. In 1985, in the Soviet era, the animal to people ratio was 13 to 1. That year there were 591,500 Bactrian camels, 1,985,400 horses, 2,397,100 head of cattle, 14,230,700 sheep, and 4,566,700 goats. In the mid 1990s, there were over 26 million cattle, horses, sheep and goats.

A Mongolian saying goes: “Thanks to our animals were clothed and fed.” Livestock have traditionally been an indication of wealth and a form of insurance and welfare—if a family runs low on food, family members can always eat their animals. Camels and horses are most valuable animals. A camel is said to be worth 1.5 horses and a horse is said to be worth seven sheep and 10 goats.

Minerals and livestock and have traditionally been the backbone of the Mongolian economy. Mongolians primarily raise sheep and cashmere goats for money. A few horses are necessary to keep watch over livestock herds and provide transportation but otherwise horses—and camels too, which have traditionally been used to carry ger (tent) parts and other items—are no longer as important as they once were. Horses are kept mainly for recreation, mare’s milk, links to the Mongolian soul and the sheer pleasure of raising horses. Although horses are still a good way to get around on the open steppe, motorcycles can get around most places that horses can. The load carrying duties performed by camels can be done more easily with trucks and tractors.

Livestock and Life on the Steppe

Of the total land area in Mongolia about 65 percent is used for pasturage and fodder. Under the Soviet system fodder was produced on collectives. The grassland environment is better suited for raising livestock than agriculture. Herders generally keep sheep, goats and horses, and sometimes cattle, yaks and Bactrian camels. Animals have traditionally provided butter, cheese, and meat to eat, koumiss and milk to drink, wool to make clothing and tents, dung fuel for stoves, and meat, wool and cashmere to sell. Some nomads can slaughter their animals without spilling a drop of blood.

Daily life revolves around tending, feeding, washing and milking the animals and collecting dung for fuel. These chores have changed little since the time of the ancient Scythians and the Mongols. Sometimes the animals are tended. Other times they are allowed to roam about as if they were free and are rounded up from to time to time. Sometimes it seems as if the animals are wild but they always belong to someone. When animals owned by different nomads are gathered together, sometimes their horns or bodies are painted so they can be told apart.

The main concerns for animal herders are finding enough grazing land and water for their animals. The water comes from rivers, streams and wells. They water in lakes and some wells is often salty. In the winter when grass lies under crusty layers of ice and snow, the animals are fed hay.

Nomads, Semi-Nomads and Livestock

Mongolians have traditionally raised sheep, some horses, cattle and camels in rich pastures. Those that have stuck to their nomadic ways generally raise sheep and earn money by selling mutton, lamb, wool and sheepskin.

During the winter seminomads and their animals live in mud-brick structures and the animals survive off any grass they can find and fodder. In the spring the Mongolians take their sheep to the low pastures, where the ewes give birth. Later the animals are moved to higher summer pastures.

The use of summer pastures has traditionally been under the jurisdiction of individual clans. Among nomads, winter pastures are shared by small communities. Semi-nomads have rights to land around their homes They also generally have rights to certain hay-growing areas where fodder is produced for the winter. These are generally spread out near the winter pastures.

Semi-nomads engage in varying degrees of agriculture. The agricultural land is generally near their permanent winter homes. The poorer households tend to rely on agriculture more than richer ones. Herders who abandoned herding and became year-round farmer have traditionally been looked upon with pity. Under Soviet rule more and more Mongolians chose this existence and became the settled population.

Kazakhs are horsemen like Mongolians but they are many differences between the two ethnic groups. The shapes of their saddles are different. Kazakh yurts are wider and more richly decorated than Mongolia ones.

Hospitality and the Mongolian Nomadic Character

The nomadic way of life encourages people to be self-reliant, and adaptable to outside forces, namely the weather and engenders a spirit of working together, helping out one’s neighbor in times of needs and offering hospitality. According to one Mongol proverb, "Posts support a ger, friends support a man in difficulties." The nomadic lifestyle also engendered a laid back, take-thing-s the come attitude. One Mongolian proverb goes: “If you are afraid don’t do it, If you do it don’t be afraid.”

There is a tradition of hospitality in the steppe. Visitors are rare and they are always welcomed with food and drink. This usually translated into being invited into a ger for some milk tea. If your vehicle breaks down or you need help in some way, people often materialize out of nowhere. One traveler in western Mongolia wrote in National Geographic, “I believe I could have made my journey without tent or supplies and never been stuck for a tent (or ger) to rest in or a plate of mutton to keep me upright in the saddle. It never fails to impress me how a genuine welcome can almost always be found even in the most wretched hovel.”

