The pastoral herders of Mongolia are one of the world's last remaining nomadic cultures, grazing their herd on the treeless grasslands of the steppe that are too dry to support agriculture. About a third of the population of 2.8million is still nomadic, moving their campsites several times a year in an endless cycle from summer to winter pastures.
Mongolia – Long Read

Only the horse has made nomadic life possible

Photo by Timothy Allen

Mongolia – Long Read Only the horse has made nomadic life possible

Hello Mongolia, where a third of the population are still nomads following their herds from summer to winter pasture across the steppe, a treeless grassland too dry to support farming. Only the horse has made this nomadic life possible, just as it made possible the conquests of the great Mongol Empire carved out by Chingghis Khan.

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

“He is a good driver but a sexist pig,” says my Mongolian friend Davaasuren, as our driver Ganbaa battles through the anarchic traffic of Ulaanbaatar. Davaasuren is a pretty young woman with a shaved head and great sense of humor. She also speaks excellent English, a skill fortunately not shared by Ganbaa. Instead, he uses his driving skills to take us safely through horn-blaring lines of asthmatic buses and 4x4s. We crawl past Ulaanbaatar’s ubiquitous karaoke bars, computer repair shops and the Gandan Khiid monastery, the largest, most important monastery in Ulaanbaatar. It is one of the few to survive Stalin’s religious purges of the 1930s, when clerics were executed and Buddhist monasteries demolished as the USSR squeezed the cultural identity out of its de facto puppet state. Its bright colors are a welcome contrast to the sprawling utilitarian Soviet architecture around it.

Ulaanbaatar may be a rather ugly city but the surrounding countryside is absolutely wonderful. We are soon in dramatic scenery, traveling along quiet country roads used mainly by farmers transporting yak skins and meat in flatbed trucks. Through the window, I gaze at the fairy-tale scenery before me; shimmering steppes roll all the way to the horizon, which is punctuated by rugged, snowy mountains. The weather here is equally dramatic; in the depths of winter the mercury plummets to -35ºC and in summer it rises to 35ºC.

As with most long car journeys, there is soon an argument. Ganbaa appears lost and Davaasuren makes no bones about expressing her annoyance. As she engages in a heated Mongolian exchange, I sink into my seat and watch yaks plod through the scenery outside. After a few phone calls and some off-road driving we locate the family I have come to visit, who emerge from their ger to greet us. Gers are what realtors might call cozy; in other words, they are small. Made from wood and canvas, their sloped canopies and low doors make for cramped living if you happen not to be as short as the average in Mongolia. This family has three gers, pitched at the foot of a hill and part of a modest smallholding.

We really are in the wilderness; there is no other sign of life as far as the eye can see. “They come here in the winter because it is sheltered,” explains Davaasuren, as we survey the ranch. The smell of manure hangs in the air. Goats bleat, cows moo and a horse stands tethered to a nearby post, aggravated by the guard dog, which barks excitedly. We are ushered into the ger to meet the rest of the family – two young children and a mother breastfeeding her baby – who sit around a roaring stove. Vibrant carpets adorn the walls and a small television looks somewhat out of place in an otherwise sparsely furnished room. The ger is dimly lit, steamy and smells of dairy, an aroma that seems to be coming from a vat of boiling milk on the stove.

They also drink fermented mare’s milk

Although unable to speak English, the family of eight transcend language with heartfelt hospitality. Through Davaasuren, they quiz me over several cups of the milky brew, which turns out to be a strong, salty drink they called tea. I put six sugars in mine to mask the briny taste. It could have been worse though; they also drink fermented mare’s milk, which they call beer. Davaasuren explains more about how they travel around Mongolia with the seasons, shepherding livestock to pastures new on horseback. However, moving children and heavy items requires slightly more horsepower, so in a rare betrayal of their traditions they also use a small, family car.

Technology has crept into their lives elsewhere; thanks to a wind turbine outside, I am able to watch Mongolian soaps and a translated episode of Top Gear with my hosts. It is very surreal. However, television is a rare luxury for this family. Spanning three generations, they lead tough lives; self-sufficiency might sound evocative but, watching them graft, the romantic veneer soon peels away. From dusk until dawn the women prepare food, look after the children (constant breastfeeding) and make endless vats of salty tea. Outside, the men tend cattle and gallop around on their horses, displaying a flair for riding that seems genetic in Mongolia.

