Well Refurbishment Project – CAMDA NGO – Mongolia
April 16, 2019
Mongolia Family Tours
Mongolia Family Tours
May 11, 2019

Mongolian Nomads’ Migration

There are approximately 230,000 herding households spread throughout the vastness of  Mongolia – a country the size of western Europe. Between them are divided the 71 million head of livestock (Dec 2022) – known as the ‘five snouts’ of sheep, goats, cattle (& yaks), horses and camels. The size and make-up of herds depend on the individual family, their needs and the location including the type of pasture available.

Traditionally, Mongolia’s herders have grazed their livestock by rotating them over shared pasture according to the seasons and the health and availability of the grazing land available. The pastures are divided according to the season—summer, spring/fall, and winter based on the amount of grass and when the grass is sufficient to eat, which is often determined by geography, climate conditions and season. Simply put, herders stay in an area as long as there is enough grass.

Mongolian herders d0 not migrate randomly. Each move is a careful decision which includes reviewing the quality of the pasture. Each herding family is different on how often and when they move – some families will move many kilometres while others only move short distances. Herders continuously micro-adapt and in some areas or during certain years, herders may make frequent moves in a year, whereas in other areas they may move just a few times. Here is your guide to Mongolian nomads’ migration.


A young Mongolian herding couple. Staying with them allows you to learn more about Mongolian nomads migration

We work with the young Batsuuri family. Their home is in the Bayandalai district of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. Their winter shelter is up in the protected foothills of the mountains and their summer pasture in the more open plains where rainfall turns the vast gravel plains into pasture for their livestock.  They typically make this migration in April or May. It’s a short migration of only a few kilometres but a migration pattern typical to the Gobi.

The spring (khavarjaa) and autumn (namarjaa) encampments are typically the most temporary. Summer encampments (zuslan) will usually have semi-permanent structures, such as milking pens and hitching posts. The winter encampment (uvuljuu) is always the most established, with shelters for the animals, storage huts and corals. Often in the summer, herders leave many possessions behind, because they travel in a smaller and lighter ger, with as little furniture as possible. In spring, herders go to pastures where the first herbs grow – spring is generally a time for migration from the depleted winter pasture.

We can offer you a Mongolian Nomad's Migration experience where you'll work together with the family on dismantling the ger

The herders of the Darkhad Valley in northern Khovsgol herders often migrate to their winter pastures over the course of a few weeks in October and early November. The route follows through the mighty Khodrol Saridag – a 3000m plus mountain range. Some families spend the winter in the grassy mountain-sheltered valleys just west of Lake Khovsgol, but some make it all the way to the lake’s edge. Here they’ll wait out the long winter in view of Khovsgol Nuur before making the return journey in the spring. If you are visiting Khovsgol Lake during the summer you may come across log cabins and stock corrals – they may appear abandoned and overgrown but they are simply waiting for the return of winter occupants. Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

Sometimes in the summer a shorter more temporary migration called an otor is undertaken when a herder takes a makeshift shelter with them and pastures their animals at a distance from a central point. This is when (typically due to overgrazing or lack of rain), pasture is scarce and one or two members of the family will travel longer distances with their livestock searching for better pasture. The spring migration can be the toughest as the animals will be thin.

As a Mongolian herder, you live your life through the lunar calendar – all your activities are typically conducted on ‘auspicious’ days. In the Mongolian lunar calendar, there are favourable and unfavourable days according to the combination of elements: earth, air, fire and water. Herders look at the lunar calendar to look for a suitable (positive and auspicious) day on which to move their herds. However, Kazakh herders in western Mongolia typically have a set date on which they move.

We can offer you a Mongolian Nomad's Migration experience together with Bashakhan

Bashakhan is a herder and a Kazakh eagle hunter who lives in Bayan Ulgii Aimag in western Mongolia. He typically migrates twice a year from his winter pasture to his summer pasture. His winter home is in the community of Ulaankhuus and his summer pasture is in the valley surrounding the 3,943m snowcapped Tsengel Khairkhan – and is one of highest glacier mountains in the Mongol-Altai mountain range. He moves from his winter to summer pasture on June 10 every year. A percentage of Mongolia’s Kazakh herders complete a spring migration to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. This 5-6 day, 150km, spring migration can take place between the months of February to April. However, February (although the coldest month) is often chosen as it allows the animals to move before they give birth in March as the young wouldn’t survive such a migration. Even so, the spring migration can be the toughest as the livestock will be thin after a long winter. See https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/hunting-with-golden-eagles-mongolia/ for more details. Image: EL guest Sam Reinders

In addition, there are different forms of migration taking place in Mongolia. As herding families migrate to seasonal pastures with their livestock, younger members of society migrate to the bright lights of Ulaanbaatar to attend university, older family members migrate to their nearest village or town for the winter months – providing a base for the family children to go to school from and a percentage of herders are forced into urban migration by changing circumstances – often when a dzud – a cyclical weather event unique to Mongolia – results in all their livestock dying. 


Joining A Mongolian Nomads’ Migration

The work starts early on migration day. Not only is the family ger dismantled but the animals have to be rounded up – although they often migrate in their separate herds. Often the animals seem to know the routine – after all, migration is a cyclical routine.

Men traditionally rode on horses and women rode on horseback or on the pack animals that were traditionally used to move possessions (everything is loaded: ger parts, carpets, pots and pans, shelves, stoves). Now, if the family has access to one, trucks (or even a Prius car!) are used for moving the ‘home.’ (The herding way of life in Mongolia is very pragmatic, balancing traditions in combination with aspects of modern life that help to make their life easier and more efficient.)

Image: EL guest Paul Allerton

The herding families don’t need to rely on maps or GPS devices; they use the sun, the shape of hills and mountains and landmarks to find their way.

Join a Mongolian Nomads Migration

Some families – maybe those with children of school age or older herders – give their livestock to a family member or another family to look after for the winter as they move into small towns to allow their children to attend school or for the elderly herder to have access to a medical service. Image: EL guest Massimo Rumi

The herding families that we work in long-term local community partnership with all migrate and it would be possible for you to join them in one of their seasonal migrations. However, there will be hardships. Remember that herders do not change location for their own personal comfort – they move for the well-being of their livestock. Also, you’re on ‘nomad’ time and all schedules go out of the window. You’ll move at the speed dictated by the herd, the migration route and the family. Be prepared for changing (and sometimes challenging) weather conditions, basic shared accommodation and changing terrain. We expect you to leave your expectations and preconceptions behind. However, if you’re prepared to be flexible and open to all experiences you’ll start of as a stranger but will leave with a sense of true friendship – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/altai-migration-trails-mongolia-small-group-tour/

Reindeer belonging to the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia

The herding cycle for Mongolia’s Tsaatan reindeer herders is divided into four main seasons and members of the Tsaatan community move seasonally with their reindeer within the taiga (boreal forest). The migration pattern of the families is based on their reindeer herds having adequate access to the lichen, sedges, grasses and moss on which they graze as well as depending on the weather and climate. A typical migration pattern is that summer is spent in the high valleys and the winter in the more sheltered taiga forest.

If you are interested in joining one of our families to experience a Mongolian nomads’ migration, do get in touch. For more inspiration on the types of experiences we offer, look at our Mongolia tours page.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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