On his travels to Darhad and Lake Hovsgol, Richard Siberry wrote in a letter to National Geographic: “In Mongolia, the nomad’s creed of never turning away a vistor is still entrenched in the culture. I believe I could have made my journey without tent or supples and never been stuck for a tent (or ger) to rest in or a plate of mutton to keep me upright in the saddle. It never fails to impress how a genuine welcome can almost always be found even in the most wretched hovel, and yet a penthouse door on Park Avenue is seldom likely to swing open when you need it most.”

Nomadic Patience and Flexibility

Patience, tolerance, helping others and keeping a game face even under harsh conditions, not displaying their emotions easily are traits that can be linked with survival on the steppes. Mongolians have a saying, "Keep your hardness on the outside and your love within."

Ariunaa Tserenpil, the director of the Arts Council of Mongolia, “There is this idea that as Mongols we have to be masculine and tough — that history is made by people who ride horses into battle. But we have to enhance our other qualities now.” Ulaanbaatar “is still a nomadic city,” she says, gently laughing at me. “Many people here drive as they ride horses — if they come upon each other, they’ll square off to see who goes first. There is no sense of the collective. In my apartment building, you can tell when a nomadic family moves in. They just leave their garbage out in the corridor. At first, they don’t even take it out to the bin. But then they adjust. They learn to live with their neighbors. They stop and negotiate out in traffic, saying, ‘You can go first.’ [Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 |::|]

“Mongolians can be flexible. It’s in our genes. If this pasture’s no good, we can just move to the next one. We need to bring such suppleness to the global context. We can’t just say, ‘We’re going to close our border and shut down all the mines.’ That’s not going to work. We need to learn how to be neighbors, and can do that. We’ve done it before.” In the 13th century, Ariunaa stresses, Mongolia was not a brutish power. “We developed the Silk Road,” she says. “We were one of the first nations to have international trade and passports. We weren’t afraid of the Chinese then. We were a strong nation with a diverse economy, and we can get there again, in time.” |::|

Nomad Family in Northern Mongolia

On a nomadic herding family in northern Mongolia, Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “Most families in the Darhad still entertain the old-fashioned way, and Batnasan's family is one of them. The 49-year-old matriarch and her kids and grandkids, who live near the town of Renchinlhumbe in the central part of the valley, have agreed to let me go with them as they migrate over the mountains to the east. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]

“Life is hard in Batnasan's family. Her husband died in 1996, so she's now responsible for a household that includes two of her grown daughters, her son and his wife, and three grandchildren, two of them infants. It becomes clear very quickly that the family is shorthanded. When it's time to bring in the cattle and rope up the oxen, they tether the babies inside the ger and leave them crying until the job is done. "Usually men do this work," my translator, Achit, tells me. "But they don't have men." /=/

“Good thing Batnasan is tough. Her forearms are rippled with veins, and though her eyes are warm, she speaks with a masculine punch. The next afternoon, as she squats on a hill above her ger trying to find her horses with Russian binoculars, she explains how her life has changed since 1990, when socialism ended and the Soviets withdrew subsidies that had made up a third of the country's economy. She lost her job at the state-owned textile factory 70 miles (110 kilometers) away in Hatgal, where she'd worked for 20 years. Her husband lost his job at the town's school, and like thousands of people in similar circumstances across Mongolia, they returned to the herding life they had known as kids. "It was good to herd again," she says. "But now everyone has to bear his own burden. People have their own animals, but no one has cash." /=/

“On my first night in their ger, seven-year-old Lhagwaanaa asks if she can sing for me. Of course, I say, and she belts out her favorite song, "My Father Is A Horseman," her voice strong and raspy like her grandmother's. "Sing your cow song," her grandmother says."Now you're telling me what I should sing?"” /=/

Nomad Seasonal Rhythms

Many nomad families spend the short summer in the mountains, where their tend sheep, goats, and camels which graze in Alpine pastures, and then move in the winter down to small settlements or villages, where they live in gers or mud houses.

During the winter the herds typically lose 40 percent of their weight and are sustained by hay cut in the autumn. The animals need about 10 kilograms of hay a head per week. After the first freeze, often enough sheep and goats are slaughtered to provide meat for the herders to last the whole winter. A family may kill 150 animals over three days.

