Under a Broken Sky

Mongolia’s nomads travel a wintry land of hypnotic beauty. But as Phil Zabriskie discovers, their way of life is under threat   

Monday, Feb. 17, 2003
It’s almost noon, and Bayarsakhan looks as if he has just woken up. His jaw hangs slack, and his face is marred by fresh gouges—the result, he says, of tripping onto barbed wire the previous night. It’s -25°C, yet Bayarsakhan is wearing only a turtleneck sweater and wool pants, oblivious to the cold. He has nowhere to go, no job to occupy the bitter day ahead. So he stands here idly, amid a dense cluster of shacks, while haggard cows pick through garbage piles. After all his wanderings, the 30-year-old nomad has ended up here in the ramshackle neighborhood of Chingeltei on the western edge of Ulaanbaatar, living in a frozen slum.

Even after receiving more than $2 billion in overseas aid in just over a decade, Mongolia is struggling mightily. Four years of horrendous weather has devastated the former Soviet satellite and has driven thousands of herders like Bayarsakhan off the steppe and into the capital. By some estimates, Ulaanbaatar’s population has doubled to 1 million in the past decade, overwhelming the city’s limited capacities and further hampering the country’s tortuous transition from a collectivized economy to a free market.

For former herders like Bayarsakhan, the transition to city living has been wrenching. He grew up in Gobi-Altai province to the south, where his family had raised livestock for generations. Four summers ago, however, a severe drought was followed by an early frost, then a brutal winter with high winds. Mongolians have a name for this: the dzud. The historical norm has been roughly one dzud every half-decade, making for a tough season before more-manageable weather returns. But it’s now happening for a fourth consecutive year. Thedzud means less grass grows and animals can’t fatten up before the winter snow buries the meager feed. Livestock starves, freezes or wanders off to perish in the blizzards. Officials warn that 2.5 million animals could die this winter alone.

Stranded in a roadless region of Gobi-Altai that had been rendered inaccessible by snowdrifts, Bayarsakhan’s family herd of 500 dwindled to 10. After a while, the family even stopped disposing of the corpses, instead piling them around their ger—a felt-covered Mongolian dwelling—for extra insulation. They burned furniture to keep warm. “If you don’t have animals,” says Bayarsakhan, “you have nothing.” To survive, he left everything he’d ever known for a place where people dressed oddly, behaved differently and used paper money instead of bartering. His wife and infant son came with him (he and his wife have since had a second son), as did his two brothers, one of whom also brought a wife and child. They rented 500 square meters in Chingeltei for $90 a month, then set up their ger. One brother found work selling coal. But with so many other former herders vying for jobs, Bayarsakhan can’t find anything steady, so he sporadically joins his brother at a nearby coal market, where they buy bags for resale to locals. They make about $2 a day. “I don’t know what would be better, being here or in the countryside,” he says. “They’re both hard.”

Many new arrivals—some aid workers use the term internally displaced persons, a designation often given to refugees uprooted by war—become disoriented and depressed. Some take to cheap vodka; brawls are common. But Bayarsakhan says, “I can’t afford to drink.” Children here are malnourished and sometimes abandoned, says Didi Kalika, who runs a local orphanage. Some residents can’t afford heat. Domestic violence flares. Families split. “There have been suicides,” whispers Dulamgav, 63, who settled in Chingeltei last year. “The nomads are exhausted,” says Rabdan Sambandobji , secretary-general of the Mongolian Red Cross. “If it were only a matter of food and shelter, they would eventually be okay. But these animals were passed down from generation to generation. If they lose them, they lose the meaning of their lives.”

Meanwhile, out on the steppe, Jampur is stubbornly—some might say foolishly—clinging to the nomads’ age-old way of life. He relishes the freedom of herding and raising animals. And now he has the strongest horse he’s ever owned. Even so, he finds his lot desperately hard. At 67, Jampur’s fingers are crooked, and he coughs constantly. He walks uneasily on legs bowed as if frozen in the saddle. Jampur spends all his energy tending to a diminishing herd. During the winter, he lives in Uvurkhangai province about 400 kilometers west of the capital. Nearly three-quarters of Uvurkhangai’s 113,000 residents are herders. They circumnavigate a wintry land of desolate, hypnotic beauty where a lone horseman or vulture offers a rare burst of color. Few places have been so devastated by the dzud. One provincial official says the area’s livestock population plunged from 2.95 million in 1999 to 1.86 million in 2001. Since then, a few hundred thousand more animals have died.

