Notes From an Expedition: Across the Mongolian Steppes

by David A. Andelman

ON THE BANKS OF THE HURH RIVER, Mongolia—To understand the power, the indomitable spirit, the sheer toughness of the Mongolian soul, it’s only necessary to spend four days in remote Hinti Province, up by the frontier with Siberia, one of the most remote corners of our planet. Even today, with the raging winds and snow, the sub-zero temperatures of winter still weeks away, the herders and their families that form the backbone of this nation are preparing for those hard times ahead.

Chinedkhand Tumenbayar and her family expect to break camp in a matter of days to move from their summer on the banks of the Hurh River to their winter shelter. They will knock down and load on a truck the two gers, round felt tents called yurts in neighboring Kazakhstan that have sheltered Mongolian herders for a thousand years or moreand now house three generations of Tumenbayars. Outside, more than 1,000 sheep and goats graze alongside scores of cows and horses. Together, they provide the meat and milk that feed the family. Indeed, a large side of mutton, freshly slaughtered, sits where it’s been thrown casually on one of three sofa-beds where American visitors are welcome inside the ger. Eventually, the mutton will become the meal for several days for the family, together with the milk that is boiling in an immense pot on the stove in the center of the ger as Chinedkhand lifts ladlefulls repeatedly over her head and dumps them back into the pot to prevent the liquid from curdling.

Their lives revolve around the herd, she explains. It provides food—meat and dairy products—as well as substantial revenue from the fur the cashmere goats shed each year, which currently fetches $72 per kilo (nearly $33 a pound). Each goat produces about 11 ounces, or a third of a kilo per year. The fruit of the revenues are all around us. Across the fields beyond their gers are three spanking new tiny log cabins with bright red roofs. Each cost $5,000 to build, and they are planning to rent them out—at $7 a day—to city folk who want some fresh air and to access the pure stream at their doorstep.

For some $300, the family purchased a 15-inch flat panel television that sits proudly between the two sofas, connected to a satellite dish and solar array outside the ger. They can receive 18 channels, including the BBC, and to prove it she switches it on to scenes of Egyptian protestors torching the Israeli embassy in Cairo, half a world away.  She doesn’t speak English, but the family does not lack for intellectuals.

Indeed at that moment in swaggers her father, Dambindombin. He’s visiting from Ulaanbaatar and is happy to tell us his life story. Dambindombin is a translator, it seems—from Russian to English. Indeed, he is the Mongolian translator of the entire Harry Potter series, not to mention Jules Verne and some 40 books a year, all translated from Russian editions into Mongolian. Life is better in some ways these days for Dambindombin than under the Soviet regime that ruled the nation during his youth. Still, he has mixed feelings. On the one hand, “during the communist era there was a central plan, a five-year plan and that was great for the country,” he observes. “But if you look at this society nowadays, democratic society, unemployment is so high, people don’t have enough jobs, there is no sense of planning.” On the other hand, after he received his language training in Irkutsk as a young man and returned to Mongolia in the 1970s when the Soviets ruled, he was allowed to translate just one book a year.

Indeed, this nation, even the herders who comprise nearly half the population and have a reputation as a profoundly conservative, independent lot, are profoundly divided. Even inside this ger there are divisions. “Oh we all vote Democratic (party) around here,” Chinedkhand says archly sweeping her hand across the landscape. “Not me,” her sister finally pipes up quietly from the corner, “I voted communist.” Everyone bursts out laughing. Indeed, there are some powerful pockets of support for the MPP [Mongolian People’s Party] as the old line communist party, now restyled as socialists, calls itself. 

In another, remote part of Hinti Province, barely 50 miles south of the Siberian border, 72-year-old Tsevelna tells visitors that she has always voted communist—it’s all she knows.  She is seated in a tiny shack with a window, without glass and a doorway with no door. Flies buzz in and out through both openings, landing on the food that she bustles to set out for her guests, and with some prompting, offers a running monologue on her life and that of her parents, which is the story of much of rural Mongolia. Before the communists arrived, they had no herds they could call their own. This was a feudal society, and Tsevelna and her neighbors were, effectively, little more than serfs—indentured servants to the wealthy who owned all the cattle. Soviet communism changed that. The vast herds of the wealthy were seized and collectivized. Tsevelna and her family were given salaries to care for the animals. Education became a right, not merely a privilege, and Mongolia developed one of the world’s highest literacy rates.

Much of this changed yet again in 1992 when communism was overthrown. Suddenly, the herders became masters of their own destiny. The herds, their size, where they would live and pasture, became decisions each family would make. Today, Tsevelna’s life, it would seem, has never been better. In all, she has seven sons and four daughters as well as 23 grandchildren. One of her children runs the local hospital in Underhaan, another is a surgeon, and a third graduated from Mongolia National University and runs her own company. There are more than 200 animals in Tsevelna’s herd that are tended, since her husband died earlier this year, by her grandson and his wife, Tuya, who has been doing her best to capture an elusive cell-phone signal as we sit in the cabin.

It is just such herds and their growth that deeply concern a socialist Member of Parliament we happen across in a ger camp where we’ve spent a night. Naranhuu is the MPP parliamentarian from the Middle Gobi where we will be heading next.

“The problem of Mongolia is that half the population is still nomads,” he begins. “Where there is a strength, there is a weakness and the other way around. Because half of our people are nomads, theirs is a very rigid and conservative way of life.  It doesn’t allow you to, let’s say, be hungry and at the same time it doesn’t allow you to die. It gives you a certain stability of income but at the same time doesn’t allow you to go forward, to study.”

At the same time, there is vast potential for unpredictable catastrophe, he says. “The main source of living, during the last 20 years of democracy, is cattle, and the number of cattle has doubled, which is a negative. Now, because they are purely in private hands, people want to grow the number. We have so many cattle, when the weather is good, it’s okay.  But when the weather turns the other way around, we have a whole new layer of burden. The dzud has cost people everything.” He is referring to a fierce series of winter storms that seem to return at irregular intervals to ravage the countryside and decimate the herds. “Every seven to eight years we have these dzuds for sure. At least half of all cattle die.” And countless herders and their families suffer.

Still, he is deeply proud of his civilization and all that his nation represents—this vast buffer between two of the world’s great powers—Russia and China, both of which have variously ruled and been conquered by Mongolia. “We have existed much longer than any other type of civilization, even China,” Naranhuu smiles proudly.

What is most striking about this nation is the very vastness of this buffer state. As we head back to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, some eight hours distant, much of it over dirt tracks that form the bulk of Mongolia’s road structure, we pass through valley after valley, devoid of all human life, save for the occasional buzzard and scattered stray cattle. Broad, endless stretches of grasslands, valleys and gently rolling hills that as we go over them give way to yet more valleys and more hills. It may be perhaps the largest, emptiest stretch on the planet—this land of the eternal blue sky.


David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, has just completed the fifth leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and China. Wednesday morning he heads south into Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, A New Mongolia Rises on the Steppes, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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