In Mongolia, the land flows onward and upward further than the eye can see. The steppe seems more like an ocean than a landmass. The plains, at an average elevation of 1500m, are a great expanse of grass and rock where only horses and hard men can live. The mountains seem like giant waves crashing periodically against each other. Across this landscape gers (the tents which are home to most Mongols), surrounded by sheep, goats and horses, float like ships.In October, at a stop across the Chinese border, Ganbat Bulgan boarded the train bound for Ulan Bator with me. Pointing at the gers, she said Mongols scorn houses: it is disrespectful to dig foundations into the earth, since we are only passing through. “There is a hat on my head,” she said, “and above that only Tengri!” The great blue heaven of Mongol mythology, Tengri surrounds the land in an azure shroud throughout the seasons. To the north, rivers, lakes and forests give some respite from this enormity. To the south, the Gobi, where only camels can survive, makes China a distant thought.
Mongolia is synonymous with Genghis Kahn. He’s a source of national pride: every coin or note bears his likeness; his name appears on streets and shops. Quite a bit of the world’s population carry his genes: 0.5% of the total world (male) population, 8% in the regions that his empire once covered.
Genghis Kahn and the empire of the Golden Horde spread in the 13-14th centuries from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean. It was brutal, causing great human suffering, massacres, the suppression of cultures. But it was also prosperous in trade and cultural exchange. From the mid-13th century, trade and information flowed through the Silk Road as never before, connecting East and West. The knowledge of gunpowder passed through it from China to Europe, with silk-weaving machinery and the mechanical clock. Arabian horses and Turkish falcons flourished, and the textiles of Flanders and Italy furnished the court of the Great Kahn. It was the promise of these luxuries that made Europeans set out east on the high seas. This wealth took form in the texture of our cultural imagination.
Most people in Mongolia live today much as they did then, through sustainable, pastoral nomadism. Only each ger or yurt now has a solar panel. Mongolia is one of the poorest countries in Asia, yet it is hard to find a beggar. As nomads, Mongolians subsist just as they have always done: their wealth is their herds and their land, held in common. Their family structure is traditional and strong, necessary for life on the steppe.
But this nomadic lifestyle is under threat from mining and industrialised farming. There is a mining boom, and corruption, though the government makes the mining companies pay high premiums for what they take from the ground, and gives them only limited leases. Industialised agriculture is possibly a greater threat. Under the protection of the Soviet Union, traditional patterns of steppe life were allowed to continue much as they always had. But since the fall of communism nomadic herder groups have been under growing pressure. Before, herders were guaranteed a market for their livestock, at a steady price; that has gone and some herders are struggling to survive in the old way against new competition. That is why Ulan Bator, the capital, contains more than one third of the country’s population.
In Ulan Bator, the writing is on the wall. Every foreign company eager to get its hands on Mongolia’s rich natural wealth puts up billboards with words like “partnership” and “future”. Down by the railway station young people add their two cents worth: “China out” is a popular one. In a country where connection to the land has near religious significance, you can understand their resentment.
Great swathes of the country could be turned into farmland. Mongolia depends on imports for its cereals and vegetables, so some expansion could be of benefit. (It has already begun.) But there is a danger: foreign companies could build massive “superfarms” over much of the country, growing food for export. China in particular, with its big population, is as hungry for food as it is for raw materials, and the Chinese government and firms have tried to secure rights for massive industrial farms and mining operations. So far, the government has refused, in a move designed to win the popular (anti-Chinese) vote. But with China’s growing dominance in the region, can these rebuffs continue?
Out on the steppe, in his family ger in Byanundar, Mandakh Soyombo spoke of his fears for the future. He is a herder and community leader of the Byanundar Sooum, a local association of herding families in southern Mongolia. He fears that if such large-scale farming were to become the norm, the nomadic lifestyle would lose its viability as a source of subsistence, and its meaning as a way of life. Gathered with his family at a shrine in his ger, he spun a prayer wheel. (Like most Mongols, Soyombo is a Tibetan Buddhist.) The ger was silent but for the crackling of the flame on the dried horse-dung fire and the spinning of the wheel. When it finally stopped, Mandakh said something in Mongolian, then turned to me: “We go west. It is the last chance for good grazing before snow.” Early the next morning, the entire camp was mobile, and we moved several hundred kilometres west in just a few days.
Mongolian nomadism is more than a throwback from a bygone era. It is a sustainable way to live on the steppe, a vibrant living tradition that has existed for centuries. It evolved in harmony with the fragile ecosystem of this harsh environment. This includes Bactrian camels from the wastes of the Gobi. There are now fewer than 1,000 in the wild, making them more endangered that the Giant Panda; the main threats are hunting and the expansion of mining and industry.
If nomadism vanishes from the steppes to be replaced by “superfarms” and mining corporations, we would lose a vital part of the “intangible cultural heritage of the human race” (in the words of Unesco), and no doubt the Bactrian camel too.