The winter is often one of the busiest times. The animals begin bearing young but are weak from lack of food. Special care has to be taken to make sure the deliveries go smoothly and the young survive. Small ones are often brought in the gers to stay warm. The winter evenings are spent singing, cooking and telling stories.

In the spring and summer horses are milked six times a day to collect milk for koumiss. In May men and children begin preparing for the sporting events in the Naadam festival in July while women spend their free time knitting, sewing and spinning.

Dzuds

The Mongolia word “dzud” (zud) refers to weather conditions that prevents animals from getting enough grass to eat. It usually refers to a cycle of summer droughts followed by an extraordinarily cold winter with heavy snow and ice. Animals, underfed from the drought, simply don’t have the strength to fight and endure spells of harsh cold and dig through ice and snow for grass.

The dzud causes great hardship for herders on the steppe, often killing off entire herds of animals. The drought in the summer leaves animals weak and skinny, plus causes shortages of hay needed to keep the animals going in the winter. The most difficult times are often in the following spring when the food supplies begin to run out. When the animals die in the winter, they are frozen in cold temperatures. The meat can be eaten later.

Dzuds tend to be localized events that affect some people seriously and don’t affect others. Cows are often the first to go followed by horses, sheep, camels and goats. One herder said, “The dzud—it happens sometimes. It’s survival. It’s our karma.”

See Dzuds Under Weather

Harsh Weather and Constraints on Herding

The harsh winter provides the greatest challenge to pastoralists. The herds traditionally have spent the winter eating dried grasses on the range, with at most a stone corral for shelter from the worst winter blizzards. Since the 1950s, Mongolian authorities have worked to provide shelters and fodder for the herds. Catastrophic storms, coming in midwinter or at the spring lambing season, can wipe out entire herds or severely reduce their numbers. Herders move to special winter campsites, and they reduce the size of the herd to be carried on the winter pasture by slaughtering any animals thought unlikely to survive the winter. Late fall is the only time Mongols routinely slaughter animals; the meat, preserved by drying and freezing, sustains the people during the season when neither sheep nor horses are producing milk. (Mongols do not eat horseflesh; Kazakhs do.) Mongols traditionally have consumed more milk products than meat; animals are slaughtered in seasons other than fall only for ceremonial occasions or for obligatory hospitality to guests. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Winter conditions, which severely test the Mongols' ability to sustain their herds and hence themselves, throw the society's property system and the larger political structure into relief. The key element in bringing a herd through the winter is a suitable winter campsite, which must have a source of water near terrain sheltered from the worst storms but open enough for the wind to blow snow off the grasses. The number of winter campsites is limited, and their ownership always has been well-defined. In the past, they were owned privately by families under the residual ownership of the lowest-level local administrative unit known by a number of names, banners being common. Now they are owned by the herding cooperative or state farm, which allocates them to herding camps. *

Outsiders, who tended to observe Mongolian herders only in the summer, mistakenly assumed that they wandered randomly across an undifferentiated sea of grass. From a Mongolian perspective, however, the landscape was far from undifferentiated, and each move of a camp reflected a careful decision that matched the needs of the herd with an estimate of the condition of the grasses and the water supply at several known sites within a large, but bounded, territory. Traditionally, Mongols thought of ownership and territory not, as an agriculturalist would, in terms of square kilometers or hectares of ground with a sharp line around them, but as rights to use certain strategic areas in the landscape, such as springs, streambanks adjacent to good pasture, or named and permanent winter campsites. Such areas were the objects of conflict between and among groups of herders; the larger political structure, both past and present, regulated access to these key resources and adjudicated claims to them. *

See Dzuds Under Weather

Effects of Harsh Weather on Northern Mongolia Nomads

Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: Tsogbadrah, “another friend of the family who has met up with us for a short part of the ride, tells me about his trip from his winter camp back to the Darhad in March 2000. He and his family were moving through the mountains when a blizzard struck, dumping snow "up to a horse's stomach." He lost track of his cattle and horses, and then his wife and daughter. He had to bundle his granddaughter up in his robe to keep her from freezing and feared they were both going to die. By the time he found the camp, three of the gers had blown down and only one remained upright—with his wife and daughter in it. "I was so relieved I cried," he says. Two of his cattle died standing, buried in snow, with holes peeking through where they had been breathing. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]

