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

International workshop ‘One Health: health and wellbeing on the grassland steppes of Mongolia’

Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn's presentation.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn’s presentation. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.

ANU Mongolia Update in Ulaanbaatar, 2016

Audience at Mongolia Update 2016
Audience at Mongolia Update 2016. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Mongolian Ambassador to Australia, Batbold.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Ambassador to the UN, Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience
Dr Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
ANU Mongolia Update
Mr Amargargal Rinchinnyam, MP and former Prime Minister of Mongolia.
Current and former members of the ANU's Mongolia Institute
Current and former members of the ANU’s Mongolia Institute
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU

Mongolian president’s gift illustrates country’s close connection with The Australian National University

By: Spencer Haines

Recently, staff and students on the way to their classes at The Australian National University (ANU) were surprised to see that a large white yurt had been mysteriously erected just across from the Chancellery Building. This intricately carved yurt, which would appear more at home on the grassy steppes of Eurasia than on a university campus in the heart of Canberra, was an official gift given to the ANU on behalf of the President of Mongolia, His Excellency Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. It is also a tangible symbol of the strong relationship that began over a decade ago between the Embassy of Mongolia to Australia and the ANU Mongolia Institute headed by Professor Li Narangoa.

A ‘ger’ (the more accurate Mongolian name for a yurt) is the traditional dwelling used by the pastoral nomads of Eurasia since antiquity. It is a type of tent comprised of an expanding wooden circular frame surrounded by a felt cover, which makes it easy to assemble and transport. The ger is also part of Mongolians’ larger sense of national identity and the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, Damba Gankhuyag, presented ANU’s ceremonial ger on 24 March 2016 in recognition of the university’s support for the teaching of Mongolian culture and language. It is the first of its kind for a university in Australia.

Australia’s interest in the “Land of the Blue Sky” has increased steadily over the past decade based on Mongolia’s rapidly expanding economy and its solid democratic credentials. As Australia’s leading centre for research on Asia, the ANU actively sought to build links with the Embassy of Mongolia to provide a focus for this growing interest. Beginning in 2010, the ANU was the first Australian university to offer a Mongolian language course. The following year, the Prime Minister of Mongolia Sukhbaataryn Batbold’s visit heralded the official founding of the Mongolian Studies Centre (the precursor to the ANU Mongolia Institute). Since its founding, Professor Li Narangoa has instigated many new initiatives with the active support of a network of interested scholars at the ANU and the Mongolian Ambassadors Ravdan Bold and Batlai Chuluunhuu. This has allowed the scope of the ANU Mongolia Institute to expand dramatically. To date the Institute has hosted three Mongolian Studies open conferences, two Mongolia Updates, as well as popular cultural events including a recent performance by a grand finalist of ‘Asia’s Got Talent,’ the ‘Khusugtun’ ethnic ballad band of Mongolia.

The connection between the Embassy of Mongolia and the ANU continues to be mutually beneficial. The Embassy of Mongolia to Australia has used its “soft diplomacy” to promote Mongolia abroad and strengthen its people-to-people ties, while the ANU Mongolia Institute has in turn become a centre of national pre-eminence. The ANU has also produced a crop of international country experts and helped undergraduates expand their knowledge about this fascinating and important country. The future of this relationship looks bright with multiple upcoming events planned for Ulaanbaatar later this year.

More information is available from the following sites.

  1. The ANU Mongolia Institute
  2. The Embassy of Mongolia to the Commonwealth of Australia

Spencer Haines is a former diplomat and a current PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He is focusing his research on International Relations and Inner Asian History.

Erecting the ger, ANU
Erecting the ger, ANU
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Mongolian ger, ANU