Mongolia's steppe is home to one of the world's last surviving nomadic cultures, but expansive urbanisation places herder culture at a confronting crossroad. If you want to witness nomad life, you may want to travel to Mongolia sooner rather than later.
Late one sunny afternoon in August 2016, I found myself guiding a group down from a high ridge line of Turgen peak in the remote Altai of Western Mongolia. The climb for the day was over and we all took stock for a moment in the safety of spongy alpine grasses awash with wildflowers and the bubble of mountain springs.
Directly across lay the Kharkhiraa Massif – a range bristling with glaciers and studded with azure lakes. A golden light rained down and my imagination was set alight by the thought of the hidden wildlife roaming below. Apart from ibex, wolf, deer, and argali sheep, this part of the world is home to one of the highest concentrations of snow leopards on the planet.
In the distance, the glint of ice and snow suggested the republic of Tuva in neighbouring Russia. In the middle distance were flecks of white nomad tents, known as gers, that instantly transformed the landscape from a wilderness to a home.
Traditional ger in Terelj National Park, Mongolia. Photo: Caroline Mongrain
I recalled that it had been this view twelve years earlier that had inspired my annual return to this part of the world, guiding treks with World Expeditions. At that point, I was just three months into a journey by horse from Mongolia to Hungary that would eventually take more than three years across the steppe, and which would cement my life passion for understanding and celebrating nomadic cultures.
Twelve years on, it is the traditional nomad culture that draws me back, especially to the remote lands of Western Mongolia. However, even here – far from the fast pace of life in the nation's capital, Ulaanbaatar, where change moves on at an exponential pace – there is increasingly an ever-present question: what does the future hold for the nomads of Mongolia?
I was about to spot something that would shed some light on the complexity of the answer. Before standing up to trek on, I quickly scanned the wide expanse of Kharkhiraa Pass for our camel train and our camp for the night. It was then that my eyes caught a fleck of white close to the high pass itself. I had never seen a nomad camp so high up in the mountains and resolved to visit it the following day.
The threat of modernity
Entering the ger in a rainstorm was like entering another time. In the dim interior hung dried curd and mutton. At the back of the ger, lit up by the flicker of the dung stove, was a hand-powered sewing machine and a miniature prayer wheel.
Greeting us with a warm smile and a cup of salty, milky tea was the owner, Baigal – a woman in her mid-70s who had spent her entire life living to the seasonal rhythms of nomadic life. She had mothered four children and survived many a dzud – a harsh winter that sweeps across the steppe a couple of times a decade wiping out millions of animals – but this summer, her life we soon learnt, had come to a most confronting crossroad.
Her children had all moved away to regional towns and to Ulaanbaatar and her husband had recently died. What was she to do? Sell up her animals and move to be with family in the city, severing millennia of inter-generational nomadic tradition? Or somehow struggle on?
Nomadic culture encompasses a long and rich history of raising livestock. Photo: Cam Cope
Her fate ultimately lay in the hands of her youngest son, Miyaga, who had returned from the city for a few weeks to make the big decision for her. His story, as it became clear, was also one riddled with dilemma. We would meet him later. In fact, he would ride up to us on his horse and greet us in broken English before pulling out an iPhone for a selfie.
Traditionally, the youngest son is given the responsibility of caring for parents in their old age and taking over the nomadic herds. However, Miyaga had made his life in the city and was engaged to be married – as it turned out, to a woman who was fiercely opposed to a move back to the nomadic life.
So, what was he to do? Choose tradition and love for his home country, or the love of his life and a break with the past?
Baigal and Miyaga’s story burned bright in my mind long after we had trekked out of Kharkhiraa and returned home.
The narrative seems to be universal on every continent, in every culture: traditional life prevails until the inevitable lure of the big city lights – neon-lit with modernity, convenience, and the prospect of economic prosperity – draws the youth away.
That is to say, when the new world brushes up against the old, the former wins out.
I've resisted the inevitably of modernity replacing traditional life especially in Mongolia – a country where the nomadic life is still essentially enshrined in the constitution, and the nature of the land and climate means fixed-address farming for the most part is not possible.
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Yes, Ulaanbaatar is growing fast and there seems to be a streamline towards it but, in my experience, Mongolia is still a country where there is great pride in the nomadic way of life. But was my view about to become unstuck?
The nomadic way of life is usually continued on from generation to generation. Photo: Cam Cope
The future of nomads
I had read stories about nomadic families picking up and abandoning city life en masse to move to the city but had remained skeptical. In all my years of visiting Mongolia, I had never met such a family. There were always some members of the family that moved permanently to the city, and those that stayed, but was this to be the first? And was this, in one of the most remote corners of the country a bellwether for what is to come?
It was with this question on my mind that I descended that ridge in the sunny afternoon light in August last year. I had flipped an imaginary coin in my mind a hundred times over.
It was hard to see but, as my eyes adjusted from that same spot; by the bubble of the spring, among wildflowers and grasses, I caught sight of that familiar fleck of white in the canvas of the steppe.
I would soon learn that Baigal was not alone. Inside the ger, when I entered the next day, sat her son, Miyaga, now the nomad bachelor. For now, at least, the tradition continues.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Cope has journeyed over 10,000km from Mongolia to Hungary by horse, rowed 4,500km in a leaky wooden boat down the Yenisey River from southern Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, and cycled from Moscow to Beijing by bike – a 10,000km journey that took him 14 months. He leads unique exploratory-style treks with World Expeditions in the vast Mongolian steppes, encompassing the Altai mountain ranges, the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, and the Khovd River – West Mongolia’s longest river.
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