This is the first installment of a two-part series examining the hardship that nomadic herders face in a fast-changing Mongolia.
SANT, Mongolia — Davaadalai Gongor, 41, tried feeding his family exactly as his ancestors had for thousands of years, traveling these central grasslands of the Asian steppe herding sheep and goats for dairy and wool. It didn’t work.
He did everything as he was taught to do. He grazed his animals on land that his family has relied on as far back as anyone can trace. He lived humbly in a ger — the octagonal tent, sometimes called a yurt in English, in which Mongolian nomads traditionally live — with a herd well within the government’s recommended limit to avoid competing livestock devouring all the grass. He piously maintained a Buddhist shrine. The most vibrant item he owned was a handmade snuff bottle containing a fragrant, snortable tobacco.
His first mistake was being born at the wrong time. If he’d been born a little earlier, he might have gotten an education working for one of the communist collectives that managed herds in the Soviet era, when the grasslands were lush. A little later, and he might have seen where things were headed out on this dusty plain, half an hour from the nearest village, Sant, and nearly three hours from any paved roads. He might have realized that the grass wasn’t getting any greener before it was too late.
In 2009, Davaadalai had a herd of 200 animals and a 2-year-old son, his first and only child. But that winter brought death. A dzud — a perilously brutal winter that freezes the ground, makes grazing impossible, and kills with lethal cold what few animals did find enough food — wiped out all but 19 livestock. Dzuds used to be rare. Now, in a region that has seen more average temperature rise than the rest of the world, these extreme weather swings mean the tradition of relying on one’s own herd and the open range for survival is itself in danger.
The cruel twist is that the cost of buying things is going up at precisely the same moment herders with fewer animals have less cash to spend. Nomads like Davaadalai take out loans, putting up livestock as collateral, to buy hay to feed hungry herds. But when those animals die unexpectedly in increasingly severe weather, it’s easy to miss payments, trapping herders in cycles of debt and destroying their credit. With time, he slowly rebuilt the herd to about 170 head. But the family is lucky to pull in $1,100 per year from animals.
“When I was young, there used to not be many types of goods and products, and cash was very rare,” Davaadalai said, pouring cup after cup of homemade airag, a drink made from fermented mare’s milk, and a clear soju-like vodka also derived from milk. “These days inflation is so bad that even though there are many goods, I can’t afford them.”
He can’t even afford the one luxury a hardscrabble nomadic life was supposed to afford: closeness to family. To make extra money, Davaadalai, like many nomads, travels nearly eight hours east to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s singular smog-choked metropolis, to do manual labor for months at a time, earning a little extra cash to keep the family afloat. Only semiliterate, there isn’t much else he said he is qualified to do.
His main focus currently was making sure that there was enough money to get his only son, Purev-Erdene Davaadalai, now 16, far away from here, to a good university to learn economics.
“I’m the only child,” the teenager, still rakish and baby-faced, said from across the ger. “I need to get a good job and make more money to help support my parents.”
Mongolia, a nation where a population the size of Houston dwells on land more than double the size of Texas, is undergoing a mass internal migration.
Debt-strapped nomads unable to make it on the steppe anymore cart their belongings to the open ridges on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, set up their homes, and become part of densely populated yurt favelas called “ger districts” that overlook the city. Without connections to infrastructure or electrical lines, the more than 850,000 residents now living in these unplanned neighborhoods ringing the capital rely on pit latrines that flood homes with raw sewage and burning coal to stay warm and cook food.
The cultural tragedy of Mongols abandoning an ancient way of life en masse comes as the country seems destined by geographical fate for a growing role in global affairs. A democracy rich in minerals needed for new energy technologies, Mongolia is nevertheless landlocked between the world’s two great authoritarian superpowers, dependent on Russia for energy, China for buyers of its copper and coal, and either one for access to anything too big to be flown into the country.
