Daniel Griffiths of the BBC wrote: “High on the grasslands of Mongolia it does not seem as though much has changed in hundreds of years. The vast steppe still rolls on forever until blue sky and yellow earth become one. The nomads, astride their small fast ponies, still herd their animals from summer to winter pastures, following in the footsteps of their ancestors.” [Source: Daniel Griffiths, BBC News, January 11, 2007]
Herders have traditionally moved their animals between the high summer pastures of the mountains and their villages camps on steppes where they spend the winter. They pick up and move two or three times a year, typically in May and October, usually remaining within a 25-square mile area, and relocate from November to April to a winter camp with some stone shelters for the animals.
Herders stay in an area as long as the there is enough grass. Where grazing land is more scarce nomads roam across large swaths of empty plains, mountains and grassland, having to travel longer distances and pack up and move maybe ten or so times a year or as often as twice a week. Moving the animals around also allows the grass to grow back. It takes a nomad around two weeks to slowly move his animals, which graze along the way, 100 kilometers. The nomads don’t need maps and GPS devices; they use the sun, stars, the shape of hills and mountains and landmarks to find their way.
There are no fences, except around cities, Herders have traditionally takes their animals to where the pastures were best. In the dusty steppes and sandy deserts they find places where wild grasses grow tall and find places in the mountains were the pastures are sweet. Men traditionally rode on horses, Women rode on horseback or on the pack animals. Bactrian camels were traditionally used to move possessions. Everything was loaded on their backs: ger parts, carpets, pots and pans, shelves, stoves. These days trucks often fulfill this duty. Some have argued the nomadic migrations have been determined by more than practicality. The Mongol poet Myagmarjav wrote: “My fellow countrymen, do you see the clouds in the sky? That's where my people are migrating. They're coming through the clouds into happiness.”
The pastures are divided according to season—summer, spring/fall, and winter based on the amount of grass and when the grass is sufficient to eat, which is often determined by geography, climate conditions and season. The summer pastures are usually located in the north in the steppe areas or in the mountains. These areas have abundant, lush grass but heavy snows make it impossible for the animals to graze. In the winter the animals are taken to the south or to the desert and semidesert zones, where autumn rains are imperative for producing grass for animals to eat.
Nomads that live near mountains migrate between the high pastures in the summer and the river valleys in the winter. The distance between pastures and the river valleys is often less than 80 kilometers. During the summer they often set up their gers in the open pastures and gather for hair cutting ceremonies, weddings, funerals, festivals and family reunions that often feature singing and horse races.
Between the main summer and winter migrations nomads stay briefly at fall and spring pastures. Nomads that move overland between the northern steppes and the southern semideserts are known as “meridanal” nomads while those that migrate up and own the mountains are called “vertical” nomads. The nature of the migration, the type of grass available and the market price for animals and family and clan needs determine which animals are raised.
Northern Mongolia Nomad Migration
Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “With September's snow dusting the peaks surrounding northern Mongolia's Darhad valley, herders are busy fattening their animals for their coming migration to winter pastures. Over the course of a few weeks in October and early November, hundreds of families will move thousands of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses through these 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) mountains.[Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]
“People have been crossing the mountains in northern Mongolia, and dying in them, for generations. When fall comes to the Darhad valley, hundreds of families load up their oxen and move their sheep, goats, and cattle to winter camps where the grass is long enough to get the herds through until spring, and where the weather is a good 20 degrees (11 degrees C) warmer. Between the 1,300-square-mile (3,400 square kilometer) valley and the winter camps stands a wall of 10,000-foot (3,000 meter), snowcapped peaks that can be as brutal as they are beautiful. /=/
“Most families spend the winter in the grassy mountain-sheltered valleys just west of Lake Hovsgol, but some make it all the way to the 85-mile (137-kilometer) long lake's edge. Here they'll wait out the long winter in view of the Blue Pearl of Mongolia, the country's largest and most pristine freshwater lake.” The October trip to the wintering site easy going — “the snow is shallow and the cattle and sheep are as fat as propane tanks. On the way back in the spring, the snow will be thick and the animals will be thin, and nothing will be this easy.” /=/
On the hardships of the migration, Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “I've seen that happiness in many faces. But I've also seen hardships along the migration route. I've seen an old woman inching up the trail on a day of below-zero (minus 18 degrees C) temperatures, in felt boots with the bottoms falling off, grabbing her hips, moaning "yo, yo, yo, yo"—ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch—following her 11-year-old granddaughter who can't go to school because the family needs her to herd their cattle. I've seen a 78-year-old man fretting because if he dies on the trip he's not sure his daughter and two grandkids can make it without him. I've seen the ravine where a few years ago an old woman on an ox-drawn stretcher almost bled to death when she got flipped over and dragged face first down the trail (the third time she'd cheated death, she later told me). I've heard a rumor that two babies just got frostbite, and I've seen a 72-year-old grandmother nursing bruises on her face after being bucked from her spooked horse.”
