The Changing Life of the Mongolian Nomad

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If there is one thing you will be sick of after a trip to Mongolia, its mutton. Everything here is made with mutton: there’s boiled mutton, barbecued mutton, sautéed mutton, mutton dumplings, mutton with rice…well you get the picture. Truth be told, the only time you’ll be missing mutton is when you’re served horse, lamentably, an all too frequent occurrence.

Buuz is a Mongolian dumpling usually filled with mutton or horse meat

It’s somewhat unfair, though, to be so harsh on Mongolian cuisine. There’s a simple reason for the limited repertoire of ingredients. The barren steppe affords little opportunity for agriculture, and what does grow here is fit for only few animals. To live in such an environment requires a particular set of adaptations, adaptations that the nomadic cultures of Mongolia have practiced for centuries. But times are changing and with it so are the nomads. Only the food, unfortunately, seems to remain the same.

Tradition Lost
Karakorum was once the capital of the Mongol Empire

The drive from Karakorum, the former capital of the Mongol Empire, to the Gobi Desert took me through the heart of the Mongolian steppe. It’s a desolate, empty landscape occasionally dotted with areas of rolling hills. Winter had arrived early this year in Mongolia, and a dusting of snow covered the endless plains.

“The nomads have already moved to their winter pastures. They knew back in August that this winter would be harsh,” said my guide Altantsetseg, a middle-aged Mongolian woman from the mining town of Dalanzadgad. With a population of 20,000, Dalanzadgad is the largest settlement in the Gobi desert and has the distinction of being one of the few places connected to the capital of Ulaanbaatar by a paved road. We, however, were following the herder trails that crisscross the steppe in a cryptic weave.

The Mongolian steppe

“How did they know?” I asked.

“They just know.”

I looked out my window at the sheep, goats, and horses burying their snouts in the snow.

“Goats are the big thing these days,” said Altantsetseg. “Goat wool makes cashmere. Mongolia is the second largest exporter of cashmere in the world. It’s very lucrative, but, of course, they are harder to care for than the sheep.”

On the steppe, goats are a prized possession

“And the horses? Where do they find the people to ride them?”

Altantsetseg laughed. “Only the best horses are sold for racing. Most are raised for their meat and milk.”

“Milk?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes, we turn it into the fermented drink called airag.”

Ancient petroglyphs with horses

In times past, the horse was at the center of nomadic culture. Not only did it afford a means of transportation, but it also provided the nomads with their daily substance of meat and yogurt. A nomad’s whole life was connected to the horse, a fact highlighted by the curious petroglyphs that can be found across the country.

But today, as Altantsetseg explained, few Mongolians use horses for work. Rather, a new means of transportation is preferred for herding: the dirt bike. Cheap and dependable, the dirt bike is well suited to the harsh conditions of the steppe, allowing the nomads to cover more ground faster than ever before. But despite the technological advantage that the combustible engine offers, I couldn’t help feeling that something irreplaceable had been lost.

The dirt bike has replaced the horse as the primary means of transportation
The New Nomad
Today’s modern nomad

That night, I was invited into a ger, the large circular Mongolian felt tent often referred to as a yurt in English. An elderly woman was busy cooking us a plate of tswee-wen, a greasy concoction of fat, noodles, and yes, mutton. Her husband sat on a small bed watching dubbed Russian soaps on a flat-screen TV.

As I picked around the fattiest parts of the horse head that had been placed in front of me as a courtesy, I looked at the few family pictures standing on a decorated chest next to the television. Her children were grown up, but none seemed to have stuck around. Using Altantsetseg as an interpreter, I learned that the children had gone to Ulaanbaatar and that, eventually, they too would give up the nomadic life for the city.

The inside of a traditional ger

In the past, nomads traveled together in clans for protection and to share in the duties of caring for livestock. However, with the fall of communism, Mongolia has become increasingly integrated into the global economy. Clans are now relics of the past as younger generations elect the city over the life of a herdsman. The consequences on the family members who remain on the steppe are substantial and go beyond the obvious impact on the labor pool.

Ulaanbaatar is increasingly part of the global economy

“Instead of traveling village camps of dozens of families, gers are isolated with only a few family members. Even the closest neighbor can be dozens of kilometers away,” explained Altantsetseg.

“And how has this affected family life?” I asked.

Altantsetseg’s face darkened, “Alcoholism.” In fact, alcoholism has reached epidemic proportions in Mongolia, a crisis fueled by the breakdown of steppe society and the Soviet legacy of cheap vodka. “It’s not easy. The new economy is good for Mongolia, but it also brings problems.”

Alcoholism has led to an increase in violence on the steppe

“What do you do then?”

“What we have always done, adapt,” she said, the smile returning to her face. “I would say the most important part of a ger today is actually outside.”

What Altantsetseg was referring to was the solar panel, an almost ubiquitous accessory on the steppe. The solar panel is the social lifeline of the ger. It provides electricity to charge cell phones, which can be used to call loved ones in Ulaanbaatar. And maybe even more importantly, it powers the satellite and TV. While not a substitute for the company of others, these instruments of modern society provide much-needed relief from the boredom of isolation, especially during the dark and cold winter months where temperatures can drop below 40 degrees Celsius.

Tradition Reclaimed
What remains of the Barlim Monastery on the Ongi River
Buddhism has seen a resurgence in Mongolia since the fall of communism

On the Ongi River are the ruins of two monasteries. This was my next stop on the way to the Gobi desert. At one time over 1,000 monks lived and prayed here. Before communism, Buddhism was the one escape from nomadic life, but that all changed in the late 1930s with the Stalinist purges of Khorloogiin Choibalsan. Over 30,000 people were killed; many more were conscripted into the communist army. By 1939, the lamas were all dead or in exile, the temples destroyed. Buddhism, introduced into Mongolia in the 13th century, had been wiped out.

The fall of communism has led to a resurgence in spirituality. “Today, Mongolians are enthusiastic Buddhists,” said Altantsetseg. “Buddhism has been very comforting.”

But the clergy has still not recovered. Only one monk lives among the ruins on the Ongi River. He labors daily to rebuild what the communists had destroyed.

Into the Gobi

A week later, I decided to make my way on foot across my own little expanse of the Gobi Desert. It was a grueling four-day journey, but it gave me a chance to see what it was really like to live in this land: the constant preoccupation of water, the frustration at trying to cook with a meager fire made out of animal dung, the biting cold at night.

Water is a constant concern in the Gobi

I had been disappointed when I first arrive in Mongolia to find that nomadic life had not been preserved as I had imagined. Gone are the roving clans on horseback and the strange melodies of the morin khuur before the campfire. But in many ways, life here is the same as it has always been. Certainly, the requirements are the same. The nomadic way of life is struggle personified, and those who choose to lead such a life use the tools available to them.

A man playing the morin khuur

Mongolia proves that it’s not technology that is responsible for our increasing disconnect with nature. Indeed, it is technology that allows the nomadic lifestyle to continue when societal and economic structures dictate that it shouldn’t. Without the motorcycle, Mongolia’s nomads would not have the sufficient manpower to watch over a heard. Without television and the cell phone, there would be nothing to replace the emotional support previously provided by the clan structure. It is because of technology not despite it that nearly one-third of Mongolians still live from livestock.

Will the nomad eventually fade into the sunset? Probably. But until they do, they can still offer us lessons on the importance of family, nature, and religion. It is through the nomads that we learn the value of utility and with it what in life truly can’t be left behind. Yes, nomadic culture has changed, but its essence is still here beneath the eternal sky of the Mongolian steppe.

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