Nomadic life in Mongolia

    Mongolia is home to one of the world’s last surviving nomadic cultures. Since the Hunnu Empire, the nomadic way of lifestyle is still practiced today in the rural areas of the country. About 900,000 nomads live in the huge steppes of Mongolia and carry on ancient traditions

    These nomadic families still drive their herds across the vast steppes of what is the world’s most sparsely populated country after Greenland. The herds live off the land, and the nomads live off the milk and meat of their animals.

    Because the harsh seasons of the country mean dramatic changes in weather conditions and food availability, these nomadic families move locations throughout the year to the most appropriate spots. Uvuljuu or winter camps are located in areas that are naturally sheltered from wind and are equipped with barns for the animals to stay for the night. In spring, it’s closer to a river, in summer right next to a river for water supply, and in autumn up a hill to collect hay for winter time.

     

    Yurt is the usual term for the Mongolian felt tent or ger. A ger is referred as the White Pearl of the Steppe. Ger consists of a wooden frame and is covered with felt. It weighs from 150 to 300 kgs and can be assembled and dismantled in approximately 2 hours.

    The majority of Mongolians in rural areas, even Mongolians in urban downtown, live in these comfortable tents that nowadays are sometimes very well equipped with all "modern amenities". They are about ten meters in diameter, and each contains a small kitchen (consisting of a sink and maybe an electric burner), beds along the sides, a shrine to ancestors or holy figures, and a fireplace in the center. Comfortable couches covered in rugs, a small cupboard, a table with family photos, a wood stove – and even a fridge and a television.

    It’s a reminder that living in a ger does not separate you from the modern world!

     Smoke produced by the fire escapes through a hole in the center of the roof. When it rains, the water splashes inside until the family pulls a tarp across the ger for protection. 

    Ger is the truly universal traditional dwelling that has been adapted over the centuries to the realities of nomadic life in harsh steppes. It is incredibly warm in winter and cool in summer and is resistible to powerful winds without being fixed in the ground. The materials of the ger are lightweight that make it easy for herders to transport the gers either on the back of a camel or on a horse pulled cart. The interior organization of ger is identical everywhere: the door faces the south, the men’s place is in the west part, the north side is the place for honoured guests or old people as well as the place for the family altar, the east side is the women’s territory. The stove occupies the center of the ger.

    The gers are decorated with beautiful carved doors and pillars as well as handmade (woven and knitting) fabrics. The two pillars that hold toono (roof in a shape of a round opening) symbolize the man and the woman of the household, and walking between them is not approved of. A herder can easily tell you what time of day it is according to how the light comes through roof. Due to wind mostly from North and Northwest, the doors of the gers always face south, useful to know when one is travelling in the countryside. Another useful tip for a traveler is not to step on the threshold as you enter the ger, for you would be seen as stepping on the neck of the head of the household.

     

    Nomads follow a seasonal routine raising and breeding the five kinds of animals– goat, sheep, cow (including yaks), camel and horse migrating from place to place following the most favorable pastures and campsites.  

    The products obtained from these animals satisfy nearly all of the Mongolian family’s basic needs: beef, mutton, and goat meat, supplemented by a wide variety of dairy products, constitute the Mongolian diet; sheep wool processed into felt, is used to make clothing, bedding, and insulation for the ger, horses, camels, and yaks provide transportation and animal hair and bones are even used to produce musical instruments and children’s toys.

    Mongolia is the land of the horse. Any nomad can ride as well as he or she can walk or run. Small Mongolian horses are incredibly resistant. They live all year around in semi-wild herds, gathered only for the draft and the capture. They are partially watched over by herdsmen to defend only against the wolves in winter. 

    Apart from being used for riding and inheritance, the horse gives the nomads their preferred drink - airag, which is fermented and slightly alcoholic mare’s milk.  Mongolians of any ages drink liters of airag in summer praising its virtues for health and the digestive tract! Some airag from certain areas are more famous than the others depending on the grazing grounds and skill of the maker. Airag holds the cultural social value in Mongolia as wine in France.

    Yaks and cows bring meat, leather and milk used for making a variety of dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese and aaruul or dried curds that constitute.

    Sheep is the most common livestock used for meat, a basic staple of nomad’s diet. The skin and wool are used for clothing and making felt to insulate the gers. 

    Goats are raised for their valuable cashmere, the highest quality cashmere in the world.

    In Gobi regions, the camel they breed is the Bactrian camel, a two-humped camel able to endure the extremes of cold and hot. The camel as well as the yak is used as beasts of burden specially to transport the dismantled ger from place to place.

    Nomads devote all of the day to caring after their animals – watching over, herding their livestock and processing its raw material to convert them into food, clothing and shelters, such as feeding animals, training horses, cutting sheep wool, brushing cashmere, making felts and milking animals as well as producing dairy products.

    Mongolia is in a period of rapid change. The nomadic families who can afford it increasingly send at least one of their children to the city to go to school. Many of these kids prefer to stay there, especially those who find good work. As a testament to that, take Mongolia’s capital city. In the last 35 years, the population of Ulaanbaatar has more than doubled. In 1979, less than 400,000 people lived there, today, it’s more than a 1.5 million.

    Motorcycles are not the only technological upgrade over the last several generations. According the World Bank, between 70 and 80 percent of the nomadic population now has access to electricity. This does not mean they’re on the grid; they are nomads, after all. But many gers now feature solar panels that, at least sporadically, “feed” the nomadic families’ mobile phones, radios, televisions, and electric lights. 

    As it is elsewhere in Asia, the biggest change in Mongolian society is the trend toward urbanization. The nomadic families who can afford it increasingly send at least one of their children to the city to go to school. Many of these kids prefer to stay there, especially those who find good work. 

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