Northern Mongolia Nomad Migration Begins
On the beginning of the migration in northern Mongolia, Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “It's a beautiful day on the way to the mountain pass, and sheep and shepherds alike bask in the ease of the travel. The families that move early get the benefit of warmer weather, but there can be a cost: Their animals will start eating the winter camp's grasses earlier, leaving less for season's end. The return trip in spring—when the animals are thin and the snow is thick—is always much more difficult. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]
“The work starts early on migration day. Batnasan's family is up before sunrise to take down the ger and start packing the oxen, and Boldbaatar, a friend of the family who will help herd as far as the pass through the mountains, heads out to find the horses. It always takes longest to get ready the first day, they tell me, but we're moving by nine—a caravan of 400 cattle, sheep, goats, and horses, plus 17 oxen loaded with cargo that includes the two babies tucked into open crates. It's an exhilarating spectacle as we cross the sunny prairie toward the snowcapped peaks, the dogs racing through the herd, the cattle jostling for position, our wrangler Nyamhuu singing from the saddle. I pick up a few of the howls and grunts used to keep the animals moving—my favorite sounds like an angry, abbreviated sneeze: "Ach!"—and gallop after strays, hollering like a madman. /=/
“With the mercury creeping toward 60 degrees F (16 degrees C)—rare for the second week of October—I turn to Boldbaatar and Davaanyam, Batnasan's grown son, as we whistle and holler behind the cattle. "This the best thing about being a herder?" I ask, and they both crack huge smiles. "Te," Boldbaatar says. "Yeah." Boldbaatar, whose name means Steel Hero, has a dark intensity true to his name. His eyes are restless, his mouth long and drawn, and when he lights a cigarette, he stares at the flame of the match solemnly, like it bears some sort of wearying news. He has a bloodcurdling cry that never fails to send the sheep scurrying; it sounds like the howl of some trapped beast. And to an extent, he is trapped. He herds his animals in the summer but gives them to Batnasan for the winter because he has to stay in town for his three kids, two of whom are in school. And for those six months he has nothing to do—there are no jobs in Renchinlhumbe, the largest of the valley's three towns, with more than a thousand people. His kids love being in school, but for him, "life in town is really hard," he says. "I wish I could stay with my animals."” /=/
On the Move During Northern Mongolia Nomad Migration
Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “The second day on the trail is as glorious as the first, and I'm at risk of getting an overly rosy idea of what migrating is like... As clouds gather on our third day out, we cross the high mountain pass that is our main obstacle, giving thanks for the safe passage at the summit with an offering of vodka. Our timing is perfect: That night it snows. In the morning we break camp before first light, and it's clearly a cold new season as we make our way down the dry rocky riverbeds. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]
“Because the summer has been so dry, there may be no water at the winter camp, so Batnasan decides to stop at a site two days short of our final destination. The family will rest several days here in the lee of a mountain ridge, then send someone ahead to check the winter camp for water. If there is none, they'll have to stay here until enough snow accumulates to provide reliable water, which could take days or weeks. In minutes a cold patch of snowy ground will become transformed into a felt-walled palace, where 13-year-old Bogii and his family will recoup from the day's migration with a meal of mutton and milky tea. /=/
“The weather worsens as we wait. By the next day the weather has cleared, and Nyamhuu, Achit, Chinbat (our cook and resident card shark), and I decide that we need to head back to the Darhad. By the time the family moves to the winter camp, the weather might be too harsh for us to make the trip back over the mountains. I give the family a fistful of chemical hand and toe warmers for those 40-below (minus 40 degrees C) January days when they've got to chase down errant horses, and we start riding back. /=/
“Before the sun rises they'll take down the ger, pack up the oxen, and begin all over again. As we weave through the snow-dusted canyons, Nyamhuu sings Mongolian folk songs and whistles with a warble that reminds me of a Native American flute. "My father was born here, I was too," he sings. "This land is my future. . . ." With no animals to herd, we make it back to Renchinlhumbe in a quick two days' ride.”
