Nomadic life in Mongolia
Inside a traditional Mongolian tent, 72-year-old Nanjilmaa serves a fermented milk drink and passes around a plate of dairy candies. She is a nomad – in the way that the people of her land have been for centuries. And she’s invited me in to learn a bit more about her culture.
It would be easy to, at first glance, think of Mongolia’s nomads as somehow old-fashioned or impoverished. But that would be wrong. They live on the land not for necessity but because of choice. This is a Mongolian way of life and these people are the backbone of the country’s heritage.
Looking around Nanjilmaa’s tent – or ‘ger’, as it’s called here – it’s clear to see that this is a home. Comfortable couches covered in rugs, a small cupboard, a table with family photos, a wood stove – and even a fridge and a television. For a nomad, a ger is not temporary, even if the location is.
Nanjilmaa proudly introduces herself by saying she has 2 horses, 20 cows, 50 sheep… and 8 children and 16 grandchildren. Her husband has passed away so she now lives in her ger alone. But her youngest son and his family live in separate ger that they always put next to hers.
The easiest way to think of Mongolia’s nomads is as animal farmers. But because the harsh seasons of the country mean dramatic changes in weather conditions and food availability, these farmers move locations throughout the year to the most appropriate spots. In winter, they often move in front of a mountain for shelter. In spring, it’s closer to a river, in summer right next to a river for water supply, and in autumn up a hill to collect hay for winter time. Most nomads move at least four times a year but some might move up to 30 times in a year, especially if they have a lot of animals that eat through the available food quickly.
Nanjilmaa has dressed up today in one of her best homemade traditional outfits. She knew she would have visitors and I think she’s honoured to have us – although I’m the one who feels honoured to be here.
At one point, as she’s talking about how she likes the clothes she has on because they have big pockets, she pulls her mobile phone out of one of them. It’s a reminder that living in a ger does not separate you from the modern world.
The television against the side of the tent also demonstrates that. Nanjilmaa watches a lot of Korean soap operas – she loves them. Her favourite show, though, is Mongolia’s Got Talent (yes, that’s a real thing). I try to imagine what it would be like, sitting in a tent at night, snow all around, watching a singing competition. (If you’re wondering where the power comes from, in some of the spots she camps (particularly the winter ones) she can connect to the electricity of local towns – otherwise she has a solar power device.)
There are some aspects of modern life that Nanjilmaa misses, though. For example, she tells me that she would like to have a proper shower because she has to heat up water in a pot and wash herself with that. It’s not enough to make her want to change her lifestyle, though. She loves it out here.
“I don’t like cities,” she says. “Too crowded, too stressful.”
“It’s so free here. I get out and see the mountains and there’s nothing to be bothered with.”
“In the cities, to be alone you go into your apartment. Here, to be alone, you go outside.”
The only time that Nanjilmaa really wishes she was in a city is when she unexpectedly runs out of things like flour or rice and the shops are so far away. Then again, her children often bring her supplies when she needs them. Other than the one who travels with her, the other children live in Ulaanbaatar – there’s an economist, an engineer and a lawyer amongst them.
They also come and help her move when it’s time to change the location of her camp. It takes about an hour to take everything down, about an hour to move it, and then about three hours to put it all up again. She often just moves to the same seasonal spot she was in the year before. The gers tend to leave a mark on the ground for at least a year and, out of respect, nobody else would set up camp in the area if they can see one.
Mongolia is in a period of rapid change. It’s becoming increasingly urbanised as more and more of its citizens move to Ulaanbaatar, seeking an education and a professional job over the traditional nomadic life. That is creating pressures in the city but it’s also making things difficult in the countryside as the size of family units drop and less people are left to do the work.
But Nanjilmaa still sees a bright future. She will encourage some of her grandchildren to live on the land and continue the family traditions. She doesn’t see the nomadic lifestyle disappearing.
“It will still be strong because the main reason is our livestock is the main economic sector of Mongolia,”she says. “This brings the most income to Mongolia, so it will still be there. But maybe it will become a bit more modernised and maybe people will move less.”
It’s hard to know whether her prediction will turn out to be accurate. Nanjilmaa is correct that livestock has been Mongolia’s main economic activity… but mining and other industries are increasing and that could have an effect.
For now, though, those thoughts don’t bother her. She’s had a happy 72 years and sees only more happiness ahead of her on the land with her 2 horses, 20 cows, 50 sheep… and, when they visit, her 8 children and 16 grandchildren.