Mongolia’s Nomads Cling to a Treasured Way of Life
In the annals of travel, one of the oft-quoted explorers, Marco Polo, is reported to have said on his death bed, “I did not tell half of what I saw. No one would have believed it.”
The 13th-century adventurer journeyed to the exotic ends of the world and returned home with stories of double-humped camels and long-haired cattle. Indeed, many of his readers believed his stories were outrageous and called him a liar. Surely, they said, such bizarre creatures could not roam the earth!
Of course, the four-legged wonders that Marco Polo witnessed in Mongolia were emblematic of a larger and far more exotic world than anyone back home in the civilized Venetian Republic could have dreamed. Imagine, for instance, a people who never stayed in one place … who lived off the land completely with no sense of permanent, centralized community … who lived in round huts made of animal pelts that could be disassembled quickly when it was time to move on to their next home. “No one would have believed it,” the traveler wrote. Indeed, Mongolia’s rugged culture and its people’s itinerant ways must be seen to be believed. And Discovery Tours invites you to do just that.
An Ancient Capital on the Move
The history of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, says a lot about the nomadic culture that still survives today. Typically, young countries establish capitals in order to centralize government functions and develop a national and cultural pride of place. Not so in Ulaanbaatar. This fledgling capital was founded in 1639 as a mobile monastery, a seat for the first Tibetan lama of Mongolia, Zanabazar. Simply put, this capital city was nomadic, moving from place to place as the need for supplies dictated.
It must have been quite a site to see a capital city on the move; thousands of gers—the round tent-like structures that served as homes—would have been broken down, packed away, and loaded into a massive caravan of wheeled carts pulled by horses, yaks, and reindeer. It was an epic seasonal exodus that led to temporary establishments along the Selenge, Orkhon, and Tuul rivers. To Western eyes, it seems like it would have been a hard life, and perhaps it was. But the lama preferred his capital to be mobile so that his monastery could better serve its people. Then there was the added benefit of being able to relocate quickly to Inner Mongolia during the Dzungar Wars in the late 17th century.
All told, Ulaanbaatar settled in 24 places. Its shortest stay was less than a year; its longest was 34 years. In 1778, as the U.S. was stepping into independence, the city settled in its current location where the Selbe and Tuul rivers meet.
So a nomadic lifestyle would seem to be coursing through Mongolians’ blood, if not coded into their DNA. Many still move with their livestock two-to-four times a year as their livelihood depends on the health of their horses, yaks, and reindeer. After all, greener pastures mean a healthier diet. It’s a life dictated by the cycle of seasons, and many might tell you that it comes with a freedom as wide as the endless steppes.
Ger: the Basis for Nomadic Life
Of course, in order to move about so often, one needs the Mongolian version of a mobile home. The round, tent-like ger is just that. You might know these simple structures as yurts, an equally accurate term that was used by Russians when they occupied Mongolia in the 20th century. So perfect is the structure of the ger for nomadic life that it hasn’t changed in 1,000 years—a circular lattice skeleton; a central wooden dome, kind of a large inverted dish set on pillars; a series of radial ribs connecting the dome and the lattice; all covered with animal pelts.
The ger, in fact, may be the closest tie that American culture—and other cultures around the world—have to Mongolia. They are not unfamiliar structures, thanks in part to William Coperwaite, a Harvard educator from Maine who was first inspired to build these round huts in the 1960s after reading a National Geographic article chronicling the Mongolian journey of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. But many of these so-called replicas, found at campgrounds or ski resorts around the world, are made with higher-grade materials and stand as permanent structures, so they are far from authentic or culturally accurate.
The Steed of the Steppes
Mongolia is two-and-a-half times the size of Texas. And just like in that southern state, its people relied on the horse for transportation from the country’s earliest days. Camels and reindeer may also have gotten people where they needed to go, but horses provided greater speed compared to these pack animals. So you can imagine that nomadic cultures evolved to become very horse-centric.
The timeless image of the Mongolian horseman is the leathery-skinned loner cantering astride his steed on a grassy steppe, his deel or robe dancing on a breeze. It is an intimate connection between herder and horse. Some riders carve their saddles from wood and adorn them with silver. And the horse’s mane is braided into rope. But horse and rider most thrillingly take center stage each year during the horse races of Naadam.
A Culture on the Edge
Few nomadic people remain in the world, so this Mongolian culture is precious. Many factors are contributing to their dwindling numbers. Mongolia’s economy, for one, is showing great promise. So the younger generation is being drawn to larger cities to pursue 21st-century careers. Climate change is also creating a shift in the environment as deserts reach out to strangle fertile grasslands, threatening grazing land, herds, and the nomadic way of life. Recent winters have been harsh, too, driving herders to opt for lives in mining towns and more urban comforts.
Still, the vast majority of Mongolia’s landscapes remains innocent and unspoiled and pure. And its nomads remain as much a part of the season’s cycles as the shifting winds.