Mongolia has in recent months made deals with Western countries to mine the lithium and rare earths needed for electric cars, part of Ulaanbaatar’s “third neighbor” policy to cultivate friendships beyond its borders. In April, the U.S. government outlined a new five-year plan for giving Mongolia more development aid. In August, President Joe Biden announced a “strategic partnership” between the U.S. and Mongolia to work together on everything from mining to the military, part of a broader effort to strengthen America’s ties to countries on China’s borders. Vice President Kamala Harris brokered a new air travel deal with the Mongolian government, establishing the first direct flights between Ulaanbaatar and the U.S. starting next year. The route could lay the groundwork for shipping cargo by air to circumvent the two countries that control all land routes into Mongolia. The Kremlin and Beijing are taking notice and dangling their own offers.
“This is going to be one of the most important elections in our history,” said Bayan-Altai Luvsandorj, the head of the Mongolia branch of the British charity Save the Children.
While rarely ranked alongside South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian democracies with close ties to the U.S., Mongolia has nevertheless established what the watchdog group Freedom House considers one of the freest and most open electoral systems on the continent. With such a tiny population and vast potential for mining fortunes, Mongolia has long been discussed as a future Qatar of minerals, one of the richest per capita nations in the world.
Instead, however, the mining money has enriched an elite few whose ties to government officials secured contracts — or has gone missing from government coffers altogether. Corruption scandals roiled the nation just before the COVID-19 pandemic. As Mongolian voters prepare to go to the polls in June for the next national election, growing majorities tell pollsters that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Now, with extreme weather tearing apart families and the country’s meager internal infrastructure, Mongolia is struggling to get “enough interest” from the U.S. and other rich nations whose emissions are causing global warming, said Tserendulam Shagdarsuren, the director general of climate change and policy planning at the national Ministry of Environment.
“It is the duty of those countries” to help places like Mongolia, whose emissions make up a fraction of 1% of the worldwide total, deal with the cascading effects of increasingly extreme weather, she added.
In essence, Tserendulam said, leaning forward in her chair in the conference room of a hotel near the parliament building one evening in late October, Americans should care more about what’s happening here.
“Mongolia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change,” she said.
‘It Used To Be Very Green Here’
Ask most Westerners about Mongolia, and they will almost certainly bring up Chinggis Khan, also known as Genghis Khan — the 13th century slave turned warrior king whose horseback armies conquered the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from modern-day China to Hungary. The more lascivious among us might even deploy trivia about how many women the ruler impregnated, resulting in millions of people whose Y chromosomes trace back to him. Fans of world music should have at least heard of khöömei, the style of throat singing in which deep, droning growls vibrate other vocal cords to create a haunting harmonic whistle.
In October, Save the Children International invited me to travel to Mongolia with its team and three journalists from Australia and the United Kingdom to visit some of the regions where the nonprofit’s local chapter works, and document the toll that climate change was taking on locals. There were no strings attached: Save the Children, whose media team is led by a veteran former Reuters correspondent, offered to take me wherever I wanted, set no limits on whom I could talk to or about what, and gave me plenty of time to conduct my own interviews independent of anything the nonprofit workers had planned.
Mongolians do not follow rigid naming conventions. Often ― but not always ― the surname comes first, such as with Chinese and Korean names. I was guided by what people told me in interviews and how their names appeared on business cards.
Upon landing, the first thing I noticed driving roughly 45 minutes north from the airport into Ulaanbaatar was the smog. On a cloudless, sunny morning in October, the dense gray haze appeared like a wall on the horizon, enshrouding a growing skyline of Soviet-era buildings and half-built apartment towers in smoke so thick it recalled New York City’s wildfire emergency over the summer. On the way to the hotel, we drove past massive coal-fired power plants smack-dab in the middle of the city, gushing continuous geysers of smoke over thoroughfares clogged with traffic. Peering out the windows, I realized that Ulaanbaatar sits in a valley, ringed by mountains that contain modernity’s toxic fumes within the city.
