Nomadic herders and workers – a visit to the Orkhon Valley of Mongolia

With about 3 million people and a land area of 1.5 million km2, Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated nations on earth. Some 43% of the population is rural, and most of these people live by nomadic herding much the same way as they have for hundreds, in fact thousands, of years: horses, cattle, goats and sheep are kept, yaks at higher elevations, and in the deserts, camels. There is also a very small number of indigenous reindeer herders in the northern region near Lake Khovsgol.

Horse herds in the Orkhon Valley Photo: James Robb

Horse herds in the Orkhon Valley
Photo: James Robb

I visited the Orkhon Valley in central Mongolia, where some herders live in the felt-lined gers (yurts) all year round, moving the gers to different parts of the valley several times in a year. In winter most of the women and children move to a village a half-hour ride away, where there are schools and medical facilities, while the men stay with the herds. Each family is granted a house allotment in the village by the government.

Yak herds, Orkhon Valley Photo: James Robb

Yak herds, Orkhon Valley
Photo: James Robb

The Mongolian diet rests heavily on meat and milk – after recent rains in the Orkhon Valley the fields were covered with beautiful edible mushrooms, which were left uneaten.


milking yaks by hand Photo: James Robb

Mutton and goat meat are the most popular meats, with a little beef from cattle and yaks, and horsemeat mainly in winter when the herds need to be culled. All of these animals are milked; milking and milk processing make up a major part of the day’s work. Each cow or yak takes about 15 minutes to milk by hand, and they are milked morning and evening.

milking horses

milking horses Photo: James Robb

Horses have small udders, and must be milked every 2 hours – up to 8 times a day for some herds, taking about half a litre of milk each time. The foal is put on the udder to start the milk flow, then pulled away after a short feed, and about half of the mare’s milk is collected.

milking horses Photo: James Robb

milking horses
Photo: James Robb

Mares’ milk has a high lactose content, and therefore it begins to ferment almost immediately. Since it can’t be made into yoghurt or cheese, mares’ milk is mostly consumed in the form of airag, a slightly effervescent, sour, mildly alcoholic fermented drink very popular in Mongolia.

Milk from the cows, yaks and goats is kept separate. It is preserved by boiling it to a froth over an open fire, then left to cool. The cream curd, a kind of buttery pancake formed by the froth, is skimmed off the surface, and can be stored without refrigeration in sheep-leather bags until winter, when it freezes. A small surplus is sold in the city; the rest is used as an important food throughout winter.

Sheep shearing Photo: James Robb

Sheep shearing
Photo: James Robb

The remainder of the milk is made into yoghurt and cheese. Some of the cheese curds are dried in the sun, ending up rather like hard crumbly Parmesan cheese. These are also sold in the city. Vodka is also made from the whey.

DSCN6062 Storing wool

Storing the wool clip Photo: James Robb

It is a difficult and precarious way of life. In winter when the fields are covered in snow, horses and sheep can dig beneath the snow to find food, but goats, cows and camels are unable to, and depend on stores of hay. The mortality rate in winter is high for all the animals. In 2010 a drought followed by a cold winter killed some 10 million animals, about 25% of the nation’s stock, and it has taken until now for stock numbers to recover fully. A similar event in 1993 was even more devastating. Yet the attachment to this way of life remains strong, even among those who have migrated to the urban centres, and many return to their traditional lands over the summer.

Mongolia’s economy remained largely based on stock-herding throughout the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Some light industries were developed in leather, footwear and food processing, and a handful of power plants, but there were few Mongolian wage workers. That remains the case today, although it is now changing. Since the 1990s many have emigrated, mostly to Korea and the US, a few to Japan or Europe, especially Ireland.

The new paved from from Dalanzagdad to the Chinese border. Photo: James Robb

The new paved from from Dalanzagdad to the Chinese border.
Photo: James Robb

Basic infrastructure remained very undeveloped. The first paved road from the capital Ulaanbaatar south to the mining city of Dalanzagdad was only completed a few years ago; work is continuing to pave this road all the way south to the Chinese border. But for the most part, roads outside of the cities are just dirt tracks across the plain.

Mongolian roads Photo: James Robb

Mongolian roads
Photo: James Robb

In recent decades there has been a significant growth of industry and the working class, riding on the rapid development of the Chinese economy. There are significant deposits of high-quality coking coal in Mongolia, which Chinese capital is keen to develop in order to feed the Chinese steel industry. In 2011 Mongolia overtook Australia as China’s biggest supplier of coking coal.

Gold mine displaces nomads in rich pastoral valley. Photo: James Robb

Gold mine displaces nomads in rich pastoral valley.
Photo: James Robb

Mining of gold, copper, iron and other minerals has brought a big growth of the industrial proletariat, along with terrible environmental devastation, to the Mongolian steppe. Dalanzagdad, the urban centre serving the Gobi mining region, has expanded rapidly – partly as a ger city, partly with more permanent constructions. Mine workers often work 14 days on, 14 days off, and fly back to Ulaanbaatar during their downtime on the twice-daily flights from Dalanzagdad. Some Chinese labourers work in the mines and construction, too, and have reported beatings and other forms of hostility from Mongolians.

Gold mine workings. Photo: James Robb

Gold mine workings.
Photo: James Robb

When a mine is opened, the nomadic herders who formerly occupied the area are displaced with little compensation. Land has never been privately owned in Mongolia, and all land today remains state property (although the herds themselves were privatised in the 1990s). A family’s grazing rights to a particular area of land have been recognised by tradition, but never codified in law, so they have little recourse when a mining company is granted permission to open a mine. There have been protests against new mines by displaced herders, as well as protests against the poisoning of rivers and streams by mining operations. (Very similar protests, over similar issues, have been taking place among Mongolian herders in Inner Mongolia in China in recent months.)

Mongolia is a landlocked country, sandwiched between the two great powers to the north and south. The growth of mining has shifted the centre of gravity of the economy towards China – now the destination of 80% of the ores and coal exported. At some mines close to the Chinese border, the huge ore trucks go directly from the mine to the border.

Roads are a very inefficient way of transporting heavy materials like ores. There is an obvious need to develop the rail infrastructure – but this poses a problem with long historical roots: the Mongolian railway, which runs from Altan Bulag on the Russian border, south to Ulaanbaatar (with a short side branch to the mining centre of Erdenet) and from there southeast to Zarniin Uud on the Chinese border, is built to the Russian gauge. Chinese railways have a wider gauge, and at present trains crossing the Mongolian-Chinese border have to stop for several hours, while the bogeys on each wagon are converted to the appropriate gauge, before they can continue.

The Chinese government has proposed to rebuild and expand the Mongolian railway system on the Chinese gauge, to facilitate extraction of its mineral wealth. In purely economic terms, this would be the natural step to take. However, the proposal has ignited suspicions and fears that go back to the Mongolian fight for independence, and which have their source in Mongolia’s unique landlocked geography.

In 2011 the Mongolian parliament decided to expand the Mongolian railways into the mining regions – but using the Russian gauge, and connecting to Russian ports, even though this would greatly increase the costs of getting the ore to the nearest sea ports.

Next blog will examine the Mongolian independence struggle and its connections to the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the Russian revolution of 1917.

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