MONGOLIAN NOMADIC LIFE

MONGOLIAN NOMADIC LIFE

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Mongol nomads
Mongolians have traditionally grown up on horseback and horses played an important part in their life. Mongolians used to prove their worth by showing good horsemanship, archery and wrestling skills. A red or green waistband a with flint steel, snuffbox and knife in an ornate sheath for cutting meat were accessories common to all men and women. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

In pastoral areas, beef, mutton and dairy products are the staple food, while in the farming areas, people like to eat grain. Tea is indispensable. Dried cow dung is a common cooking fuel.Mongolian herdsmen used to live primarily in felt yurts (See Below). After the mid-20th century, as more and more herdsmen ended their nomadic life and settled down, they began to build yurt-like houses of mud and wood and one-storied houses, each with two or three rooms like those in other parts of the country. Today, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks in urban development centers. *|*

Since 1978, the "job responsibility system," under which the earnings of the herdsmen and peasants are linked with the amount of work they put in, has been implemented in the region. According to the Chinese government: This has further fired the enthusiasm of the Mongolian people and this has brought tremendous changes to the life of the Mongolian people. In the old days, the majority of them lived in hunger, being deprived of the essential means of life such as an old yurt. Today they have well-furnished yurts with clean beds and new quilts. Sewing machines, radios, TV sets, telescopes and cream separators are no longer novelties to the ordinary Mongolian herdsmen. Many new houses with paned windows have been built in the Mongolian settlements. *|*

Horsemen in Western and Northern China

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Constructing a yurt
The Mongols, Turks, Huns, Tartars and Scythians are the best known of horsemen groups that have roamed the steppes of Central Asia and the ones that were most successful in expanding beyond their native realm and impacted the worlds they touched. The Mongols created the largest empire the world has ever known.

Horseman groups originated about 2,500 years ago and continue in various forms today. Throughout their long run they have maintained many of the customs, characteristics, martial arts and methods of organization that evolved millennia ago such spending living in yurt-style tents, drinking fermented mare’s milk, fighting from horseback and creating art forms that celebrate horses and animals of the steppe.The home range of the early horsemen, the Eurasia steppe, is vast area of land that extends from the Carpathian mountains in Hungary to eastern Mongolia.

About 40,000 ethic Kazakh, Mongol and Kyrgyz nomads still roaming the grasslands. Authorities want them to settle down in permanent houses and are attempting to do this by fencing off grazing grounds and establishing permanent settlements. The Chinese see nomadism as inferior to farming and conventional livestock rearing.

In places where overgrazing is a problem fences have been put up and herders have been given plots of land to encourage to take good care of it. To reduce the number of animals the government is encouraging herders to cut the size of their flocks by 40 percent, relocate and stall-feed their animals. But herders are not so keen on these ideas. Animals have traditionally been a source of wealth and a kind of insurance for hard times.

Some nomads like the idea. They want a high standard of living. Those that participate in the Chinese program are given 13 hectares of land, a four-room concrete house. One former nomad rents out three fourths of his land to a farmer who grows wheat and vegetables and cotton. With the rest of the land he grows food for his 200 sheep, 100 cows and 70 horses. Detractors argue the program will spoil ethnic identity and destroy the grasslands through overgrazing.

Kazahks, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Uighurs can easily communicate because their languages are so similar and often eat and party together. During social gatherings, women usually serve the meals but don't join the men while they are eating. They do join in for the after dinner sing and dancing. Permanent Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol and Uighur homes are made of mud bricks covered with smooth mud "plaster." Red and black carpets with geometric designs cover the walls and floors. Most homes have kangs, a raised platform with yet more rugs where family eats, relaxes and sleeps under a heap of quilts. Kangs are heated in the winter. Meals are usually cooked over an open fire on a mud brick stove formed in the corner of the house.

Handful of Mongol Herders Live on in China

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Horses in Yiling region of Xinjiang
Few Mongols live as traditional horsemen and herders. Most made the move from yurts to brick homes decades ago and wear traditional robes only on special occasions. “Most of our people have moved away from the old way of life,” the Mongolian punk-folk-singer Ilchi said, “After moving to the cities, many of us have gradually been subjected to a very strong cultural invasion by an oppressive culture...Everyone surrounding you speaks Chinese,” Ilchi says. “No one speaks Mongolian. If you don't speak Chinese, you can't survive. It's unavoidable. The Beijing government claims they are happier than they were before.

The Torgut Mongols remain nomadic. They herd sheep, some horses, cattle and camels in rich pastures of the Junggar basin, a region surround by tree-covered snow-capped mountains that are reminiscent of the Alps.

