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The last of the nomads.

In one of the harshest environments on the planet, nomadic herders have long plied their trade. But as those on the Chinese side of the Gobi Desert look towards modernisation, Mongolian herders still live along more traditional lines.

Nineteen years as a herder had taught Tamir virtually everything he needed to know about raising livestock. It was actually longer than that if you counted the time spent assisting his parents before he started school. In the countryside, Mongolian children help with the animals as soon as they can walk.

But times are changing, he said, lifting a bowl to his lips and slurping some milky tea. Winters are getting longer, and summers are shorter. Springtime often stretches into late June nowadays. These climatic shifts are the greatest challenge he faces as a herdsman. That and the wolves. Tamir had bought a gun to deal with the wolves, he told me. He didn't usually shoot them, just fired in the air to see them off, but they had become an increasing menace in recent years.

Tamir has lived all his life on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in southwestern Mongolia, not far from the border with China. He and his family move their homestead four times a year, to make use of seasonal pastures, a traditional nomadic lifestyle that stretches back into time immemorial. As his father had told him on many occasions, there have always been difficulties to face, but with the right skills a herder will pull through.

I was talking to Tamir as part of a research project investigating how pastoralists like him cope with the challenges of life in the Gobi. This is one of the most punishing deserts on the planet. The daily trials of perennial aridity are punctuated with occasional droughts when the sparse pastures offer even less grazing than usual. Great seasonal swings in temperature see the mercury frequently plunge below minus 40[degrees]C in winter. This can result in catastrophic conditions, known to Mongolians as dzud, when snow and ice accumulate to make the meagre grasses inaccessible to animals. The result is loss of livestock on a large scale.

Mongolia suffered a terrible dzud in 2009/10, a winter that was unusually harsh throughout the northern hemisphere. While North America was hit by snowstorms of historic proportions and the UK saw the most severe conditions in over 30 years, Mongolia lost more than ten million livestock.

But the impact was not the same everywhere. Down on the Gobi plains, to the south of where Tamir and his family live, herders had struggled to keep their animals alive when deep snow fell that winter. I'd spoken to families forced to slaughter their weaker animals before they died of cold and hunger, so that they could sell the skins to buy fodder to keep the rest of the herd alive. Mortality rates had been high all over the plains. In extreme cases, some families had lost everything and quit herding altogether.

That winter of 2009/10, so notorious across most of Mongolia, had not been particularly severe in Tamir's district however. He had lost no animals at all, he told me. But later in 2010, during the summer, was a different matter.

August had been particularly dry that year, he said, sipping some more tea. And grasshoppers had made a bad situation worse. They had devoured the pastures at his summer camp, here where we were talking now.

We were sitting in Tamir's traditional round felt-covered tent--a ger in Mongolian--at 2,500 metres above sea level. When I'd first arrived he'd pointed out his herd: a mass of white specks dotted on a far hillside. From a distance, the rolling slopes looked lush and green enough but wherever I stood there were always more rocks than tufts of wiry grass.

The grazing here was sparse, Tamir told me, but the quality usually good. That summer of 2010 had been different though. He had lost a quarter of his flock. A hundred sheep and goats had perished, most succumbing to the simple lack of grass. A few had been taken by predators. 'The wolves were also very hungry that summer,' Tamir said.


It was partly the sheer variety of challenges that had drawn me to research the Gobi Desert's herders. Temperature extremes, severe droughts, catastrophic winter conditions, plagues of grasshoppers, predation by wolves and in a few spots by snow leopards too. I was part of a small research group from Oxford University's School of Geography and the Environment, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. We were interested in comparing herders on both sides of the international border between Mongolia and China. Two countries, two very different systems in economic, political and cultural terms. We wanted to know how the contrasting contexts affected herders managing what was essentially the same set of physical challenges either side of the border.

An immediate difference that struck me later in the year, while driving through part of Chinese Inner Mongolia for the first time, was the endless fencing that lined the road. I hardly ever saw fences in the Mongolian Gobi, but in this part of China every herder had his pastures enclosed. Many of the families I spoke to had received government assistance to help them buy the wooden posts and lengths of wire fencing.

Pastures had been divided up and allocated according to the size of a family's herd. All land is owned by the state in China, but herders enjoy the right to use the land. Since the contracts for these rights had been issued in the late 1990s in this part of the Chinese Gobi, herders had stopped being mobile like their counterparts across the border in Mongolia. Gers had been replaced by brick, prefabricated metal sheeting or mud brick houses.