That smog dome created its own little greenhouse effect. Walking around bleary-eyed in the blaring early afternoon daylight after nearly 22 hours of flying, I was surprised at how warm I felt. I wondered if the winter gloves I packed were overkill. The radiators cranked out so much heat at night that I couldn’t sleep without a window open, only to wake up every few hours coughing as the coal keeping the city warm thickened the night air and irritated my throat like a rare regretted cigarette.
The changes to Ulaanbaatar’s land far outpace what’s happening in the air. Gleaming new apartment towers dot the central skyline, overlooked by a gold-plated new trade center in one of the city’s ritziest neighborhoods where, thanks to geography that keeps it upwind of smog, the air is typically much cleaner. From the capital’s highest point, the Zaisan World War II memorial overlooking Ulaanbaatar from the south, ger districts stretch out as far as the eye can see.
The mass urbanization of Mongolia is among the most dramatic and rapid events in the 112 years since the country first declared its independence from the Qing dynasty that had long ruled much of what is today China. Seeing value in a buffer state with China, Russia endorsed Mongolia’s push for autonomy, a relationship that continued after the Soviets overthrew the czar.
Communists took power in Ulaanbaatar and massacred Buddhist priests deemed enemies of Marxism. The country became a satellite of the Soviet Union, which discouraged its “little brother” from ever attempting to regain control over Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province with more ethnic Mongols than Mongolia itself.
Shortly after Washington established its first embassy in Mongolia in the late 1980s, Mongolian activists led a peaceful democratic revolution, setting the stage for the first freely elected parliament in 1992. Within a few years of the first election, the U.S. brokered a treaty to start making direct investments in the country.
The embrace of capitalism heralded a new era out on the steppe, a stretch of this planet that, after hours on the highway out of Ulaanbaatar, looks unchanged by time.
Rather than raise animals as part of a local collective like his father, Gongor Davaadalai was to become a one-man operation, competing with those he might have otherwise worked with for grass that, by the dawn of a new century, was growing less dependably.
By the time things got bad, he was trapped in a cycle of debt, struggling to care for his wife and young son.
Were he born a decade later, like his neighbor Batbayar Adyatogtokh, he might have realized that he needed a way out of herding.
Batbayar’s family was always wealthier than Davaadalai. But the 2009 dzud took a proportionally brutal toll. That winter, 800 sheep and goats and 200 horses and cows died, leaving just 200 small cattle and about a dozen larger beasts. Batbayar, now 33, was just emerging from his teen years.
Seeking a more stable future, he went to university and studied public administration, eventually coming home to rise through the ranks of the local government. Now he serves as the mayor in Sant’s village center. But not everyone can do what he’s done.
“Mongolia’s economy depends on the herders,” he said. “It’s very important to keep the nomadic lifestyle going.”
Less than a decade after that 2009 dzud came another, in 2017. Then another in 2021.
“When I was a child, it used to be very green here,” Batbayar said as the sun set behind golden-brown, treeless hills on the horizon. “The weather was nice. The climate was very good compared to now. Now, just a couple years ago, there was almost no grass here.”
Over a dinner of mutton barbecued in a pit with hot rocks in the traditional fashion — you’re advised to warm your hands with the stones before the meal to encourage circulation — washed down with enough bowls of bubbly airag to induce a slight tipsiness, Batbayar’s father-in-law, Sandag Damdinjav, said privatization of the herds has been a good thing because it’s put wealth in people’s hands.
But the mustachioed 69-year-old, wearing a handsome mahogany-brown deel robe, said the race to increase the size of herds exponentially has “had many negative” outcomes.
“The most detrimental consequence is pasture degradation,” he said.
On its own it might not be a crisis, but coupled with the changes in weather it’s disastrous.
“Everything in herding is timing,” he said. “I really wish the rain came at the right time, like before.”