Wolves Threaten the Northern Mongolia Migration
While waiting for the weather to clear, Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “On the second day we're playing cards by the woodstove when son Davaanyam bursts into the ger. "Wolves are chasing the horses," he says. The herd was behind the hill last night, but he's spotted wolf tracks—"the size of a palm"—and the horses are nowhere to be seen. He was out looking for a couple of hours, but it's bitterly cold, and he decided he'd better suit up and eat something before he heads out to find them. They could be a half day's ride away by now. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]
“Davaanyam grabs a .22 rifle, and we saddle up our horses, which were tied up apart from the main herd. As we ride up the mountain behind the ger, I finally get a taste of how punishing this life can be. The wind is fierce and frigid, and my face goes from stung to numb in seconds. The terrain is steep and slowgoing in the slick snow, and I'm profoundly relieved when Davaanyam spots the horses clustered near the top of a distant ridge. We circle around and ride up the back side of the ridge so we don't scare them in the wrong direction, and there we find wolf tracks. Nyamhuu, the wrangler, grabs the rifle, and we take off on foot, my translator, Achit, and I huffing and puffing behind him. The tracks go around a rock outcropping and then double over our tracks. The wolves have been following us! /=/
“But for some reason, it seems, they've thought better of it and disappeared. Nyamhuu keeps hoping to find them in his sights somewhere on the slopes, but he'll go home without a trophy, and no one's complaining: All 30 horses are present and accounted for. We're lucky. "Every year a few horses get eaten," Davaanyam says.” /=/
Too Old to Migrate
Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “Loaded in a crate atop a camel's back, 88-year-old Dashingaa waits for the week-long journey to begin. She's one of many who are too old, young, or sick to make the trip by foot or horseback; like the rest she will take her chances against the elements. The rough terrain and sub-zero temperatures can be deadly. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]
“The old man hates it that he can't talk. As his wife tells us about his recent stroke, he pulls the blanket over his head and lies there in bed, peeking out. It's a seven-day trip over the mountains to their winter camp, she explains, and he's too weak to ride a horse. "Somehow we're going to take him," she says, "but I'm not sure how." They'll probably have to tie him to a stretcher attached to two long poles and pull him behind an ox. It's rough terrain, and temperatures are already well below freezing. /=/
“The old man, whose name is Purevsh, pulls the blanket from his face and calls to his son to help him sit up—"da da da da da da da." Once they get his emaciated body upright, Purevsh looks around the room, his eyes brimming with tears. He knows what everyone's thinking: He's going to die in the mountains....Cliff Montagne... who has been working in the Darhad for six years...comes up with an idea: He will give Purevsh and his family money for gas, about $120, if they can find someone to drive a truck to their winter camp—the long way, skirting the mountains. /=/
Impact of Tourism and Modernism on Northern Mongolia Migration
Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “A brawny 25-year-old with a wrestler's swagger and an easy laugh, Nyamhuu tells me he loved migrating as a kid. "The migration is a lot of work, but it's also something to look forward to," he says. "Old people say when they migrate, it lifts their spirits." Nyamhuu met his wife migrating on this very route. But his nomadic days are over. The year he got married his parents gave them 30 cows, and that same year—the dzud winter of 1999-2000—half of them died. He decided he had better options. Now he works as a wrangler for Boojum Expeditions, the American-owned company handling logistics for Gordon, the photographer, and me. Nyamhuu is paid 25,000 tugriks a month—about $23—plus 2,500 tugriks for each day in the field. "In the countryside it's a big salary," he says. Herders make some cash in the fall selling meat and hides and in the spring selling cashmere from their goats, but they've got to make that last for a year's worth of flour, clothing, and other necessities. "There's no herder with a monthly salary like this." [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]
“With tourism on a fast uptick in the area, other herders may increasingly be able to follow Nyamhuu's lead. Already two foreign-funded tourist companies have set up shop in the Darhad—Boojum and a Czech-led venture—and three more companies run operations at nearby Lake Hovsgol, which was made a national park in 1992. During a single autumn month in the Darhad I have run into travelers from Switzerland, Israel, Denmark, Italy, South Africa, France, and the United States. Five years ago, this valley was virtually undiscovered.” /=/
Hodges guide Mishig said: "Someone like you comes to Mongolia and sees how we live and thinks it's romantic, and you want to preserve it. But people who live it don't think it's romantic—it's a hard life. If they can buy a truck to do the work of ten oxen—why not? Mongolia gets a third of its money in foreign aid. Do we tell the World Bank that we want to keep our people migrating on oxen?" /=/
“It's not quite what I expected him to say. Again and again I've heard him take pride in the culture of the Darhad and lament the erosion of traditional ways. When he has said that he expects people to be migrating by truck 20 years from now, for there to be roads through the mountains and bridges over rivers, I've assumed it was something he didn't want. But I was wrong. He loves the Darhad as it is, but he loves it just as much for what it can become. And he asked us here to take a snapshot of the moment, like a parent wanting to remember his child at a certain age without wanting her to stop growing.” /=/
“When Batnasan hears about Purevsh, the old man who's migrating by truck thanks to Cliff, she says, "I would go by truck if possible." This surprises me given how many times she's already said how great the migration was going and how much fun it is with us along. But it's less surprising when I remember the ruckus earlier in the day when the ox carrying the babies started mounting and butting other cattle in the herd, and when I remember that over the years a number of infants have died on the migration through these mountains.
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016