Mongolia’s nomads



The nomadic lifestyle in Mongolia is falling into gradual decline. In June 2018, I lived about ten days with a Mongolian family in the province of Bulgan, 300 kilometres west of the capital Ulan-Bator. Beyond the splendid landscapes of the steppe, picturesque scenes of herders shearing the sheep or children playing outside the yurts, the family of Lamzav and Oyunaa epitomises the various transformations that the nomadic lifestyle is undergoing. The parents tend to prefer semi-nomadism to a strict nomadic life, comforts of the capital city are increasingly attracting the younger generations… My research finally led me to the suburbs of Ulan-Bator where hundreds of thousands of nomads have settled down in yurt districts because of climate change and its repercussions on the livestock. What future for the nomads of Mongolia?


The family yurt (ger in Mongolian) in the steppe a few kilometres away from the village of Gurvanbulag. Traditionally, nomads move their ger once per season in the search of better grass for the livestock. © Yann Lenzen


Lamzav is burning dried excrements, the main combustible material used by nomads, to smoke the meat of a sheep. © Yann Lenzen


Oyunaa, Lamzav’s wife, is sewing the outer part of the yurt at dusk. © Yann Lenzen


Aldar, a family friend, is herding the sheep into their pen for the yearly shearing taking place in June. © Yann Lenzen


Lamzav, his son Batbaatar and Aldar go about shearing their two hundred sheep. Selling the wool is the family’s primary source of income. © Yann Lenzen


Tuya, Lamzav’s sister, is shearing a sheep. She lives with her husband Buren in a neighbouring yurt. Unlike her brother, they still spend the entire year there. © Yann Lenzen


Tuya after she finished milking the cows during sunset. Most of the nomads’ food comes from their livestock. They eat mainly beef, sheep, horsemeat and dairy products. © Yann Lenzen


Lamzav is resting in his yurt with Tumungnass, the son of his friend Aldar. Living conditions in the countryside are harsh. Yurts obviously don’t have running water, electricity is limited to what they can get from their little solar panel, there is no toilets, etc. © Yann Lenzen


About one third of Mongolians are nomads. However, more and more tend to live as semi-nomads, like Lamzav and Oyunaa. They spend the summer in their yurt but prefer the modest comfort of their small house in the village of Gurvanbulag during the harsh winter. © Yann Lenzen


Lamzav is shaving the head of his eighteen-year old son Batbaatar who will go to Ulan-Bator in a few days for his military service. In September, he will start his music studies in the hope of becoming an opera singer. © Yann Lenzen


Batdelger, the elder son of Lamzav and Oyunaa, plays with his daughter during a visit to his parents; he has lived in Ulan-Bator for over ten years. Batdelger illustrates this generation of transition that grew up in the steppe as nomads but decided to move to the capital city to enjoy higher living standards, better studies and employment opportunities, and for their children’s education. © Yann Lenzen


Lamzav on his motorbike with his grandson Saikhanbileg who also lives in Ulan-Bator. The generation of the grandchildren are born and bred in the capital city. While they enjoy paying an occasional visit to their grandparents in the countryside, it is unlikely that they will chose to live as nomads themselves in the future. Within families like this one, it seems inevitable that the nomadic lifestyle will eventually die out. © Yann Lenzen


Buren, Tuya’s husband, is walking towards the herd during a sandstorm. Another factor should be taken into account in the decline of the nomadic lifestyle in Mongolia: climate change. The average temperature has increased by over two degrees over the past 70 years. As a result, the phenomenon that Mongolians call dzud has been exacerbated: unusually dry summers followed by extremely cold winters. Numerous families have lost all their cattle due to those terrible weather conditions and had no other choice but to move to Ulan-Bator to find work. © Yann Lenzen


Over the past three decades, around 600.000 nomads have moved to the capital and settled down in one of the ger districts sprawling in the outskirts of the city like here in Denjiin Myanga.  The dramatic expansion of those makeshift neighbourhoods, which are now home to over half of Ulan-Bator’s population, presents considerable challenges to local authorities in terms of infrastructure: supplying and disposing of water, building schools and hospitals, etc. During the harsh winter – Ulan-Bator is the coldest capital city in the world – dwellers burn a lot of coal and whatever they can find to stay warm, causing tremendous air pollution that reaches higher levels than notorious Dehli or Beijing. © Yann Lenzen


A father and his two daughters outside their yurt in Denjiin Myanga, northern suburbs of Ulan-Bator. Unlike the children of Lamzav and Oyunaa, this exodus is not the result of a rational decision. These internally displaced persons were forced to move to the city and often lack the skills to find a job in an urban environment. © Yann Lenzen


A little girl in an alley of Denjiin Myanga. The trend of climate change is not likely to reverse anytime soon and the influx of migrants will probably continue over coming years, thereby further disrupting both the face of Ulan-Bator and the essence of Mongolian society. © Yann Lenzen