Elsewgere, Mongol culture lives among a dwindling number of people. Buyandalai, a herder of Hexigten Banner, Inner Mongolia, insists on living in a Mongolian yurt with his wife when other herders are replacing their traditional dwellings with brick houses. He says there are less than 20 families in his banner who still live in yurts all year long like him. [Source: Zhang Zixuan, China Daily, December 6, 2010]

Altandelger lives in downtown Hexigten and spends most of his time making horse saddles, a craft declared a provincial-level intangible cultural heritage in Inner Mongolia. "A traditional Mongolian saddle set takes more than one month to make," Altandelger told the China Daily. "It begins with a wood base, which is then covered with sharkskin or leather. Other accessories such as stirrups and silver decorations are added later." Although the horse is no longer the primary means of transport in the grasslands, making the saddle is an art that Altandelger wants to pass on. [Ibid]

Gers and Yurts

The size of yurt is determined by the number of wall frame pieces, called leafs or hanas. They are generally 160 centimeter high and two meter long. There are four-leaf, six-leaf, eight-leaf, ten-leaf, twelve-leaf, eighteen-leaf and even twenty-four-leaf yurts. Commonly, most nomads live in the six-leaf or eight-leaf yurts. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

The process of setting up a yurt is very simple: 1) select a flat area and clear away stones of other impediments; 2) set up the gate, door or door frame of the yurt; 3) prop up the plaiting-walls (hanas) and tie up the inside waistband; 4) prop up the round wooden rooftop hole or wooden centerpiece; 5) insert the roof pole; 6) enclose the plaiting-walls and cover the roof poles with carpet-like pieces and keep these in place with ropes tied securely outside of the yurt,; 7) hang up the curtain of the skylight, enclose the felt at the bottom; and 8), lastly tighten firmly the whole structure with a hair-rope. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

The doorway of a yurt always faces to the southeast. Inside the yurt, there are places for cooking in the middle for cooking, drinking and keeping warm. A chimney empties smoke through the skylight. A cowhide, a woolen felt or a carpet is usually spread round the cooking area. The living rooms at the right and the western side are for seniors, while the eastern side rooms are for younger people. The furniture consist mainly of wooden cupboards, cabinets, trunks and desks, which are generally characterized by smallness, lowness, durability and convenience. They are designed to take up as little space as possible and with stand rough journeys in trucks or on camel back. Although yurts look relatively small from the outside they can be surprisingly spacious on the inside. To aid the circulation of air, the layer of felt spread at the bottom of the plaiting-wall can be lifted up for ventilation in summer and in the middle of the day when it os relatively warm. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

An entire yurt can be carried away by two camels or a light wooden cart. After the wall pieces (hanas) are disassembled the hanas are often together so they serve as platforms to tie the felt pieces and other stuff to.

In recent years, the structures and materials of the yurt have been modernized. Steel frameworks are now available. You can also get windows that open both in the front and the back that improve the lighting in the otherwise dark yurt. These days you can find many yurts with bed, televisions, computers, stereos and satellite dishes.

See HORSEMAN TENTS, FOOD AND DRINK factsanddetails.com

Yurts and Mongolian Culture

Mongolians have a deep affection for their yurts, which are celebrated in songs, stories and poems. One ancient folk song of the eastern grassland of Mongolia goes: [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Imitating the shape of the blue sky,
It has a round-round top;
Coping the color of the white cloud,
It is made of woolen felt blanket.
That's the vault---
The family of our Mongolia.

Imitating the shape of the sky,
The skylight became the symbol of the sun;
Imitating the constellations of celestial bodies,
The droplight became the round shape of the moon.
That's the vault---
The family of our Mongolia.

Mongolian Horses, Camels and Wooden Cart

Beasts of burden and light wooden cart have traditionally been the two major means of communications and transport for Mongolian. For work animals, Mongolians rely mainly on horses and camels. Mongolians learn how to ride horses when they are kids. An old Mongol saying goes: “songs are our wings while horses are our partners.” The traditional Mongolian nomad life revolved around horses: riding the, putting them out to pasture, moving their yurts to find better pastures. Even things like passing on information, visiting the home of relatives or friends, even holding marriages, depended on horses. Mongolians form affectionate ties with their horses, look upon them a valuable treasures and view horses as holy animals. Many poems, proverbs and sayings praising them have been passed down from generation to generation. The horse is sometimes taken an analogy for the Mongolian people. The names for different types of horses are also full of admiration and appreciative meanings, such as horse of “chasing wind, flowing cloud horse,” Bailong horse and Qinglong horse (named after Chinese emperors) and winged steed. Major festivals often have horses as their central focus. There are even special festivals in which Mongolians express their deep affection for horses, such as the Koumiss festival and Festival of Cutting a Horse’s Mane. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Camels are also highly valued by Mongolians. Having a relatively gentle disposition and relatively easy to be tame, they are resistant to cold or hot, hunger and thirst and good at trudging long distances while shouldering heavy loads. On top of that they produce milk, meat and fine hair and can live off harsh grasses. Camels are still widely used in the western part of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Called "Temo" in Mongolian, camels are used both as mounts and as carriers. A camel is able to walk up to 40 kilometers a day with its one meter strides and carry loads up to 200 kilograms, equal to the load carried by two bullocks. Since ancient times camels have been called "ships of the desert" and were the primary means of carrying loads in desert. Even nowadays, there are circumstances when a camel is preferable to modern means of transportation such as planes, trains, trucks and cars. the desert area of the western of Inner Mongolian—places like KubuQi, Maowu Su—camels caravans are still used to carry loads for surveyors and geologists as well as herders. The sounds of bells in the desert usually means camels are nearby. ~