Watching their labors, I think back to a German traveler I met in Ulaanbaatar, who had been asked to sacrifice a horse with another family. He described to me an emotional, exhausting battle during which he helped wrestle the horse and slit its throat before dressing its steaming carcass. Judging by the contents of the shed outside, I have missed that party; butchered meat hangs from the ceiling, while severed goats’ heads are lined up on a shelf. “They’re for special occasions,” says Davaasuren.

A setting sun signals the end of a hard day’s work for the family. Coming in, the men peel off their layers and sit down to tuck into steaming plates of food. I join them and catch the women looking over at me for signs of approval. I rub my stomach to signify a great meal. I am lying; it is an awful, artery-clogging dish of fatty meat and homemade pasta, which leaves a thick layer of grease on my plate.

The girls want to watch soaps and the men want action

After dinner, the family rations itself to an hour of television (the ger’s battery doesn’t allow more), which provokes an argument that has been played out between men and women the world over. “The girls want to watch soaps and the men want action,” says Davaasuren. Predictably, the men win. After our media ration, the sleepy adults wind down from a hard day’s work by playing with the youngsters. There is a lot of affection towards the children, although the decision to let the kids chew batteries is questionable. Before the lights go out we are treated to one last salty cup of tea and some traditional music. Shyly, Sukhbataar, the eldest son, picks up his guitar and serenades us with three beautifully played songs, all about horses.

His songs highlight how horses are the beating heart of Mongolian life. In addition to inspiring music, steeds are immortalized in statues and revered in history books. When I ask about the significance of horses in Mongolia, the answer is unequivocal. “It is impossible to imagine Mongolia without them, especially the nomadic people. Horses deeply connect with our history, culture, tradition and lifestyle. Even in our state symbol you can see the horse.”

His short set finished, Sukhbataar bows graciously and heads to bed – he must rise early tomorrow to milk the cows. It is still dark when I stir from my slumber the following morning, but the family has been hard at work already. They are washed, dressed and have even had time to get fresh milk, which is used to make more tea. I have one for the road and bid them farewell.

Horses have been the cornerstones of Mongolian civilisation since the 13th century and nowhere is this more evident than at Tsonjin Boldog, my next stop. Home to the spectacular Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue, this remote hamlet might seem like an incongruous location for a 40-meter stainless steel cenotaph, but apparently this is the place where the celebrated “strong ruler” found his golden whip. That was a good enough reason to build the world’s largest statue of a rider on a horse at a reported cost of $4.1million, although the price does include plans for a spa, hotel and golf course as well as the planting of 10,000 trees.

Where Chinggis Khan’s crotch meets the horse’s saddle

Inside the museum I am bundled into a lift and whisked up a shaft within the horse’s leg. The lift opens at roughly the point where Chinggis Khan’s crotch meets the horse’s saddle and opens out onto a small staircase, which leads up the steed’s mane to a viewing platform on its head. Turning around I see the steely-faced conqueror looming large above me in the saddle. His ferocious gaze sends a shiver down my spine – or perhaps that is just the wind. I bask in the silence and take in the panorama, realizing that the setting sun is casting Khan’s giant shadow across the steppe, much as it would have done back in the 13th century.

At its height, his Mongol Empire covered a third of the earth’s land area, from Siberia to the Middle East and reaching as far west as Poland. “In many ways, Chinggis Khan was just the ultimate nomad,” says military historian Tom Sizewell. “He seems to have just set out to see what was over the horizon and never tried to hold on to any land he conquered. He kept moving on to fresh pastures. Even his grave has never been found as it was trampled by a thousand horsemen to discourage robbers.” I am not surprised to hear that he once said: “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

“The secret of his success was an army of cavalrymen who could ride 80km a day, a remarkable feat achieved by having a string of four horses each,” says Sizewell. “The horses also sustained their riders on a diet of mare’s milk mixed with small doses of blood drawn from a vein.” No wonder the Mongols developed a mystical connection to their mounts; with that diet they must have felt at least half-horse.

