It’s impossible to describe the experience I’m having here in Mongolia visiting with nomadic herdsmen in the Gobi Desert and camping under the stars of the north, overwhelmingly, I feel I am precisely where I need to be. I’ll try and post a heap of photos as words just aren’t going to cut it.
We left Ulaanbaatar (UB) on Saturday 14th and headed south. I’m travelling with Jane, our translator Chimeg and driver Purvee which is how you travel in Mongolia unless you’re a local or with a tour group. There is great camaraderie in the group with both Chimeg and Purvee now schooled up on goat herding in Australia and answering the herder’s questions without needing to ask me.
We started off doing some rangeland assessment sites as well as interviewing herders. It is great to be doing this trip with a purpose rather than sightseeing as a tourist. Getting out amongst the country and looking at pastures and utilisation is about as good as it gets for me and its been a real privilege to be able to visit with herders in areas where foreigners are not common. Basically we see a ger and drive up and wait for someone to come out and hold the dogs so we can get out of the car. If their happy to be interviewed and they all are unless they are busy, we are invited inside their home. The ger is a circular tent made of light timber and felt with a stove in the centre. As soon as we are seated on the floor we are served weak, milky tea and food which is usually a fried dough or aral, a sort of hardened yogurt that takes a bit of swallowing. Sometimes we are given airag, a fermented alcoholic milk drink usually made from mare’s milk but we have also drunk some made from the milk of camels, sheep and goats. Once we were given Mongolian Vodka which is essentially the captured condensations of airag being boiled the hell out of. It’s a clear spirit and I imagine metho might be a little easier to swallow. It’s really important to be polite and I’m being pushed right out of my comfort zone with my long-standing aversion to dairy products that don’t have cocoa in them. Their hospitality is not unlike what you find in the bush at home and it is easy to feel at ease with these people.
It’s amazing how cultural barriers break down when you share a similar occupation and interests, its simply fantastic to be sitting in a ger in the Gobi Desert chatting with herders about their livestock, impossible to describe really. I’ve often thought that the highlight of the Nuffield experience is the “kitchen conversations” that you get to have with people all over the world, and sitting around the stove in a Mongolian ger sipping tea and talking herding has got to be right up there.
Most families in this area have around 200 livestock, usually a mix of goats, sheep, camels and horses. Their principle source of income at the moment is cashmere and so herd dynamics have been shifting as goat numbers increase. This is causing problems during their incredibly harsh winters as goats have less subcutaneous fat and so basically they freeze to death before the other animals. Last winter was the hardest winter anyone can remember with temperatures plummeting to negative 40 degrees Celsius. All of the herders lost a lot of animals, some we have interviewed lost more than 2/3 of their herd and almost all are really battling. Climatically they have been experiencing less effective rain, which means less forage for the summer. They only have about 5 months to put on enough fat to carry them through the winter and with rain becoming so unreliable this is hard to do. In good years the herders cut the pastures and make hay to feed to the stock over winter but with pasture growth so reduced there is no fodder to cut and so they are forced to buy in feed. The herders often have to borrow money to feed their stock and with bad winters they are carrying an enormous amount of risk. Almost all of the herders we have interviewed do not want their children to carry on herding, they feel that the climate has become too harsh to make it viable. When I asked one old man what he thought the future for Mongolia was if all of the young people were moving to the cities, he replied that with no meat and no milk Mongolia would not be Mongolia.
Education is not cheap here and families make enormous sacrifices to send their children to school. During the winter children stay in dormitories in the local towns to attend school. In summer they return to their families to help with the huge workload of milking and combing out the cashmere. 70-80% of Mongolian children go to university, compare this to 30% of Australian adults that have a university degree and you can see the importance they place on education. Often they will take out a loan which many have trouble servicing given the tight competition in the limited job market. This trend of urbanisation is common the world over but it is saddening to see the climatically driven shift in this ancient culture.
We slept one night in a ger in the backyard of an enterprising family in a small town in the Gobi. The family were making bricks out of potash, two at a time, Mum shovelling and Dad and son in law ramming the mix into a hydraulic compressor then carrying each brick and carefully placing it in line. Besides making bricks and having a small ger accommodation business they also have a greenhouse and are currently harvesting 10kg of cucumbers each day. All this enterprise is possible due to the availability of water in their area which is essentially captured snowmelt from the nearby mountains. Most towns we visit have to rely on well water carried in drums to households and so things such as showers and flushing toilets are pretty rare.
Almost all herders water their livestock by hand using a hand-stitched bucket on the end of a stick. The bucket is lowered down into the well where the standing water level seems to be a couple of metres. Some of these herds are 400-500 strong so watering is a real task and I feel a bit of a woos telling them we just have to flick a switch. Watering their livestock is a limiting factor in herd size. With many herders moving to the cities it would seem logical that herd size would increase but for the enormous workload of watering their stock by hand.
Most nights we camp and I’m having a lot of “pinch myself” moments sleeping out in this amazing place. It got a bit interesting though the night we camped near some dunes and a sand storm blew in. My tent survived in a sort of a fashion although it was a long way short of being sand proof but Jane didn’t fare so well as her tent acted like a balloon with her inside. We were pretty grateful to be able to buy a hot shower from a tourist camp the following day.
From a study point of view, these areas have been grazed by nomadic herders for a long time, probably around 1000 years long, so is livestock grazing in these arid areas sustainable? There is some indication that the pasture condition here is the same as it was 2000 years ago so I imagine that is about as good an indicator of a sustainable system as you can get. However, the last 10 plus years have been really hard and it is difficult to know whether this is just a dry cycle or whether Mongolia is seeing the effects of climate change. Factored into this is the winter extremities experienced that in most parts seem to be the worst in living memory, as hard as it is, these zhuds (bad winters) reduce livestock numbers and subsequent pressure on the pastures. Following privatisation in the mid 1990’s, the herder population increased as did livestock numbers. At face value it seems herders were better off under socialism with wells being maintained and herders specialising in specific animal types, but of course there are many sides to this story and I can’t begin to really understand the issues in a few weeks. However, herder and livestock numbers fluctuating seem to be characteristic of the Gobi and are surely a healthy aspect of an environment dominated by a variable and extreme climate.
Either way, their way of life is changing with children looking towards a city-based career, modern comforts and lifestyle far removed from wandering the steppe as their ancestors have done before them. Many of the gers have a satellite dish and solar panel outside beaming television into the lives of nomadic herdsmen. A mobile phone often hangs from one of the main support struts and a metal detector is often tied to the wall of gers found in gold bearing country. This is a way of life in a state of change and I can’t help but wonder what the next few years will bring.
I can’t seem to post any photos but will try again later.