Jampur’s ger sits at the base of a hill to protect it from the wind. Not far away lies a trail of cow skeletons that have been picked clean and now blend seamlessly into the snow. “Those were mine,” says Jampur. “They died last winter. There was no meat on the bones, so we just took the skins and left the rest.” Inside, his ger is warm and smells like a wet horse. There’s a shrine with carved animals and Buddhist prayer maps, and a lightbulb and television are wired to a car battery. For weather reports, he relies on a 30-year-old Russian-made radio.

In the past year, Jampur has lost 20 cows, 10 horses and some goats and sheep. Yet he considers himself fortunate. “Some of my neighbors lost their whole herd and had to leave the steppe,” he says, stuffing his water pipe with tobacco while his wife feeds dung into the stove with her bare hand. Jampur can’t conceive of following them to the city. He knows there was a drought this summer and heavy snowfall early in the winter—the hallmarks of another dzud—and his animals, he admits, already look thin. “But we’ve made it this far,” he says. “So we can stick it out.”

In the 1980s Jampur visited Ulaanbaatar. “The buildings were so big!” he exults. “There were so many people, so many cars. It was beautiful, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I don’t know what I’d do for work.” (Or food: “City people eat too many vegetables. There’s not enough fat in their diet.”) His teenage son left school after fourth grade to help with their animals, and Jampur wants him to remain a herder: “Those who inherit animals will stay herdsmen. Those who don’t have no choice but the city.”

Five kilometers away, another herder’s inheritance is rapidly diminishing. Sanbilag’s family once oversaw 1,000 animals with the help of two other families, but the herd has thinned to 300. Sanbilag’s son, Bor, just returned from a stint as a lieutenant in Mongolia’s army, a once proud outfit that has flagged since losing Soviet support. Traveling throughout the country, Bor found himself longing for home, his family and the animals. Now 27, he wants to stay in the countryside, but the future looks bleak. “If he could find work in the city,” Sanbilag admits, “he’d be better off.”

Sanbilag says he heard the weather got so bad “because a layer of the sky broke.” But in truth, this crisis stems almost as much from geopolitics as from the dzud. After the Soviet collapse, scores of state-run factories were closed and their workers set adrift. Nothing filled the employment vacuum, so many Mongolians returned to the nation’s traditional vocation. The ranks of herders doubled, says Barry Hitchcock of the Asian Development Bank, and the number of livestock rocketed from 23 million in 1989 to 35 million in 1999. “It’s one of the few places in the world where something like that could have happened,” says Hitchcock, “because there are no fences and no ownership of land.”

The predictable outcome was overgrazing, water shortages and disease. Some people had forgotten or never knew how to raise animals, and their herds were the first to fall. Others lost their way as Soviet backing disappeared. Under communist rule, the nomads raised state-owned livestock and Moscow looked after them in return. “Until 1990, they were government employees,” says Jeanne Bartholomew, who consults for the World Bank in Ulaanbaatar. There was fresh hay available when needed, and a truck came around regularly to carry hides, meat and milk to market. Veterinary services—which have now largely disappeared—were widely available. Jampur, for one, says all this support had a negative effect on younger herders: “The Soviets made them lazy.” Bartholomew contends that it’s difficult “to change the mind-set from ‘I’m a receiver’ to ‘I have to do this myself.'”

One man grappling for an answer is Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar, whose own grandparents were nomads. “This whole lifestyle of living as nomads, this whole culture has to change,” he says, sitting in a huge, finely appointed conference room in Ulaanbaatar’s Government House, the seat of Mongolia’s political establishment. Enkhbayar, a man of letters who has translated English and Russian texts into Mongolian, wants to see eight or nine provincial centers expand into cities of 100,000 or more people. These would be connected by new roads and fiber-optic cables. Mongolia, he argues, needs educated urban entrepreneurs and land owners, not nomadic herders.

