When Tegexi was growing up on the grasslands of Hulunbuir, a vast plain that stretches between China, Mongolia and Russia, there was never any doubt about what he would grow up to be.
For more than 30 generations – ever since Genghis Khan swept through this expansive grassland in China’s north – Tegexi’s family has tended to cattle, sheep and horses, moving across the grasslands in search of pastures between the bitterly cold half year-long winters and the summer months.
Tegexi, however, will be the last of his family’s herders. Herdsmen in the town of Hailar, he says, are facing both opportunities
and challenges as a wave of development transforms the region: the chance to end their demanding nomadic lifestyles for more stable livelihoods, but a difficult challenge to hold on to their traditions.
The Chinese government's plans to boost already close trade links to Russia are set to transform the Hulunbuir, which extends across the Chinese “autonomous region” of Inner Mongolia – a 25 million-strong home to ethnic Mongols, bounded by Russia and Mongolia.
On wide highways that zig-zag through the grasslands, trucks laden with timber drive down from Manzhouli, a bustling town on the Russian border, honking to avoid herds of sheep that loiter on the roads.
Han Chinese tourists are descending on Inner Mongolia’s grasslands in huge numbers, bringing wealth to herders like Tegexi but also, some locals fear, straining the grassland’s resources. In some areas near the city of Ordos, conflicts between Mongolian herders and Chinese mining companies erupted in 2011.
Hulumbuir, Tegexi said in an interaction with journalists organised by the government, presented a better model, where the economy was driven by tourism and the dairy industry and there was no mining.
At the same time, he acknowledged the challenge faced in preserving Mongolian culture – a battle faced by many of the 55 ethnic minorities in a country where Han Chinese make up 90 per cent of the population.
He said there was a strong – even growing – sense of Mongolian identity among the youth, who, even if fluent in both Mandarin and the Mongolian language, still speak to each other in their own tongue. “To the Chinese we speak in Chinese,” he said, “but to each other we speak in Mongolian.”
The region faces a difficult balancing act in ensuring that the rapid growth that the government is targeting can remain sustainable. At the Manzhouli land port, the government is spending millions in expanding the China-Russia trade zone to a logistics park that will handle 70 million tonnes of cargo annually, up from the current 30 million tonnes.
The government is also pushing a transcontinental rail plan that will run from Suzhou in southern China to Manzhouli and all the way to Poland, through Russia. This will compete with a second route being built from Chongqing in southwestern China, through Xinjiang to Central Asia. “We believe this route is four days shorter and cheaper by $ 1000 per container,” says Li Xiguo, the deputy director of the port affairs office.
The development push comes as the government takes forward a programme to resettle herdsmen and women and find alternative employment for them. Under the current five-year plan, the government will resettle as many as 1.16 million people who live on 400 million hectares of grassland, before next year.
The programme has divided opinion among experts. Some say overgrazing threatens the grasslands, so resettlement is needed. But the plan may also mean the loss of livelihood and traditions.
For herders here, a booming dairy industry is one alternative source of employment. A sprawling Nestle factory built on a $ 500 million investment employs 5,573 local dairy farmers, and is one of China’s biggest such plants, supplying milk and dairy products to the whole country. The plant will, by next year, double its capacity to 1,200 tonnes a day, according to Zhang Zejun, a general manager, making up 15 per cent of the GDP of the local Erguna county.
“Because of this environment, dairy products from here have a special reputation,” he said, pointing to rising concerns about food safety in China where a spate of milk scandals has dented confidence in many brands.
In the Hulunbuir, way of life known for generations may soon come to an end. Tegexi says his daily routine is not much different from what his forefathers did 30 generations ago. He rises at 4 am, tends to his 70 cattle, and takes his 600 sheep for grazing.
His son (26) will return home, with a degree in computer science, to start a business. His daughter (23) studies law at a university in Hohhot, the regional capital.
“We have had a nomadic life so I am happy if my son has a job in the city,” he said. “We have had a nomadic life for generations. But at the same time," he added, "I do not want him to forget his traditions”.