August 28, 2020
Photography by Callie Eh
Words by Karin Svadlenak-Gomez
Callie Eh is a Malaysia born photographer based in Switzerland. Callie always seeks to challenge herself with what she captures through her lens. She loves learning and experimenting with new cultures, and her passion for photography has changed her view of the world. She travels to different countries, where she likes to photograph people going about their daily lives, telling their story through her lens. Her work has been exhibited internationally and her photos have been repeatedly featured in the Leica LFI Gallery. Her pictorial story takes you to the steppes of Mongolia.
Sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia is the world's second largest landlocked country (after Kazakhstan) and home to the famous Gobi desert steppe. With its desert climate, most of the country is hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter.
Approximately 30% of the population is nomadic or semi-nomadic, with livestock husbandry playing a central role. They live in gers, or yurts as they are referred to in Turkic languages, portable, round tents covered with skins or felt. Even when the nomadic population becomes semi-permanent, they prefer to live in these tents, and outside the capital Ulaanbaatar and other smaller urban centres one can find entire districts consisting mainly of numerous gers standing next to each other. As many as 61% of Ulaanbaatar's population are estimated to live in the Ger district (approximately 736,000 residents). The nomads Callie visited, however, still live in small settlements in the countryside and follow a traditional herding and animal husbandry lifestyle.
Domestic livestock ranges from cows to sheep, goats, camels, yaks, and — most precious — horses.
Traditionally, Mongolians make their own butter and cream, cheese and yoghurt out of yak milk. But not only cows are milked, horse mares too. The nomad families are proud of their fermented mare's milk. This is an important drink that is also offered to greet guests of the family. Here it is used for a drinking game.
The young children already learn herding tradition and other farming skills, and the animals are both a source of income, food, and companions. The children in particular enjoy playing with them.
Their livestock is very precious to the nomads, and the whole animal is used from head to toe, including the innards. Sheep are driven into a pen every night to keep them from wandering off and protect them from predators — a daily task for the boys. The fur of the goat is either used for clothing or as insulation for the gers in the cold winter months used. Mongolian cuisine is rooted in their nomadic lifestyle, and thus includes much dairy content and meat, but few vegetables. A favourite meat dish is Buuz, dumplings (similar to ravioli) filled with meat and vegetables and then steamed, mainly for holidays or special occasions. Even the bones of the animals are used. The children use cleaned and polished knuckle-bones from sheep joints as toys. Each of the four sides of the knuckle-bone represents a different animal (a horse, sheep, camel, and goat). There are many variants on this game, and some are even enjoyed by adults. The Shagaa game, for example, is the flicking of sheep ankle bones at a target several feet away, trying to knock the target bones off the platform.
Horses hold a special place in Mongolian's heart and of all the domestic animals are held in highest esteem. Mongolian nomads are considered to be some of the best horsemen in the world. Some three million horses are kept in Mongolia, more than the country's human population. They are used for riding in the nomads' daily work and in horse racing, as well as for food. Historically, Mongolian horses were a key factor during the 13th century conquest of the Mongol Empire. During the most important Mongolian summer festival, the Naadam, people organize long-distance races and trick riding shows, as well as other sports competitions. (Archery, cross-country horse-racing, and wrestling are the traditionally recognized "Three Manly Games" of Naadam.)
In Mongolia, barns, pastures and stables are an exception. Generally, horses are allowed to roam free and feed themselves. Even in the harsh Mongolian winters, the horses are usually simply allowed to graze freely on the steppe, digging through the snow to find forage in the winter. Occasional harsh climatic winter conditions known as zud, which is a natural disaster unique to Mongolia, can result in large proportions of the country's livestock dying from starvation or freezing temperatures or both. When that happens, it places a heavy economic burden on the herder families.
The little foal peeking into the ger in Callie's photo is hoping for milk. Because it is an orphan, it has to be fed mare's milk by hand by the family. The clever animal knows exactly where the milk is. To milk the mares, they have to be separated from their foals.
Given the high value placed on horses in Mongolia it is no coincidence that the country is also home to the last few truly wild horses, the never domesticated Takhi, as the Przewalski's horses are called in Mongolia. These are not feral domestic horses, but a completely distinct species that are genetically speaking not ancestors of today's domestic horses. Having gone extinct in the wild, they were reintroduced to the Mongolian steppes from remnant zoo populations in the 1990s. They are not the types of horses kept by Mongolian herders.
Family is important in Mongolia. The little girl sitting here with her grandparents is having a snack: pine nuts straight from the cone, a seasonally limited snack fresh from the tree that is popular with young and old alike.
The children are very much involved in day to day household tasks and farm work. They attend school but during holidays and on weekends they support their parents. Even the smallest ones help, and seem proud to be involved. In Mongolia electricity is very limited, and households make do with low-light situations after dark, rationing the electric supply. Some gers now have photovoltaic panels on the roof. Cooking and washing dishes is still done in very traditional ways, and water is severely limited in Mongolia's desert climate. The gers do not have running water, so the nomads have to fetch water from a nearby river. The boys usually help with the father's activities. There are also unpleasant tasks to be carried out, such as mucking out the paddocks.
Mongolian tradition involves cutting children's hair in a special ceremony called Daah Urgeehc when children are between the ages of two and five.
About half of the Mongolian population are Buddhists nowadays. During much of the 20th century, the communist government repressed religious practices and targeted the clergy of the Mongolian Buddhist Church, killing many. When the communist regime fell in 1991, public religious practice was restored, although according to the 2010 national census 39% of the population is non-religious. Tibetan Buddhism, which had previously been the predominant religion is still the most widely practised religion in Mongolia, however.
Despite their traditional lifestyles, Mongolian nomads use modern transport like anyone else. The road network is rapidly expanding. There are paved roads from Ulaanbaatar to the Russian and Chinese borders, from Ulaanbaatar east and westward (the so called Millennium Road), and from Darkhan to Bulgan. Many overland roads in Mongolia are still gravel roads or simple cross-country tracks.
Although many nomads now move to the city in search of education and better economic opportunities, according to a World Bank report at least a quarter of them still live as nomadic herders, something that is important to their cultural identity. But herding is a hard life, and three out of five people living in poverty in Mongolia are herders. It remains to be seen for how much longer this lifestyle will remain intact, as more young people are moving to urban areas.