Light wooden carts— called "winch cart", "Luoluo cart" or " Niuniu cart" in old days—have traditionally been completely made of birch or elm rather than iron or metal to be light. It has has a small body with two wheels, whose diameter are around 1.5 to 1.6 meter. The structure is very simple so it easy to repair. The wheels are made of hardwood that is chopped and curved pieces are that are connected to rims and formed into a circle. Each wheel is supported by thirty-six spokes. Below the feet are two shafts and ten props. The two shafts are about four meter long. They are fixed by ten props in the middle. A light wooden cart is able to carry five or six hundred kilograms cargo, whereas its own weight is only about fifty kilograms.

Durable and light, these wooden cart is suitable for travel on grassland, snow, swamps and sand. They are used to carry rice and milk and move yurts and firewood. As the carts can be connected into trains, a family can easily manage and carry all their possessions in eight to ten carts. In addition to these there are specially-made carts for a special purposes. For example the "saloon cart" is enclosed by shed can people in rainy weather. The "depot cart" can be used to store foodstuff or meat and has an installed wooden cupboard, The "water cart" is built with wooden groove, cowhide bag and metal pail as water containers. These days many of the jobs done by these as well as light wooden carts is done by trucks, tractors and cars.

Efforts to Settle Mongol Herders

Since the early 1980s when Inner Mongolia, along with the rest of the nation, introduced the system of farmland quotas, the traditionally nomadic herdsmen have become settlers. This has meant the grasslands are no longer grazed seasonally by rotation but intensely all-year round on the allotted lands.

Andrew Jacobs wrote in New York Times, “In Damao, those with money are encouraged to move into new apartment blocks on the outskirts of town. For now, they appear largely vacant, although a billboard near the entrance claims that 20,000 people have already moved into the 31 buildings. Those too poor to buy new homes rent cramped rooms in the town’s Mongolian quarter, a grim, densely packed cluster of brick buildings. On a recent afternoon, Suyaltu and Uyung, the husband-and-wife proprietors of a small canteen called Friend of the Grassland, explained how they were forced to sell their pasture and a herd of 300 cows, sheep and horses in 2004. There are perks to the program, they said: subsidized school fees for their college-age daughter, a $2,775 annual subsidy and the advantages of living near medical clinics, shops and schools.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

See Xinjiang herders

Effects of Efforts to Settle Mongol Herders

Andrew Jacobs wrote in New York Times, Uyung, 50, said that even when combined with the income from their restaurant, their soon-to-expire subsidy was not enough to sustain the family. Then there are other, less tangible downsides to the arrangement. “We feel lost without our herds and the grassland,” she said as her husband looked at his feet and dragged on a cigarette. “We discovered we are not suited to the city, but now we are stuck.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

Chen Jiqun, director of Echoing Steppe, an organization that works to protect Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, told the New York Times the benefits of ecological migration were questionable. For one, he said, a healthy pasture depends on the hooves of grazing animals to grind up manure. “Otherwise it just blows away and the land loses its fertility,” he said. In a report issued last December, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, criticized China’s nomad resettlement policies as overly coercive and said they led to “increased poverty, environmental degradation and social breakdown.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, June 11, 2011]

Mongol Herders and Their Horses

Zhang Zixuan wrote in the China Daily: “Buyandalai, 48,a herder of Hexigten Banner, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, says he owes his life to his horse. But for its furious kicking to alert him to two wolves closing in on him on a full moon night in the open in 1985, he would never have been able to flee the scene in time. Buyandalai points out that Mongolians have been identified as "an ethnic group on horseback" since the time of Genghis Khan (1162-1227). [Source: Zhang Zixuan, China Daily, December 6, 2010]