“That year Mongolia had a dzud, a harsh winter following a dry summer that makes it hard for animals to get enough grass to survive until spring. The next winter, another dzud; this time Tsogbadrah lost almost a fourth of his herd, and Batnasan lost more than 20 animals. By spring 2002, after three dzuds in a row, more than a fifth of Mongolia's 33 million livestock animals had died, and thousands of herders had streamed into towns and cities looking for some way to live—prompting the prime minister's comment that Mongolians had to stop being nomads in order to survive.” /=/

Gobi Desert Nomads

Describing a herding in the Gobi desert, where cashmere goats thrive, Jane Macartney wrote in The Times of London: “On the Mongolian steppes, the emptiness and the silence inspire awe. From time to time a huge, tawny eagle drifts on the breeze, watching for small animals to snatch amid the grasses. The only movement on the ground comes from the flocks of sheep and goats, yaks and cattle that roam, heads down, as they munch their way across the grasslands. Here and there white yurts – the portable dwellings used by the nomadic people — stand out on the endless sea of grass. At one cluster of four yurts, a mother gathers her teenage children, slings a metal bucket over each arm and sets out to milk the horses, a hundred of which graze with their foals near by. The fermented milk is turned into airag, the national drink. [Source: Jane Macartney, The Times of London, August 8, 2009 +++]

“The family’s other animals have been moved for the summer to a more remote area where the grass is greener. The total flock numbers several hundred beasts; nothing too large by Mongolian standards, the mother explains. It is virtually a subsistence living. However, the goats and their fine, downy cashmere brings in cash that enables the family to buy such luxuries as a satellite dish or a motorcycle. Most flocks now include as many goats as they do sheep. This represents a huge shift, officials say, from the days when the latter outnumbered the former two to one.” +++

Reporting from Dalanzadgad, Brett Forrest wrote in the New York Times: “The fire went out at 3 a.m. The cold on the floor of the ger woke me up. It was mid-December and minus-7 degrees Fahrenheit on our scrap of the Gobi Desert. As I lay awake, on the other side of the ger from a family of three, I thought that of all the people in the world, Gobi nomads must be the toughest. Drought and cold and sandstorms and isolation confound the gathering of the materials that perpetuate life, and yet these people survive. [Source: Brett Forrest, New York Times. January 14, 2013]

“A match illuminated the ger’s interior and then ignited desert brush in the stove. The morning’s first whispers concerned the tending of the camel herd grazing a few miles across the snow-patched sand. It would be another day of challenges and honest rewards. We sipped milk tea and broke off hardened dough with our back teeth. The old herder woman, Tsetsegma, said that of 300 traditionally nomadic families in the South Gobi, 80 remained.”

Nomad Culture

Mongolian society and culture developed in interaction with, and in conscious opposition to, that of settled agriculturalists, most of them Chinese. Along the ill-defined Inner Asian frontier between the lands with sufficient rainfall and warm weather to support agriculture and the grasslands most effectively exploited by pastoralists, people and cultural elements for centuries have moved in both directions, with some agriculturalists abandoning their marginal farms and becoming herders, and with some herders settling down either as dominant overlords or as laborers. Superimposed on the gradation and shading that are characteristic of frontier cultural and biological systems is a cultural system of ethnic groups that exaggerates distinctions and denies commonalities.[Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Much of Mongolian traditional culture thus goes beyond the objective, technical demands of pastoral life to a conscious glorification of the values of nomadism and a disparagement of practices associated with settlement in general and with Chinese culture in particular. Traditionally, Mongols not only preferred a diet of meat and milk, but they despised, and refused to eat, vegetables, justifying this with a proverb, "Meat for men, leaves for animals." Although Mongolian lakes and rivers are full of fish, traditionally Mongols did not eat fish. Mongols disdained the sort of regular, patient toil practiced by Chinese farmers or traders, and scorned any work that could not be performed from horseback. Such values and attitudes have presented severe obstacles to efforts to modernize Mongolian society. *

Horses are the focus of an elaborate cultural complex, in which the care of horses is a male prerogative, whereas tending and milking sheep is a female task. In Mongolian epics, the second lead is always the horse, which gives sound advice to the hero. In Mongolian chess, the most powerful piece is called the horse, rather than the queen. The national musical instrument is a bowed string instrument with a carved horse's head, called a morin huur, which, according to legend, was invented by a rider who used the rib bones and the mane of his favorite horse to make an instrument to express his sorrow at its death. Fermented mare's milk, ayrag, is the national drink; it is considered to have special nutritional and tonic qualities. State-owned mines and factories maintain special herds of horses to provide their workers with the ayrag they are thought to require to maintain their health. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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