As the crow flies, Gaaj, one of Mongolia’s 800,000 fully nomadic citizens, doesn’t live too far from Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital and only metropolis. His yak-felt-and-wood tent, or ger, stands in a valley 360 miles away, just outside of Tsetserleg, the administrative and commercial nexus of the Arkhangai province.
But crows and maps are deceptive in Mongolia—they hide how rapidly Ulaanbaatar’s urban sprawl gives way to endless open plains and isolation. At 603,910 square miles, Mongolia is the 19th largest nation in the world, but with 1.2 of its 2.8 million citizens live in the capital with the rest in far-flung villages or living nomadically like Gaaj. It has the lowest population density of any sovereign nation. Underlining this fact, the trip out to Gaaj’s ger from the Dragon Bus Station on the eastern fringe of Ulaanbaatar is eight hours of an unending procession of yak dung and skulls dotting the plains.
Yak meat jerky so hard it has to be broken with an axe
These remains bear testament to the comings and goings of nomadic herds. Although elsewhere in the nation you’re apt to wander into valleys choking with goats or sheep, yaks predominate in this region, where herders rely on them for almost every necessity. Yak fur socks and yak felt walls keep them warm. Yak meat jerky so hard it has to be broken up with an axe and boiled like shoe leather, served with hot and salty yak milk-and-butter tea, fills their bellies. Tiny balls of rock-hard cheese, tucked against the cheek and sucked over long rides, keep them occupied as they navigate the unpaved hills on tiny, plodding, sturdy ponies.
Although motorcycles and a smattering of cars help a nomad get to town on short notice, these steeds (or camels in the Gobi Desert) are the best way to move tiny herds in slow, regular annual orbits around the towns and markets the herders frequent to sell their excess meat and crafts, moving forward as the grazing gets scarce. It’s not an easy life, but the connection to land and livestock is what they’ve grown up with. And the city, smoggy with coal fire, often more expensive, and lacking in easy, secure work for those with few skills or experience that don’t involve milking or shearing, doesn’t hold much appeal unless your herd is shrinking or dying, or you’re desperate for cash.