"The horse is a totem of the Mongolian people," Buyandalai told the China Daily but laments that they are fast losing their iconic status. The sight of thousands of galloping horses, a common one at the time of Buyandalai's father is fast becoming the stuff of fairytales. Living on the undulating Gungger steppe, Buyandalai still uses his horse as his means of transport, which he says is faster especially in winter. [Ibid]

But what he cares about much more is the cultural significance of the horse to his ethnic group. "Mongolian culture is not just about singing songs and eating meat; it has got spirit," he says. "The Mongolian horse defines who we are." The herder continues to own some 20 horses despite being fined more than 20,000 yuan ($3,000) between 2005 and 2009 by the local administration. [Ibid]

Herders Forced to Give Up Horses Because of Concerns About Overgrazing

As the authorities step up efforts to save the grasslands from over-grazing they are urging and coercing herders to give up the horse. In 2003, the local steppe administrative bureau began to restrict the number of horses based on the yield of grass in the allotted grasslands. Horses that exceed the number attract a fine of 180 yuan ($27) each. And in 2008, Buyandalai and other herders of Hexigten Banner were given notice that all large herds of horses in the banner would have to be sold within three years. [Source: Zhang Zixuan, China Daily, December 6, 2010]

According to the Statistic Yearbook of Inner Mongolia, in 1975 there were 2.39 million horses in the autonomous region. That figure had fallen to 914,000 in 2002. And in 2010, there are less than 500,000 horses, decreasing constantly at the rate of 5.5 percent every year. [Ibid]

"Horses create little economic value and have lost their practical use as tools of transport and production," Hobiskhaltu, deputy director of Hexigten Banner told the China Daily. "It's only a matter of time before they disappear...The steppes can only support so much grazing and we have to consider the balance of the ecosystem. We don't want to take the horses by force so fines offer the best deterrent." [Ibid]

Resistance to Efforts to Reduce the Number of Horses

But herders vehemently disagree. Oljei, a 62-year-old herder who sold all his 2,000 goats in 2002 in response to the call to protect the steppes says, "Unlike goats, horses don't destroy the grass roots. It's unfair to attribute the deterioration of the grasslands to horses." He points out that much greater damage has been done by human exploitation through mining and tourism. [Source: Zhang Zixuan, China Daily, December 6, 2010]

Altandelger, 60, who grew up on horseback, says horses are intelligent creatures who can warn herders about impending danger and foul weather. "When they stop eating and move their ears, it means something dangerous is nearby," he says. "And if they keep on yawning, it indicates good weather the next day." [Ibid]

"Horses only eat the grass tip so they need to move around. Free-range breeding allows grass sufficient time to grow, and this helps sustain the ecology," says Ortnastb, from the Inner Mongolia University in Hohhot, capital of the autonomous region. "When horses are fenced in, they die, and so do the steppes." [Ibid]

Mongol Herder Organization Tries to Save Rare Horses

Zhang Zixuan wrote in the China Daily: “To protect the Mongolians' horse culture, Buyandalai and Altandelger founded the Horse Culture Association in August 2009. Free to all herders, it received an enthusiastic response, with some 240 herder-families joining in with their more than 3,000 horses. The voluntary organization celebrated its foundation with a grand Nadam Fair, a traditional Mongolian event comprising activities such as horse racing and wrestling...The one-day fair attracted some 6,000 participants and more than 300 horses and was finally extended to become a three-day event, the biggest such fair in Hexigten Banner after the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76). [Source: Zhang Zixuan, China Daily, December 6, 2010]

“The two herders took another bold step, traveling to the south of Hexigten Banner thrice...to buy 23 purebred iron hoof horses there,” Zhang wrote. “Iron hoof horses from Hexigten have tremendous stamina. They played a significant role while Genghis Khan and his cavalry conquered the world. "But their numbers have fallen from more than 2,000 in the 1950s to only around 100 now," says Manglai, vice principal of Inner Mongolia Agricultural University and secretary general of China National Horse Industry Association.

Manglai says setting up a breeding base offers the best way to protect them. “Iron hoof horses are not pandas as yet. Only when the authorities officially recognize them as endangered can such a base be realized," Hobiskhaltu says. But Buyandalai and Altandelger were not prepared to wait. They pooled their resources of 10,000 yuan, borrowing another 60,000 yuan, to buy the 23 horses.

On Nov 8, Buyandalai received a notice from the local administration saying herders must sell all their horses before Nov 15. He was also asked to prepare his fine for 2010. The herder is unfazed. "If a fine can let me keep my horses on the steppe, I'd rather pay it," Buyandalai says. He is also determined, like Altandelger, to maintain his identity as a Mongolian herder.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese 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 June 2015

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