Convinced that the wanderers should have fixed addresses, Enkhbayar has drawn up an impending program of land reform. It stipulates that residents of the capital will receive 25-meter-by-30-meter plots, while those who settle elsewhere—in the provincial centers, for example—will receive five to seven times that. The country he envisions hums with competition, new markets, trade, communication and diplomatic links with the outside world, countering Mongolia’s geographic isolation and its second-class status in the eyes of its neighbors, China and Russia.

The idea is to wean the country from its dependence on a few sectors with limited export potential (such as animal husbandry) and low returns (such as copper). One day, Enkhbayar dreams, this land of goats and yaks could be a haven for software production. The status quo, he argues, leads only to dependence—on foreign powers, imports and the weather. “We cannot afford to limit our vision,” he says, “or the very notion of the independence of the country will come under question.” As he sees it, the transformation may take three decades, even if all goes well.

Of course, Mongolia can’t pay for it. But Enkhbayar hopes the country’s democracy, laws and newly privatized banking sector will brighten Mongolia’s sheen in the eyes of international investors. There’s a formerly state-owned cashmere factory that’s looking for a buyer, and groups that help fund construction of a cross-country highway may receive mineral rights in return for their desperately needed capital.

In the meantime, foreign aid remains the country’s lifeblood. Mongolia receives about $100 per capita annually, more than all but a handful of nations, partly because countries such as the U.S. and Japan like the idea of a fledgling democracy nestled between Russia and China. International aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations have delivered relief to areas hit by the dzud. They’re also teaching new ways for herders to make a living—including gardening, garment making and carpentry—and are trying to make the herders think about livestock as a business. In August, the Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative, with funding from the U.S. Government, debuted Herder From the Future, a radio series in which the lead character is transported from 2060 back to 2001. To return and reunite with his betrothed, our herder hero must “work with the people he meets in 2001 to help them change the future.” This means sharing lessons on “rural economic growth and improved competitiveness for Mongolia’s animal-husbandry sector.”

The ADB’s Hitchcock is guardedly optimistic but also acknowledges the risk of Enkhbayar’s “big-bang approach,” in which so much changes at once. A Western diplomat adds that the country must overcome its habit of merely commissioning papers and gathering endless statistics on every issue: “On a macro level, the government seems to understand the principles of the free market. But it’s difficult to see it being implemented on the ground.” Still, he adds: “I am convinced that Mongolia can succeed.”

Back in Chingeltei, Bayarsakhan crawls out of a sleeping bag on the floor of his shack one evening in late November. The cuts on his face have almost healed, and he looks younger tonight, dressed in sweatpants and a blue sweatshirt. His mood has improved, too. He’s still not comfortable in the city, he says. For one thing, the coal smoke scratches his throat. But for the moment, he seems relaxed. Or perhaps just resigned.

Bayarsakhan never expected it would be so hard to find work in the city. By pooling resources, his family can pay the rent, but he worries about his kids’ education. So far, he hasn’t been able to afford the $50 registration fee that would make them eligible for school. Still, Bayarsakhan’s children seem happy and healthier than most in Chingeltei. Tonight, they’re bouncing around the ger, cheerfully impersonating Mongolian wrestlers. Tsengune, the 3-year-old, throws his younger brother to the floor, then picks up an old guitar and hands it imploringly to his father.

On his 16th birthday, Bayarsakhan was given this guitar by his own father, a renowned singer in Gobi-Altai. Now, almost 15 years later and hundreds of kilometers away from that stark idyll, Bayarsakhan starts to play one of his father’s songs. The tune is rough, but the melody sweet. Words flow from memory—about Gobi-Altai and the land, about saddling up your best horse to ride across the valley. When it’s over, Bayarsakhan stares at the ground. “I get sad when I play that,” he says. “I wish I could take you to my home. It’s so beautiful there.” He looks up, smiles, then starts another tune, singing softly about a mother’s beauty and the tears she shed when her son moved away. Bayarsakhan’s brothers join in, then his wife and sister-in-law. The room fills with their voices. They have gone home the only way they can.