For 3 000 years, the people of the steppes have adopted a pastoral way of life moving in the search of best pastures and campsites. They live by and for their livestock, in the forefront of which the horse undoubtedly was the first animal domesticated in these infinite meadows. Today, approximately half of Mongolia’s population is still roaming the vast plains living in the ger and moving their campings several times a year on the grounds with no fence. Nomadic life thrives in summer and survives in winter. Considering climatic conditions, especially during winter, such lifestyle may seem to the outside world to be a very hard way of living. However, Mongolians have developed for centuries such qualities as strength and resilience that are essential for survival in this harsh nature, which is their cherished homeland.
The number of nomads has significantly decreased over the last years. Nomads move to the capital city being compelled by the necessity to search for means of subsistence or attracted by city lights and perceived advantages of urban life. After the last terrible winters many nomadic families lost all their herds that were the source of living. Such situation requiring an emergency aid resulted in large rural-to-urban migration, especially from the west of the country, driving nomadic herders as well as stockbreeders from small rural towns towards the suburbs of the capital city.
Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise 5 species of livestock known as the 5 muzzles: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats and camels. Reindeers are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering the Russian Siberia.
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 alcoholized mare’s milk. Mongolians of any ages drink liters of airag in summer praising its virtues for health and the digestive tract !
Airag of certain areas is more famous as compared to others. The taste depends on the grazing grounds and the skillfulness of the maker. If it is relevant to make a comparison, one can say that airag has approximately the same cultural and social importance as wine can have in France.
Horses are definitely on the high when they are involved for the annual race of Naadam. Ridden by young racers, they demonstrate all their strength and beauty for the pride of their owner and breeder and the glory goes to the horse and the owner than to the particular rider.
Yaks and cows bring meat, leather and milk, which is used for making a variety of diary products such as yoghurt, cheese and aaruul (or dried cheese) that constitute the main diet of nomads during the summer months. Aaruul, which represents cheese balls of different shapes and sizes dried on the roof of the ger, is especially popular and is consumed all year round.
Sheep is the most universal animal used for meat and milk, the basic food of nomadic lifestyle, skins and wool for clothing and felt for ger covering.
Goats are more difficult to raise than sheep, but they are appreciated for their meat and especially cashmere, goat’s down, one of the highly valued natural fibers. Mongolia is one of the largest producers and exporters of the finest quality cashmere in the world.
Two-humped Bactrian camels are used in Gobi for meat, milk, wool as well as for riding and as a carrier for long distance movements.
Nomadic families often gathered in groups move generally in the radius of 50 to 100 kilometers, at least twice a year, in spring (May) and at the beginning of winter (October). However, more significant displacements are sometimes necessary in the search of better pastures. 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.
Nomads devote all of the day to caring after their animals – watching over, milking, shearing, or combing – to produce felt and felt clothes, cheese and other dairy products. Horses are raised and looked after by men but are milked by women.
Nomads use a pole-lasso or uurga to gather the herds and to capture the horses.
The ger, the traditional mongolian home
Yurt is the usual term for the Mongolian felt tent or ger, but this word is not very much appreciated by Mongolians themselves because it is of Turkish origin and was used by the Western invaders and the last of them – the Russians.
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”. 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. Is is easily dismountable and transportable that is so important for nomads during their regular migrations.
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 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.