There must be technology that can restore normal weather patterns, he said. He asked me to confirm. I said there were experiments in seeding clouds in places like Tibet and India, but it provided only temporary relief, if that. He sighed.
“I have 10 grandchildren. Seven are here, and three are already in Ulaanbaatar,” he said. “I hope at least three of them will be herding.”
It wasn’t hard to see the appeal. The setting sun cast the hilly horizon in a glimmering bronze. The air smelled of cooked meat and grass. As night fell, the crisp air went frigid and the boundless sky turned to star-flecked blackness. Inside the ger, it was cozy with everyone sitting around, laughing, drinking and snacking on aaruul, a biscuitlike treat made with dried sour yogurt. As many as four generations of one family crowded into a single room, eating together.
It’s not like this for everyone. Minjinsor Ichinnorov, 15, spends most of her time living in one of the village dormitories in Sant, sharing a room with eight other students. She used to hop on the back of a motorcycle and ride as much as an hour away to join her parents and the herds on the weekends. But these days there’s so little grass for grazing that her parents are frequently making what’s known as otir, roaming far beyond their usual territory in search of greener pastures. When they’re on the move, she can’t even get a text message through to them.
“I worry so much,” she said.
Last year, while she was visiting them, a sandstorm came out of nowhere, enveloping everything. She couldn’t remember anything like that when she was younger. The ger shook so much that she thought it might collapse with her and her siblings inside. Her parents disappeared for hours, riding through the storm to locate and rescue the herd.
“It sounded like a big animal was roaring outside, I was so afraid,” she said. “Since the sandstorm, my parents talk about, if it happens again, it would be difficult to continue herding. My mom talked about moving to the city. But my dad says no.”
Her dream, she said, is to become a police officer and work here in the village, close enough to see her family regularly.
Not Enough Mine For Everyone To Get Theirs
Finding work in the mining industry in Ulaanbaatar doesn’t guarantee that you’ll spend much time in the capital. Mining companies charter private planes to ferry executives and mine operators between the capital and the southern reaches of the Gobi Desert, where the Australian mining behemoth Rio Tinto recently began digging a long-awaited copper mine. The mine, called Oyu Tolgoi, is set to start producing 500,000 metric tons (550,000 short tons) of copper per year in 2028, enough for what a trade publication calculated would equal “1,580 wind turbines or 16,400 electric vehicles every day.” Of the nearly 20,000 workers at the mine today, Rio Tinto said 97% are Mongolian.
Newer technologies to make mining safer also mean there’s less need for manual labor at Oyu Tolgoi than at the smaller-scale mining operations that make up most of Mongolia’s industry. But the older tools for scraping coal and gold out of the earth leave behind worse pollution and a scarred landscape. Part of the devastation that drove some herders I met to pack up and move to Ulaanbaatar came from livestock dying in sinkholes left behind by defunct mines.
In Arvaikheer, the capital of the aimag, or province, of Uvurkhangai, I visited the regional government’s headquarters. The provincial capital has the makings of a small boomtown, with strips of stores, Soviet-era apartment blocks and even its own Ferris wheel. Smokestacks feature throughout its low-slung skyline, spewing an almost constant stream of dark smoke from coal burned to produce electricity and district heating.
The smoke was billowing outside Genden Bayasgalan’s office windows draped with green-tree curtains one afternoon on the second floor of the government building in central Arvaikheer.
The province’s environment minister said he would prefer one large miner, preferably an international company with sophisticated technology, to come in and supplant the six small-time gold mines and one coal mine, which he said leave behind waste and lack the resources to apply the most modern methods of extraction.
“I’ve been working on the environment for 36 years. We have had a mining sector since 1992. I know the key issues well,” he said. “Small mines don’t have enough equipment, don’t use good-quality equipment, and waste a lot of water.”
While there are 25 tracts permitted for mining in the province, he said just seven are currently in use.
