- Ride camels and visit a camel herder family at the Moltsog Els dunes.
- Visit a nomadic family where we are greeted with the traditional beverage of airag, a fermented mare’s milk, and offered goat’s milk cheese.
Pastoral Life in Mongolia
by Holly Jobe
The Mongolian plateau is a vast land with about ten times more domesticated animals than people! About 43% of the population live nomadic lifestyles today by herding the “five animals” – camels, goats, sheep, horses and cattle – used for both subsistence and transportation, and living in easily transportable gers (yurts).
This nomadic lifestyle is thousands of years old. This practice has adapted to fit an unusually harsh climate with some of the coldest winters in the world, fierce wind storms, and vast open plains with little or no vegetation, shelter or water. These geographic conditions make agriculture production less dependable than pastoralism. Herds could recover from extreme conditions, and the mobility of the population, where whole communities could move with their animals, allowed them to weather political crises better than farmers.
Horses have been essential to nomadic herders for both transportation and protection. Sheep and goats are by far the most important subsistence animals because they are the main source of milk and meat for food. Their wool, hair and hides are used to produce felt, rope, clothing and storage bags. Dried dung is often used for fuel. Horses and cattle provide a secondary source of milk and food. Fermented mare’s milk (koumiss), has been a favorite drink of nomads for thousands of years. The Bactrian (two-humped) camels are found mostly in the Gobi desert area and were essential for the traders along the silk route. These camels have thick wool coats that help them survive the cold winters.
Nomads live in family gers and often camp with others in ails. Because of their need to move with their herds to new grazing lands, everything has to be portable. Gers, which have been in use for over 2000 years, can be broken down, transported (by cart, camelback, or today by truck) and reassembled in about an hour by five people.
The aerodynamic design of gers allows them to withstand harsh weather and windstorms. Gers are made up a series of folding wooden lattice frameworks set in a circle around a doorframe. Wooden spokes are then slotted into a round wooden crown at the top and lashed to the framework. The frame is covered with a thick layer of felt that provides insulation and makes the structure efficient to heat. The felt is then covered with canvas to repel the elements. It is lashed with horsehair rope so it doesn’t blow away. The felt sides can be rolled up during hot weather for natural air conditioning.
The ger door always faces south to get as much sunlight as possible and protect it from harsh north winds. The stove sits in the middle with the stovepipe going out the top of the center wooden crown. People entering a ger generally travel counter clockwise or to the left. Everything inside has a designated place according to tradition. The three main sections are: the men’s area to the left, women’s to the right, and the place of honor (often an altar) on the north wall. Today, a TV might be found in this place of honor. The hostess’ place is near the central hearth where cooking is done.
During the Soviet era, an attempt to collectivize pastoralists and their livestock resulted in much of the nomadic population being housed in collective housing. Land and grazing rights were changed from the traditional practices and became confusing. The Soviets brought in alien breeds and tried to superimpose an economic grazing model that didn’t work for Mongolia which resulted in challenges for Mongolian herders. After the departure of the Soviets in 1990, many Mongolians returned to Nomadic life when their herds were also returned.
Several of the concerns for the future of Mongolia’s herder economy is that climate change could have major impact on the amount of rain available for pasture lands and water for herds. Mining interests could also have major impact on pasture land and water. Mongolia is at a transition point to balance economic growth through mining and preserving the environment for their traditional nomadic herders.
- Hear the inspiring life story of Oyungerel Tsedendamba, former member of Parliament whose life spans two regimes — communist and democratic Mongolia.