Mongolia: Herders Move with the Seasons
At this time of year the summer pastures in the Altay Mountains in western Mongolia are strewn with belongings, and there's a steady trickle of baggage-laden camels, yaks and horses down the slopes. Fall is fast approaching, and the Mongol and Kazakh herders who inhabit this land of craggy peaks, wide valleys and silver blue lakes are on the move, heading for lower pastures until winter sets in. Then they'll be migrating again: these herders move four times a year, each season shifting to the places their nomadic forefathers have inhabited for generations.
At the moment they're packing up their felt yurts-- a ger to the Mongols, or a kiiz uy to the ethnic Kazakhs. Ethnic Kazakhs form a majority of the population of Mongolia's westernmost district of Bayan-Olgiy. They're busy stowing their possessions onto pack animals, motorcycles and trucks and heading down the mountains to warmer climes.
Anything that doesn't fit in the baggage train is left piled up on the summer pastures to be picked up later. In one spot the top of a yurt with its elegantly crisscrossed wooden strands stands propped against some poles, and elsewhere a jumble of tables, milking stools, cooking pots and sheepskins awaits collection.
Some families have fenced off patches of land to grow grass to make hay on which the animals will survive through the cold months. The herds must be fed up in summer to store fat for the long, cold winter when grazing is hard to come by.
Summer's a busy time for the herders. Some of the fattened up animals are slaughtered and the meat dried for consumption through the winter. The women busy themselves making yak and sheep cheese, which will feed the family through the colder months. Sheep are sheared and their wool pressed into felt, later to be made into decorated carpets for the yurt.
Each member of the family, with the exception of the very young, has a role to play in the laborious business of running the homestead, the men herding and slaughtering the animals, the women cooking supplies and milking the herds, the children collecting and drying dung for cooking and heating.
Life in these high and sometimes inhospitable mountains can be a battle against the elements. In mid-August a blizzard hit the valleys around the Tavan Bogd area, catching the herders and their animals by surprise. Many animals had been driven into the highest pastures far from the home base to take advantage of the best grass during the last weeks of summer, and their exposed positions caused some of the animals to perish. An unforeseen event like this can spell disaster for the nomadic families, who depend on their herds for survival.
The snowstorm also caught migratory birds by surprise. They scraped out little holes in the snow and huddled together for warmth, but the next morning the pastures -- dazzling white in the bright sunlight -- were strewn with avian corpses.
After the animals have been brought down to lower ground for the fall and food stocks have been piled up for winter, the herders have a little time to relax. The major event of the season in Bayan-Olgiy is the annual eagle festival in early October, when Kazakh eagle hunters compete to show off the prowess of their birds. Tanatkan, a young hunter, proudly displays one of his golden eagles, which flaps its enormous wings alarmingly as it perches on his gloved arm. He hopes the six year old eagle may win a prize in the competition.
Not long after these festivities, the approach of winter prompts another migration. Before the snow grips the valleys, the herders and their animals will be on the move again, heading for lower pastures before the cold weather sets in with a vengeance.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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