With water growing scarcer as the Gobi inches northward in the province, Genden proposed a plan to run a pipe from the Orkhon River in the neighboring province into his own to help replenish depleted waterways, to be paid for in part by mining companies hoping to use the water. But so far, he said, nothing has progressed beyond talks.
As it is, there’s hardly enough water for the growing herds in a province where livestock outnumber people by nearly 40 to 1. Today, 90% of Uvurkhangai’s herding families have herds with at least 500 livestock, and as many as 2,300 — nearly twice as high as during communist times. Chapter 52 of Mongolia’s pasture management law guarantees these pastoralists the right to roam anywhere and grow their herds as large as they can.
“If one family has livestock between 700 and 800, they can manage an income,” Sandui Tsedenbaljir, the regional agricultural minister, said in his office in Arvaikheer.
Without climate change, this would set the stage for a tragedy of the commons. With less grass from overgrazing, individual animals stay small and don’t develop the creamy fat prized in Mongolia’s boiled meat dishes. As a result, they sell for less. To make up the difference, herders need more animals, compounding the problem. To solve this, Sandui is trying to persuade more nomads to put down literal roots and grow hay to feed animals instead of grass. Today the province grows about 14,000 hectares’ worth of fodder (or around 35,000 acres). Sandui wants to increase that figure to 20,000 hectares, but has few incentives to provide herders other than public workshops and training.
“In Mongolia, we have herders, not farmers,” Sandui said. “To survive and have enough hay, we need to increase the square meters for hay.”
Out in Sant, Batbayar made clear that’s easier said than done.
“Compared to other places, the land here is very dry,” he said. “Even if we cultivate hay, we can’t get enough. It just doesn’t grow.”
On The Road To Ruin
Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, is within Uvurkhangai province. But it takes hours traversing northward along bumpy dirt roads to reach. The landscape evolves throughout the journey, revealing the wide range of environments on the steppe.
Mongols designate steppe regions based on whether their conditions are more desertlike or mountainous. In arid Sant, there were so few trees for so many miles that I wondered where the wood for the occasional shack or manger we passed on our journey originated. Here, however, scrubby groves of pines tufted craggy hilltops and mostly leafless larch trees rimmed the side of some roads. Along the northward journey, rivers — mostly frozen and small, and far shallower than the beds they carved into the frigid earth implied they once ran — became more frequent. At one point, I thought I saw an expanse of yellow desert sand on the horizon, but realized when we drove closer that it was, in fact, vast fields of hay.
Kharkhorin feels like a bigger city than Arvaikheer. It’s a tourist town. Every year, thousands come from Ulaanbaatar, South Korea and Japan to visit the sprawling Erdene Zuu Monastery, the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia, built nearly 450 years ago.
Growing up 15 miles away in the countryside, Byambadorj Enkhsaikhan, the third sibling in a family of four kids, thought of Kharkhorin ― population 13,000 ― as a veritable Gotham. Now 16, he lives in a dorm, spending whatever time he isn’t studying playing basketball and volleyball and mastering traditional puzzle games like onis, essentially a wooden Rubik’s Cube-type game.
Recently, visits home have become painful. Two years ago a dzud wiped out 80 heads of livestock in the family’s herd of about 400. Byambadorj’s parents had no money to give him, forcing him to rely on shared shampoo and food from his dorm mates.
“I saw my parents very anxious, very cold and very concerned,” he told me sitting on a couch in his school one afternoon. “Sometimes I’d come home and our home was very cold. We didn’t have a proper meal to eat. We needed fodder, but couldn’t afford it.”
He cleared his throat and inhaled deeply, as if to suppress tears. “I told my parents I wanted to quit my studies and come help,” he said. “They said, ‘No, you have to continue with school.’”
He wants to go to college and study electrical engineering. In the future, his dream is to live in town near where he is now and hire other nomads to tend to herds he owns, so he can maintain the pastoral tradition while earning a good living. But it’s getting harder to keep the herds near the settlements. His parents have had to travel as far as 70 miles away for months at a time for otir as grass disappears, and rivers that once gushed with mountain spring water now run dry.