The Mongol horse is descended from the wild Przewalski’s horse, which Mongolians call the “takhi”. Most so-called wild herds, such as America’s mustangs, are domestic horses gone feral but riding or even training a takhi is almost impossible. Or, as a plaque at the Museum of Natural History in downtown Ulaanbaatar says: “Only the wind can ride Przewalski’s horses.”

“We believe that takhi are the ancestors of our domestic horses,” says Dashpurev Tsersendeleg, the deputy director of Hustai National Park Trust. “Takhi means worship – maybe its coincidence or maybe we named them with purpose.”

The drive is well worth the effort

Hustai is about a two-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar if the traffic is favorable, which it never is. However, the drive is well worth the effort to see these ancient horses in the wild where they belong. I spot some standing skittishly on a ridge above me, looking down with bemusement at their visitor. Among them are some foals, a good sign as there are still precious few Przewalski’s horses in the world.

Indigenous to the steppes of Central Asia, they take their European name from Colonel Nikolai Przewalski, the Russian naturalist who is accredited as being the first person to study the species. The horses became extinct in the wild during the 1960s, when the ravages of habitat loss, hunting and a succession of harsh winters killed off the last remaining populations. However, a Dutch couple called Jan and Inge Bouman embarked on an ambitious project to reintroduce them to the steppe of Central Asia, which is now starting to pay off.

Hustai gained international recognition for its conservation efforts in 2002, when Unesco listed the 50,600-hectare park. It is home to approximately 630 species of plant, 217 species of bird and 44 species of mammal, including the Mongolian gazelle, lynx, red deer and grey wolf. However, it is the takhi that most come to see and with a stable population of 268 in the park, visitors have a good chance of spotting them.

As well as being shielded by folklore, the horses are also protected by criminal law; in 1993, the Mongolian Government declared Hustai National Park a Specially Protected Area in a move to safeguard the species living within it. “The takhi are wild animals and no one can use them for labor or other things like racing or milking,” says Dashpurev.

Horses live outdoors all year round

While the takhi roam free in such protected lands, their domesticated counterparts lead a tough existence at the hands of the Mongolian people; although the country’s nomads have access to cars, genuine horse power is the real driving force behind their extraordinary lives. Horses live outdoors all year round, even during the harsh winters, sustaining themselves on what grass they can find. With more than 3million, slightly more than Mongolia’s human population, they are the Swiss Army Knives of nomadic life; they are used for racing, shepherding cattle and traversing the countryside. Then, as they enter the twilight of their working lives, they are slaughtered for food. It is a grim end to a life of toil.

Given the importance of the horse to the nomad’s way of life, it would be remiss of me to leave the steppes without hopping in the saddle, which is why I find myself in the small, ramshackle town of Zuunmod. This ugly outpost is where Ganbaa’s father-in-law lives and he has agreed to take me out for a gallop on one of his trusty steeds. A tall, intimidating man, who wears a traditional Mongolian deel and lots of fur, he is waiting for us with the horses when we arrive. He cuts a dominant figure, to which I react by attempting to lower any expectations. “Can you explain that I don’t really know how to ride?” I ask Davaasuren. She translates but he just looks at me blankly, as if that doesn’t compute. A man who can’t ride? You must be joking. He clearly thinks so and shows me to my steed, which I mount with the grace of a hippo doing yoga.

Leaving Zuunmod behind, we trot along the foothills of Bogd Khan Uul, passing cheeky groups of children and a cluster of gers. My horse is sturdy but strong and gives the impression he can canter all day without any input from me required. I ride without embarrassment but, just as I am hitting my stride, the father-in-law stops and points to a nearby ger – this is where we are eating lunch. The ger belongs to one of his friends and, ducking through the door, I am greeted by the severed heads of six goats, which have been lined up in the porch. Sensibly, Davaasuren had stayed back in Zuunmod, which makes it very difficult for me to communicate with Ganbaa’s father-in-law and his friend. However, through the use of miming and animal noises, I establish what is for lunch. It is horse.

With a belly full of mare, I ride guiltily back to Zuunmod, where I dismount and thank the horseman for his time. He bids me an indifferent farewell, turns his steed around and gallops off into the sunset. His departure is like the final scene of an old western film. I half expect the credits to start rolling.

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