A Mongolian ger in northern Mongolia
Films About Mongolia
March 23, 2020
Spend time in Mongolia and you will notice that a majority of families own a dog. Very rarely are they fashionable, small, pedigree dogs as traditionally the dogs role was to alert it’s owners to the arrival of strangers arriving from the wide-open steppe, herding the livestock when families moved to new pasture and guarding against the threat of wolves. Did you know that in Mongolia, dogs traditionally are the only animal given their own name? It is a sign of honour and part of a belief that dogs are the last stage before humans in the reincarnation process. When a dog dies, the owner whispers in the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. They are buried high in the hills so that people do not walk on their remains. Their tail is cut off and put beneath the head, and a piece of meat or fat is cut off and placed in the dog’s mouth to sustain its soul for its journey; before the dog is reincarnated, the dog’s soul is freed to travel the land, to run across the high open steppe for as long as it would like.
Mongolian Dogs – Life On The Steppe
May 16, 2020
Milking yaks. Part of the typical Mongolian herding calendar

The Mongolian Herding Calendar

Out of the current Mongolian population of 3.2 million (April 2020), there are approximately 230,000 herding households -families with livestock that move between pastures trying to make optimal use of the seasons. Daily activity for the herders mainly depends on the time of year and the weather conditions as well as the routine of the livestock specific to that time of year. Below, is an impression of the Mongolian herding calendar – the main annual activities of Mongolia’s herders including the families we work in long-term local community partnership with.

Mongolia is a vast country so these activities will change from area to area. Even within a single province, activities will vary.

Spring – March through to early May

In early spring the herders will still be in their winter pasture.​
 Livestock will start to give birth around mid-March.

Livestock giving birth is part of the Mongolian herding calendar

The Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia experiences extreme weather with burning heat in summer, freezing temperatures in the winter and strong winds in spring and autumn. The Bactrian camel has adapted to the harshness of the environment and its wool has thermostatic properties which can protect and insulate the animal from extreme cold conditions as well as keeping it cool during the hot summers. Traditionally, herders collected the wool as the animal sheds its coat. Although shearing is now more common place, the wool over the humps remains covered as this is said to improve disease resistance and helps to protect the camel in the spring if there is a severe weather event such as a blizzard.

Goats are combed for their cashmere wool. Castration of sheep and goats is also carried out now as well. By late spring the herders will consider moving either from their winter or spring pasture to their summer pasture – this will be a place near a water point.

Summer – Late May to early September

The main activities are the herding of the animals in search of pasture, making sure the animals are fattened to help them survive the following winter. They are typically herded in a species group although sheep and goats are often herded together. All animals are milked (herders usually start to milk their horses around the start of Naadam. They are milked 6-7 times a day for the milk that will become airag, fermented mare’s milk with an alcoholic content of approximately 1.5-2.3 %).

There are regional varieties, but milk products in Mongolia can be broadly classified as fat or protein-based or fermented and range from sun-dried curds known as aaruul to the infamous airag, the fermented mare’s milk. When the quantity of milk or by-products is too small to process, it is accumulated over some days, allowed to sour naturally and then treated. An important part of the Mongolian herding calendar is the milking of mares – they are milked up to six or seven times per day in the summer and the milk is poured into a large open skin sack (or now a large plastic barrel). Within this container, the milk gets pummelled up to 800-1000 times with a wooden masher to aid fermentation. The stirring needs to be repeated regularly; traditionally, anyone entering or leaving the ger would do a few strokes.

 

Dairy products are made, the wool of sheep is collected, horse/camel/yak hair is cut or combed and Naadam horses are trained. Children are at home as school has finished (June 1st) and help with activities. Naadam Festival is celebrated in July.

Autumn – September and October

The herding of the animals continues. All animals are milked up to the 1st of September (after that, sometimes sheep/goats and/or cows will be milked, but this changes family to family). The wool/animal hair can be used to make (felt) products. Where available, families cut their ‘winter hay’. School starts on September 1st and loans are asked from banks to pay school fees (or animals are sold to pay for it). Repair work is also carried out on the winter shelter. Autumn is also a natural time for the families to cull their livestock. And this is typically when young horses are branded.


Winter – November to February

Already at their winter pasture, families will be collecting their drinking water from a nearby water point (such as a frozen river or well) or any melting ice. They will still be herding their livestock with the primary focus being the protection of animals from prey such as wolves and making sure the animals can access feed underneath any snow cover. The gers are insulated with extra layers of felt and the winter shelters for the animals are also insulated with dung.

A winter encampment in our Mongolian herding calendar

This is the winter encampment of the Batchuluun family at Khustain Nuruu National Park. Behind the three gers you can make out the shelter where the sheep and goats are kept at night to protect them from wolves.

The hours of daylight are limited, and life for herding families can almost feel like a semi-hibernation. Tsagaan Sar – Mongolian Lunar New Year (White Month) is celebrated in late Jan/Feb.

Female members of the Zorgio family based at Tsagaan Suvraga White Stupa) in the Gobi Desert during Tsagaan Sar (White Month) – Mongolia’s Lunar New Year. In the words of our guest Ross Briggs: ‘On to our hosts, the Zorgio family. We are invited into the main ger, it is beautiful. Centre at the back of the ger is the Tsagaan Sar feast. A stack of large biscuits, 9 high topped with dried cheeses, dried yoghurt, white sweets and sugar cubes. Around this are plates of buuz, potato salad, pressed mutton, salami and gherkins, pickled vegetables, a large bowl of sweets and beverages. The eldest daughter serves us individually, milk tea first followed by airag (here it is fermented camel milk, I like it) followed by all the dishes and beverages ending with a shot of vodka. The hospitality is marvellous.’

If you’re interested in experiencing an activity from the typical Mongolian herding calendar why not look at our Mongolian Nomads’ Migration post to see how we can arrange for you to join one of the families on their migration. Alternatively, look at the Mongolia tours we offer where you can stay with the families we work in long-term local community partnership with.

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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