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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 00:47 GMT 01:47 UK
Daily threat for Mongolia nomads

By the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Mongolia's changing climate is bearing down hard on the country's nomadic population, who are being forced to reconsider a way of life that has been with them for generations.

As I looked at the greasy bowl of salt tea and wind dried goats cheese being held out towards me my stomach began to tighten.

I remembered the last time this had happened to me and the wretched 24 hours that had followed.

Girl looks out of traditional herdsman's home
Traditionally the nomadic people have lived in tents

But Mongolian nomads take hospitality very seriously, so I forced a smile, thanked my host and hoped for the best.

Perched on a tiny stool in the middle of her round felt tent, my host grinned back at me.

Happier times

The tiny 68-year-old woman was called Byanbarjav.

Her smiling sun-darkened face, deeply lined by a life spent on the high steppe.

A shaft of sunlight poured through an opening in the top of her tent, illuminating her few possessions, a couple of old iron beds, a stove, an old dresser.

On top stood two large frames full of family photos, pictures of happier times.

Her son standing proud and erect in his military uniform, her husband astride a horse.

They're both gone now she told me, emotion flickering across her face.

Byanbarjav's life outlines the tragedy that has befallen many of Mongolia's nomads.

Tragic scene

As we stepped out of her Ger the intense glare of the sun struck me in the face.

A hundred metres away Byanbarjav's seven grandchildren were heading towards us up the grassy slope, driving a flock of goats ahead of them.

It made a beautiful pastoral scene but also a tragic one.

Whatever romantic ideas I'd had about Mongolia's nomads were shattered by the day I spent with Byanbvarjav

The children outnumber the flock - grandchildren seven : goats six.

Three years ago Byanbarjav's flock was a hundred strong.

But then came the Zud.

Mongolian phenomenom

"The Zud wiped them out," she said.

"This is all we have left."

The Zud is a particularly Mongolian phenomenon - a long dry summer followed by an extremely cold winter.

Mongolians expect Zuds, and know how to survive them, but never before have they been so bad and so often.

Three years in a row winter temperatures have plunged dramatically low.

A third of Mongolia's herds have been lost, leaving people like Byanbarjav destitute.

The pastures here are no good, there's no water for the animals

From her little encampment nestled in to the side of a small hill, I looked out across a vast green expanse stretching away to rolling emerald hills.

I gazed far down the valley but could see nothing, not a single settlement, no other tents, or yurts as they are called, just endless grass.

"It so beautiful," I said to the old lady. "So empty."

Romance shattered

"Hmm," she said.

"All the others have gone. The pastures here are no good, there's no water for the animals.

"We'd go too if we could, but the horses are all dead and we have no money to hire a truck."

Whatever romantic ideas I'd had about Mongolia's nomads were shattered by the day I spent with Byanbvarjav .

I realised I wouldn't survive two weeks out here.

We don't make good city dwellers

Her life is a raw struggle for survival. In her tiny isolated encampment she and her family rely totally on themselves for everything.

As the sun began to drop towards the far hills I boarded my jeep for the long jarring drive back to Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital.

Hours later the city bumped into view, sprawling along a broad valley, its skyline dominated by an enormous soviet era power station.

As our jeep rattled down the long winding road in to the valley I could see what looked like the huge shanty town encircling the city.


Even a year ago most of this wasn't here my interpreter said.

"What are all the white dots?" I asked.

"Gers, they just move in to the town, find a bit of land and set up their tents," she said.

"They used to bring their horses and goats with them too, but the government has banned that."

Mongolian capital Ulan Bator

In the last three years the Zud has driven hundreds of thousands into Ulan Bator.

But rapid urbanisation has brought new problems.

As I walk the streets of Ulan Bator I was repeatedly accosted by groups of drunk young men, many so drunk they can hardly walk.

In the shanties around Ulan Bator alcoholism is now at epidemic levels.

A few hours later I sit sipping a Genghis Khan beer with Sumati, one of Mongolias most acerbic social critics.

"We don't make good city dwellers," he declares, a faint smile touching the corners of his mouth.

"I tell you, you don't want to have a Mongolian as a neighbour.

Emptying out

"We're used to the steppe - out there your nearest neighbour is miles away.

"But put us close together, put walls around them and we start to go crazy.

"They drink, beat their wives, throw their rubbish into their neighbour's yard, its terrible."

I had to agree with him, but Mongolians are becoming urban dwellers, good ones or not.

The steppe is emptying out fast - pushed by repeated disasters.

Everyone I met in Mongolia agreed, the traditional way of life will be lucky if it survives another generation.

Most Mongolians will probably not regret its passing.

The question is what will they replace it with and will these proud, independent people succeed in adjusting to their new urban way of living.

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