I was already prepared for the absence of traditional felt tents. Earlier in the day, in a small town where I'd stopped for lunch in a tea shop, I'd asked the woman who ran the establishment about a mural painted on the wall. It depicted an idyllic rural scene: sheep grazing on sumptuous green pastures dotted with pure white gers. A bright blue river wound its way through the lush grasslands. Did people here still live in tents, I wanted to know. The woman gave me a toothy grin and a quick shake of her head. 'No,' she told me, 'no one lives like that anymore.'

Herders have been encouraged to settle throughout China's northern deserts, partially to help improve living standards (running water and fixed toilets are incompatible with nomadism) and partly to keep animals off areas deemed too fragile for grazing by the authorities. I did find herders still living in tents in China, but not many, and in some cases their gers had been fixed in position.

However, I also talked to some herders in China who were still mobile. In Gansu province, on the southwestern side of the Gobi, I met an ethnic Kazakh who had contracts pertaining to four pastures. He described himself as nomadic, moving his sheep from pasture to pasture with the seasons, although he had a house at each site. It seemed that fixed, fenced pastures were not totally incompatible with modern nomadism.


Government influence was markedly different each side of the international border. In Mongolia, many herders remembered the days when the communist authorities provided all manner of support. Some of the older generation recalled the helicopter airlifts of emergency fodder during the dzud of 1944/45 which also delivered a bottle of vodka to each household. But that level of service disappeared with the end of communism twenty-five years ago. I visited a huge derelict Soviet-era storage facility where bales of hay used to be stockpiled in preparation for each winter. By necessity, modern-day Mongolian herders have learned to be more self-sufficient.

The contrast across the border in China was stark. In late September I visited the Huilinbir grasslands, on the northeastern edge of the Gobi. It was hay-making season and the plains were alive with tractors raking up the dried cut grass, balers gobbling it up and spitting out their compressed blocks. The roads were busy with lorries of all sizes transporting great piles of bales to winter storage facilities, both government and private.

The aura of organised activity was palpable only in part because everything appears to be conducted on a greater scale in China than anywhere else, certainly when compared to Mongolia. Government and private assistance makes coping with the effects of both dzud and drought easier than in Mongolia, where the free market offers herders little support. I even met some ethnic Mongolian herders in China who didn't recognise the word dzud. When I described what the term meant they just shook their heads --it simply wasn't a problem for them.

The relative lack of assistance for Mongolian nomads is also compounded by simple geographical facts--large distances and very low population densities combining to epitomise remoteness. This is emphasised by the relative lack of infrastructure, particularly paved roads.

The remoteness of many Mongolian herders did not mean they were totally cut off from the modern world. Most had solar panels hitched up to a car battery to power a light bulb inside the ger, often a television set too. And virtually all had mobile phones, although reception was variable. But most herders in Mongolia still do their job on horseback, or from the back of a camel deep in the driest parts of the Gobi. In China it is more common to see the animals being rounded up by motorcycle. Once I saw a man circling his flock in a jeep.

Tradition and seclusion also dictate that the average Mongolian herder uses his livestock in multiple ways--for wool, leather, meat, milk, curds and cheese. In the Chinese Gobi, by contrast, herders are generally more specialised. They sell only wool, or live animals for their meat. I remember the jolt of surprise I felt when I saw the ubiquitous milky tea being prepared using milk from a carton in a homestead in Inner Mongolia. My host was an ethnic Mongolian who employed a shepherd to look after his animals. He had large numbers of both sheep and cows but only sold the animals for slaughter. In Mongolia, herders always have milk from their animals to hand, whether it be from a cow, sheep, goat, camel or horse.

The man who used a carton of milk for the tea was named Munkbataar. He lived in a spacious brick house that was linked to the electricity grid. But Munkbataar had not forgotten his nomadic heritage. A tapestry of Ghengis Khan hung on the wall behind his sofa and a traditional Mongolian saddle was mounted in a glass case beside it. When I asked if I could take his photograph he readily agreed, but I had to wait for him to don a Communist party medal before he stood proudly in front of his Ghengis Khan wall-hanging.



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Title Annotation:Mongolia
Author:Middleton, Nick
Geographic Code:9MONG
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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