Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes Mongolia
Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes Mongolia
July 27, 2021
This is Erdeneochir - a talented Mongolian musician. His musical skills include the art of khoomi (throat singing) and playing the horse head fiddle.
Mongolia’s Horse Head Fiddle
July 29, 2021
Bactrian camels Mongolia

Tale Of The Weeping Camel

The Tale of the Weeping Camel is a 2003 German documentary drama which was released internationally in 2004. The movie was directed and written by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni. The plot is about a family of nomadic herders in the Gobi Desert trying to save the life of a Bactrian camel calf after it was rejected by its mother. They bring in a local musician – a horse head fiddle player – to play a specific tune to coax the mother camel into accepting its new-born calf.

This coaxing ritual was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2015.  This Intangible Cultural Heritage list includes:

‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’

Included on the Mongolian list are knucklebone shooting, the traditional Biyelgee dance, the Naadam festival,  and the Morin Khuur (horse-head fiddle).

Horse Head Fiddle Mongolia - used in The Tale Of The Weeping Camel

What is the ‘coaxing ritual for camel calves?’ Well, for those of you who haven’t seen the Tale of the Weeping Camel …

Spring in Mongolia is a hard time of year – especially in the Gobi. Mother animals give birth to their young in a harsh and dusty environment and there is a big risk of losing a mother or a calf.

Mongols have a variety of rituals relating to husbandry in traditional Mongolian society. One of them is a chanting ritual for a new-born baby animal and its mother. To chant is to stimulate, through the use of special words and melody, the adopting of a baby animal to its mother. 

A camel calf taking milk

 

There are different gestures, melodies and chanting techniques for the five types of livestock in Mongolia. 

 Coaxing (Ингэнд Ботго Авахуулах – commonly known as khuuslukh) a camel is a ritual for a mother who rejects her baby; or for adopting an orphan baby to another female who has lost her baby, because only a suckling mother will have milk. 

 Most herdswomen engage in techniques and methods of coaxing, but these techniques and methods aren’t enough sometimes.  A specialist musician is brought in (often with a Morin Khuur – horse head fiddle). The mother is tied close to the calf, and the musician will begin their monotone song ‘khuus’ or lullaby. 

 A mother camel will typically bite, savage or spit at her calf at the beginning of the ritual. The coaxer can change their melody, depending on the mother’s behavioural reaction. When a mother camel is being coaxed into accepting a rejected or orphan calf, it is said to break into tears at the gentle sound of  the ‘khuus’ and this is when they start to accept the calf. Hence the name of the documentary The Tale Of The Weeping Camel. 

Bactrian Camels
There are approximately 472,934 domestic Bactrian camels in Mongolia in 2020 (the total livestock population is approximately 67 million. The Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) has two humps, in contrast to the single-humped dromedary camel. Bactrian camels have served as pack animals in Mongolia for centuries such as on The Tea Road because of their tolerance for high altitude, cold, and also drought conditions. Their pale colour is better for reflecting the sun’s rays during the extreme heat of the summer months in the Gobi Desert and they have thin stomach hair – which lets the heat escape from their body. Look closely and you’ll see that they have two pairs of eyelashes that are extra long – designed to keep out the sand.  They have tough teeth for chewing the thorniest desert plants. Camels also have dry poo and concentrated pee – to help conserve water. Airag is the famous Mongolian drink from horses – fermented mare’s milk. However, herders in the desert make a similar product with camel’s milk known as khoormog. 
There are also wild camels in Mongolia (Camelus Ferus). There is a world population of approximately 1000  with around 600 in the Gobi Desert in north-west China and around 450 in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. The Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) is the only charity in the world with a specific mission to save this remarkable creature and its pristine desert environment from extinction and destruction. 
A female camel herder in Mongolia's Gobi Desert

Image: EL guest Tammy McCorkle

The coaxing ritual is sometimes represented in the Opening Ceremony of the Thousand Camel Festival held in the southern Gobi in March to celebrate the Bactrian camel and the essential role it plays in the lives of Mongolia’s herders. Alternatively, consider taking a camel trek with us or visit the Gobi Desert on one of our Mongolia experiences.

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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