“They move according to the needs of their animals,” says Cope. “Horses, goats, camels and yaks are all naturally nomadic, so instead of putting them into paddocks with fences and stables, they move with them the way the animals would naturally move in the wild.”
Each day we trek for anywhere between six and 10 hours, up and down steep slopes, over sand dunes, through deep snow, alpine forests, wet marshlands and numbingly cold streams. The weather swings from one extreme to the other, and we frantically change from thermals into rain gear and back into summer clothes in an effort to keep up with it. At one point I give up, and find myself walking in sodden shorts, my legs pelted by a hailstorm just minutes after they’d been scorched by the sun.
The herders, on the other hand, wear a heavy coat called a deel whatever the weather. It prevents saddle sores and seems to be endlessly capacious, as anything you give a nomad, no matter how large, gets promptly tucked away into the tunic’s front fold. Only at night do they take off their deel, to sleep huddled together in the great outdoors, under a pile of felts they share with the camels when the temperature drops. And, when we wake with frost on our tents, shivering in our thermals and Arctic-grade sleeping bags, the herders greet us cheerfully.
The higher we ascend, the richer the pastures become. We cross over the high pass between the Turgen and Kharkhiraa peaks, reaching, at about 2,900 metres, a series of shimmering, partially frozen lakes.
“It’s not that cold!” shouts Max, an intrepid 69-year-old who’s celebrating his retirement, as he jumps into one of the lakes in his underpants.
Some of us opt to continue the climb to the top of a vertiginous snowy ridge in the Turgen range. The air noticeably thins as we inch higher up a steep, gravelly slope, leaning on our trekking poles and panting like old women. From the top, at some 3,700 metres, the valley looks white and glacial. Few Mongolians venture this far, Cope says, let alone tourists. And, true enough, it feels like this massive land is ours alone. There’s nobody in sight, not even a single ger.
The descent proves even more challenging, as we slip and slide down a giant slab of ice, landing in rocky swamps below.
It’s a relief to make it to camp, in the shadow of the Kharkhiraa-Turgen mountains, where we’re introduced to Stephen. The lamb – it’s not clear who named him but it was unlikely to have been the herders – was purchased from a nearby family and is to be our lunch (Stephen Pasta), dinner (Stephen Soup) and breakfast (Stephen Surprise) for days to come.
Myagaa, 37, the lead herdsman, who has astonishingly white teeth – which he flashes often – and the unmistakable swagger of a cowboy, invites us to watch the slaughter. He cuts open the lamb’s stomach, puts a hand inside and breaks the aorta, without spilling a single drop of blood. Instead, he lets the upper cavity fill with the blood, which will later be boiled in the intestine. Myagaa and fellow herdsman Ankha skin and dry the hide; nothing goes to waste.
Trekking through the green summer pastures of Belchir – it’s hard to keep track of exactly where we are – we come across a foal lying on the ground. It’s barely alive and there’s a large bite mark on one of its haunches. The victim of a wolf attack, its own herd must have fought, kicking to protect it from the pack.
Wolves represent a physical threat but are considered sacred by the nomads, who carry their dead to the mountains in the belief that when the predators devour a corpse, the spirit within will be transported to the afterlife. Wolves – like humans – also play an important role in keeping the numbers of grazing animals in check. Nevertheless, an increasing number of goats – prized because of the value of cashmere – has led to overgrazing in Mongolia.
A nomad’s wealth is measured by how many horses and livestock he has.
“We don’t need an income,” says the mother of a Khoton family – a tribe whose Turkic roots are apparent in their fair hair and eyes . “We live off our animals.”
That evening, while I jostle for washing space in a stream shared by yaks, camels and horses, I see the mother and her small children climb down the side of a steep gorge to fill up containers with water – about 30 litres, enough for the family for the following day.
“They live within the limitations and the confines of the environment that they were born into,” says Cope. “It’s an extremely different way of life to what most of us live, where we’ve basically moulded the land for our own convenience.”