On the eve of the last day of the lunar month, when Mongolians were busy preparing for the Tsagaan Sar (White Moon Festival), I was heading home with the constant thought, “Who are the Mongolian herders of XXI century?” This baffling question would certainly expose many inaccurate assumptions and many accurate thoughts as well. Some might say that they are nomadic herders who still maintain centuries old traditions, while some might argue that they are outsiders, abandoned from the Mongolian modern society and its free market economy. Others denounce them as parasites who overuse natural resources and destroy valuable grassland On the other hand, many people defend them stating that they are the backbone of the Mongolian society and culture.
These thoughts kept me busy for indefinite time, and suddenly I was at the home of D.Gombo-Ochir, a herder of 4th bag of Erdenesant soum of Tuv Province. Quite old though agile, he is a smart and eloquent man, a unique representative of modern Mongolian herders.
Master of a thousand skills
Privatization in mid 1990s opened the opportunity for him. who was secretly breeding cattle for his own welfare during socialist regime to do what he liked, animal herding. In his perspective, this was not a profession destined for someone who lacked education as public sentiment believed at that time. It was a profession which require specific skills and indeed it was science itself. For that reason, out of his six children, he chose the one who was the best at math to be a herder. The father believed his son would inherit his distinctive knowledge and work in conformation with nature, the unpredictable super force. The successor all all this is to be the most intelligent one. Time has proven that this was the correct decision when his son G.Enkhtur was honored as the best herder of Mongolia at only 24 years old in 2004.
For me, it seemed interesting that G.Enkhtur tends his livestock easily, starting off with 2000 heads in the spring and reaching 3000 heads in summer with his eyes closed. The reason is a profound system taught by his father. Intriguingly, not analysis nor studies but folklore themes dominate the speech style of Gombo-Ochir. It was evident that old man’s mind is packed with “a great science” not explored by anyone. Therefore, he likes to describe the herder’s knowledge as “king knowledge” and herders as “the masters of a thousand skills”. That is honest evolution indeed: herder becomes meteorologist when they analyze the weather, a botanist when they choose pastureland, a zootechnic when they feed cattle, a biopsychologist when tending their livestock, an economist when selling wool, cashmere fiber, meat and skins of animals and food production technologist when preparing dairy products. There is no other way but to define it rather than a “fine science” when herders memorize their hundreds of sheep individually by their appearance and can point out the location of their horses even when they haven`t seen them in days with the same exact accuracy of GPS device. Hence, throughout his lifespan, Gombo-Ochir developed the life philosophy “A person with the ability to sustain a credible life reaches more success than someone with a good diploma”
While listening to his narrative, a conclusion was reached that amongst the many nations of the world, the herders are the ones destined to live closest to mother nature. Regardless of their educational status, the Mongolian herder are given much by nature. Therefore he says that the Mongolian people’s wits under the vast steppes, and open sky ferment like airag.
In terms of animal husbandry optimization and increase of its efficiency, Gombo-Ochir has his own distinctive opinion. Mongolianlivestock are small in stature, and paltry in productivity. Yet, they are the best possible naturally gifted versions that could survive harsh weather and elevated mountainous areas of Mongolia. That is why he considers total animal husbandry optimization to be impractical. By opting for various sires from domestic and foreign resources, he made many attempts to improve his livestock . The result was the realistic conclusion that the best breeds were the ones that could survive harsh drought and dzud and require small amount of feeds even though they have considerably low levels of productivity.
Let’s go to the countryside
Two stylish young people in expensive sport boots and jeans were eagerly purchasing warm poitrel for livestock at Narantuul black market on a chilly October day in 2017. This was an unusual sight for the merchants of the market. They were A.Tengis, 25 year old graduate of the National University of Mongolia (NUM) who majored in political analysis and an employee of a foreign invested company and Kh.Bilguun, who graduated from the Institute of International Studies in 2009. They both decided to become herders and work under the leadership of D.Gombo-Ochir, the best herder of Mongolia.