“The grass used to come up to my waist,” he said. “Now it only reaches my knee.”
A short drive along mountain roads, past Bronze Age stone monuments erected as far back as 1,200 B.C.E., brings you to verdant pastures hemmed in on one side by a river and craggy ridges on the other.
On a scenic river bend a few miles away from town down a jagged mountain path, I found Lkhagvasuren Jamyansharav, 33, and his wife milking their mares one last time before nightfall. After about half an hour — it’s a fast process, since herders milk their mares roughly every two hours — the pair headed inside. Lkhagvasuren raced his 8-year-old daughter, Anir, the final 50 feet. He let her win, then scooped her up and swung her around, giggling, in the air.
Inside, he admitted that the apparent idyll of his life here in a location his ancestors had made camp for centuries wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In 2010, a dzud killed 300 of his 400 livestock.
“Since then, the winter has been harsh,” he said, clearing his throat and looking away. “But it hasn’t been dzud.”
Just then, from across the ger, his mother, Batdulam Gombo-Ochir , 57, guffawed. He grew silent. She put down the airag she was stirring — which, compared to the stuff in Sant, was more effervescent and had a more floral taste — and plopped down next to my translator.
“He’s not telling you the truth,” she said. “Last year alone we lost over 100 small cattle.”
The weather extremes in both seasons were taking a devastating toll, not just on the animals but on her. Summer heat used to max out at 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit, she said. Now they frequently reach 37 degrees C, or nearly 99 degrees F.
“I have health problems when it’s that hot, my blood pressure goes up,” she said. “We have issues storing our milk products. We get headaches. The children get sunburned. And the small baby animals, they have health problems, too. The baby horses’ eyes run.”
Winters were always cold, but the worst it got was minus 25 degrees C, or minus 13 degrees F. Last winter, temperatures dropped to minus 45 degrees C — close to minus 50 degrees F.
“I found a baby cow frozen to death, its four limbs spread out in all directions,” she said. She had never seen anything like it.
During summer, there’s hardly any rain at all. When the grass doesn’t grow, neither do the animals, and whatever fat they do develop isn’t the delicious kind; it’s the sort that quickly disappears before slaughter, slashing the price at which the family can sell them. A single sheep sells for about $1.45 per kilogram — even though shoppers in Ulaanbaatar ultimately buy the mutton for at least five times that amount. Between selling milk, meat and cashmere wool from the goats, the family makes at most $2,300 per year.
At the same time, the cost of the few foodstuffs the family doesn’t make themselves has skyrocketed. Sugar prices spiked by 50% over the past year, while flour surged by a whopping 85%.
To make it through the last winter, Batdulam took out a loan against her state pension to buy fodder for the herds when the ground was frozen. Her loan of about $1,740 was enough for a little over a month and a half of daily fodder. But shortly after the family purchased the hay, a dust storm came and blew most of it away. There was no hope of loan forgiveness — and the family is still paying off the debt with a 17% annual interest rate. Batdulam couldn’t take on any more debt even if she wanted, since the state-owned bank from which she borrowed has a public record of her using her pension as collateral.
She wonders if her son will be the last of their line to live off this land. Of her three grandchildren, she expects the two girls to go to the city for an education. But she looked to her grandson, 2-year-old Galbadrakh, scurrying around the ger in Spider-Man pajamas.
“We cannot lose this beautiful tradition,” she said. “The boy should become a herder and continue this tradition. But if the weather conditions get worse each year and if the meat products cannot increase in price, it will be difficult.”
Her son stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and amuse his kids with failed attempts to snap a sheep bone in half in a goofy display of machismo that elicited plenty of giggles.
Batdulam sighed. “We are not starving,” she said. “But if we have to start buying all the products city people and settled people buy, we would be ruined.”