What Mongolian Nomads Teach Us About the Digital Future – WIRED

People who pack up and transport their house twice a year become choosy about their possessions. I recently traveled among the nomads of Mongolia for two weeks and had a chance to inspect their belongings. I was there to photograph their traditional practices, which were more intact than I expected. Along the way I discovered the Mongolians may have a few lessons for the future of digital culture.

The population of Mongolia is 3 million. Half of them live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which may be the least green city in the world. Drab Soviet apartment blocks cram a town without parks, lawns, or trees. The other half of Mongolians live in deeply rural areas. An abrupt boundary at the edge of the city marks the end of the concrete and the beginning of the infinite grasslands that stretch to the horizon.

For the next 600 miles in any direction there is not a single fence on this treeless lawn. The cropped grass wraps the contours like a green rug. This uninterrupted carpet is marred by very few paved roads, and fewer electrical lines. It is perhaps the most primeval landscape on the planet: wide open plains of nothing but grass, rock, and sky.

The wildness is a deception. Scattered in nearly every vista of Mongolia are the round white tents of nomads. We know these tent houses as yurts; they call them ger (pronounced gair). They are the primary home to about 1 million nomads. Today’s nomads retain a lifestyle relatively unchanged from that of their forebears in important ways. Living as I do—in a world teeming with smartphones and Wi-Fi, smart TVs and self-driving cars—it is a remarkable thing to travel among them.

The nomads are herders and typically own about 1,000 animals—mostly sheep and goats, but cows, horses, dogs, camels, and yaks as well. You could think of them as ranchers who move their ranch seasonally. They set up their ger in spring for maximum summer pastures, then they move it again for winter feeding. This movement is not north to south as might be expected, but from lowlands to highlands, or even from open valley in summer to hidden hilly nook in winter to escape the wind, which is more punishing than the cold.

Nomads subsist almost entirely on the milk and meat of their animals. To the chagrin of vegetarian visitors, mutton (goat or sheep) is served almost every meal. Mutton can be dried to preserve it, so it can be served year round. Nomads don’t have gardens, and the nearest shop is usually at least a day away, so vegetables are scarce. In addition to their own meat, they make their own yogurt, butter, cheese, kumiss (fermented beer made from mare’s milk), milk tea, and milk sweets, which they eat at all their meals and snacks.

The animals provide more than just sustenance. The herders use the wool from the sheep to make their blankets and, most importantly, to make the thick felt siding for their gers, which keep them warm and dry. There is a direct symbiosis between nomads and their animals. The people rely on the animals to stay alive, and the animals rely on the humans and their dogs to keep the wolves and foxes away from their young. Nomads’ traditional culture revolves around the plentitude of the herd and the vastness that fuels their spirit.

Besides livestock, the nomads don’t own much. In their gers they have a small wood-burning stove, beds with futons, a dresser or two, some tiny stools. No refrigerator. The walls are hung with embroidered felt blankets. The floor these days is linoleum (which can be rolled up on moving day). They may have a rifle for hunting and plastic tubs for water and kumiss.

The ger itself is handmade from branches and wool, except the door, which needs wooden planks. The entire contents of the structure—and house itself—can be packed up and moved in a few hours. Once on this trip I watched nomads start to dismantle ger, but then got distracted by conversation. When I turned my attention back to the ger packing, I found I’d missed the whole performance.

I followed another husband and wife team who disassembled their ger in a high wind. Wordlessly they removed the items inside into a pile on the grass. Then they carefully folded each layer of felt. Because of the wind, they often had to do this twice. Soon the ger’s accordion walls and braced roof were a shoulder-high stack of fabric and sticks. Then it was all wrapped in a tarp from the floor.

Often the whole bundle plus furniture is loaded onto camels, but for those families without camels, like this one, the compressed ger was hauled onto a borrowed Russian truck. The truck rumbled slowly down the valley rocking over the prairie. At the end, there was just a circle of faded grass where the ger had stood.

Nomads seem to love being outside among animals. The sister of my Mongolian guide graduated from college and then married a nomad. They live seven hours from the nearest paved road. They have no appliances, no vehicle, no cell service. Just a ger and a lot of livestock.

When I asked my guide why her sister gave up almost all the trappings of modern life, she mentioned freedom, fresh air, animal spirits—the usual answers ranchers give. And the Mongolian herders are ranchers, just more self-reliant than settled ones, for better and worse. (The worse: When winter is particularly fierce, up to half their flock can die.)


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