Few days prior to this event, D.Gombo-Ochir and his fellow herder P.Ononbat organized a press conference at which they announced to start a movement to create 10 000 employment in rural areas in cooperation with Altan Gar labor exchange.
Currently, Mongolia boasts more than 11 000 herders who own more than 1000 cattle and they are in dire need of people who could help tend their livestock. Hence, they started the movement to fill this huge need and on the other hand to reduce over-concentration in Ulaanbaatar and eliminate at least 10 000 chimneys that pollute the air. The contracted herders shall receive a salary of 500 000 MNT per month and have food and accomodation provided. On top that, the work agreement is to be be valid for 1-5 years.
There are thousands of families who lost their livestock to the drought and dzud which forced them to relocate to Ulaanbaatar. Unfortunately for many of them, Ulaanbaatar has not been place, where after rain comes sunshine. These people could again be herders and return to the countryside. If they agree to sign long-term contracts, they would be provided with livestock, tuition fees and apartment rental fees for the children who study in Ulaanbaatar, mentioned D.Gombo-Ochir.
Within two weeks since the press conference, more than 200 herders from 13 provinces sent their requests to hire herders.Alas, only four people applied for the job. D.Gombo-Ochir participated and presented his projects at “Herders’ Council of Mongolia” and “Economic forum” in 2017 and 2018.He even managed to meet the President and introduced his objective.
Even though, the decision makers were supportive his objectives at first, then it was apparent that everybody’s business is nobody’s business. Social workers of khoroo (the smallest administrative unit) even hesitated to visit families to ask “Would you like to go to the countryside and become herder?”. Eventually, D.Gombo- Ochir himself visited some families to review their opinions and intentions. Most of them expressed their wish to return to the provinces and do what they love to do. Many were worried to come back to their birthplaces unemployed and most importantly empty-handed.
When he first started the project, he didn’t want to pretend to appear to be a patriot like many decision makers who uses media platforms and strong speeches to receive honors. Instead, he wished wholeheartedly to make his contribution to solve unemployment, a pressing issue the Mongolians face today. Unfortunately for him, many members of the parliament and the government employees were unwilling to meet him, citing some bureaucratic excuses. It made him to eventually get disappointed with them who promise everything and anything in order to get votes and then let it sink through the floor after the election.
The good news is he was not disappointed with A.Tengis and Kh.Bilguun, who had no experience of tending livestock but have grown into genuine herders. They first heard of D.Gombo-Ochir`s project in autumn of 2017 and what followed immediately were their meeting and contract signing. They both wanted to become herders as well as to study the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle in person. D.Gombo- Ochir taught them, who at first could not distinguish hornless sheep and goat, everything he knew. In winter of 2017-2018, dzud in Erdenesant soum forced many families to move their livestock to the Gobi Region and stop impregnation. Majority of households who moved to Gobi Regions lost half of their livestock to the dzud. For the young herders, D.Gombo-Ochir and D.Enkhtur, the story was different as they welcomed more than 800 lambs without a single loss. When their contract ended in autumn of 2018, both herders decided not to return to Ulaanbaatar and travelled to Gobi and Khangai regions to try to tend cows and camels.
Currently, D.Gombo-Ochir temporarily left his animal husbandry and lives in a comfortable house at the soum center. He is accompanied by his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. As for D.Enkhtur, he moves his livestock from one place to another depending on the climate and pasture lands. His small ger has almost no furniture and is easy to build and collapse. He is not a man who is isolated from the modern world. He owns aTV set, mobile phone and internet device.
When I was leaving Buushint winter camp, there were thousands of sheepof D.Enkhtur gathered looking like white ankle bones on that last day of the lunar month. The question “Who are the best Mongolian herders of XXI century?” was finally answered. They are the keepers of the nomadic culture and tradition, who have drawn into the whirlpool of free market economy with their livestock. For them, animal husbandry is their business and their method of living. They are the people at the crossroads in the most critical moment.