Changes in the Mongolian Countryside

 

This year I spent some valuable time filming in the countryside during the Mongolian spring, from March until May. Changes in the Mongolian countryside are not as immediately evident as the rapid development of infrastructure and the polluted and clogged roads of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. When we drove into the river valley I had come to know so well, there were still ger (yurts) dotted in the same sheltered locations, while herds still grazed near the icy riverbanks.

When I was conducting fieldwork in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia during 2005 and again in the spring of 2007, it was complicated to get into and out of remote herding encampments. The occasional herder had access to Russian motorbikes but they relied primarily on horses to visit neighbouring encampments, to ride to local Naadam festivals during the summer, and to herd the sheep, goats, cattle (including yaks) and horses. I relied on one of the herders with a coveted Russian jeep to get in and out. Often as many as twelve people would pack into the jeep with me, alongside dairy products and animal hides. Upon my return, the driver of the jeep joked about how many people would come along with me for the ride. Now almost every encampment has some form of motorised transport, making them less reliant on their horses.

I felt a stab of nostalgia when I found that the hand-made wooden carts that were used for moving peoples’ belongings during seasonal migrations were now only used as drying racks for dairy products, or left discarded and broken. I was told that Ulaanaa was the last ox used by one of the families I lived with. Ulaanaa, a large red ox, was remarkably complacent (nomkhon) and I would often lead him, with the wooden cart and water barrel, to collect water from the river. Ancestors of the family would have worked with oxen, just like Ulaanaa, for such tasks for centuries, possibly even thousands of years.

With such marked changes within ten years, I realised it was important to record herders riding about on horseback. The communication of a person on horseback is remarkable, as the horse intuitively knows to respond to a herder’s body language but not to the lasso-pole (uurga) held in front of its head, or to vocalisations directed at the herd. For Mongolians that still predominantly herd on horseback, much of the day is spent with an individual horse, following the tracks, signs and occasional vocalisations of the roaming herds across the mountainous landscape.

Spring snowstorms can be lethal for newborn animals. It is important for herders to check the herds and to make sure none are snowbound, or too far away from shelter. The video segment above (see: https://vimeo.com/228131918) was filmed using a GoPro camera fixed onto a young herder’s hat. Monkho must have forgotten his uurga, so uses an improvised stick from a nearby tree to signal to the herd. The calls and whistles differ depending upon whether he is communicating with the yak or horse herd, whether he is vocalising to the herd as a whole, or an individual animal. He says ‘chu, chu’ softly to a young foal when trying to redirect it back to the rest of the herd.

Just as has occurred throughout much of the world, people turn to the ease of motorised transport in favour of working with horses. If Mongolian herders increasingly rely on motorbikes to herd in future, some of the unique modes of communication with their herd animals will inevitably change, and the depth of knowledge relating to such close daily contact with horses may be lost.

Dr Natasha Fijn

Fejos Fellow in Ethnographic Film, Wenner-Gren Foundation (2017)

Mongolia Institute, The Australian National University

6 thoughts on “Changes in the Mongolian Countryside”

    1. I’ve read your work! I think you would be interested in ‘Living with Herds: human-animal coexistence in Mongolia’ (2011), published with Cambridge University Press. It will be coming out in paperback soon.

  1. Did you find any indications on increased reliance on motorbikes over horses, Natasha?

    When I was in the Darkhad Khotgor last summer, I got to know an older gentleman living alone who had two motorbikes (a Russian one and a Chinese one 😉 ). He had a herd of goats, distilled their milk, repaired electronics, and I believe also was some kind of (“not-quite”)shamanic practitioner but didn’t want to give the impression that he solicits payment for that. The older men in the area who were presiding over more self-subsisting herding households and groups of households however made a point of describing how they didn’t and had never accessed their upland hay pastures except by horse. In other words, horse and motorbike were playing complicated roles in systems of economic, symbolic, and cultural capital…

    The place of motorbikes in ninja mining settings also comes to mind, and their use generally by younger men — before they have the means to establish a herd of horses? I have also stayed with poorer but more or less sufficient herding households headed by middle-aged couples with horses but without motorbikes.

    1. Hi Marissa, I remember meeting you briefly at UCL. Yes, I definitely noticed the difference within the ten-year time span with an increased reliance on motorbikes. A snowstorm is a good example where a horse is more reliable. In the mountainous areas of Arkhangai, when the snow is deep, they occasionally ride yaks, as they are more sure-footed in snow. The training of a good gelding or ox takes a considerable amount of time and energy though.

      As my focus is on the social engagement between herders and their herd animals and their significance, I do worry that some of the complexity and depth of engagement may change with the more frequent use of motorised transport. Herders will continue to value geldings and oxen, of course, but that daily, embedded knowledge about individual animals, their behaviour and the diversity of ways of communicating with them may be lost.

      In my view, we all need more engagement and communication with other beings in our lives in order to better understand them and in order to recognise that we are part of a multispecies community.

      1. Thanks, very interesting. The position of cattle would be different than horses, of course!

        Yes, I definitely think there are big differences in terms of relations with herd animals vs. relations with machinery that merit lots of further work, but on the other hand there is a lot of blurring of that distinction and mutual influencing as well.

        (And besides looking forward to more on this project I am definitely motivated by this conversation to look back at your book — glad to hear that the paperback is coming out. Congrats!)

  2. Looks great (that little foal looks very young!). I wonder: was this a routine herding round? In my study area (Dund-/Dornogovi) horses are seldom herded, and when they are, it’s for very specific purposes (even less so in spring, when it’s more important to spare their energy). BTW, the herding changes you’re alluding to seem to have been going on for at least 11 years further south: there’s hardly anybody herding by horse nowadays, though I think they do get good contact with the horses still, though there’s less of an intimate relation with bogmal.

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