“From the air, Mongolia looks like God’s preliminary sketch for earth, not so much a country as the ingredients out of which countries are made: grass, rock, water and wind.”

– Stanley Stewart, In the Empire of Genghis Khan

Sitting on the concrete floor of the street soccer court near my house, I was chatting with one of my oldest friends from school. The wind was in our faces as we casually kicked a ball to and fro, talking about what to do with our lives now that NS was over. We expressed a similar desire to seize our last chance as free men, to travel abroad without the worry of school, work or personal relationships. And then, he brought up the idea of going to Mongolia. The idea, so unknown and unconventional, yet so alluring and interesting, captured my imagination from the start. In that snap second, we made up our minds. This was something we had to do.

Friends since we were 12 years old

Within weeks, off we were. We spent three days in Beijing before travelling to Mongolia via land. Standing at the border town of Zamiin-Uud, waiting to board our train to Ulaanbaatar, was the first time I understood the description, “The Land of the Eternal Blue Skies”. I thought back to my home, Singapore, where I could not go anywhere without seeing a skyscraper. Here, there were no skyscrapers. The sky was baby blue and there was no end in sight.

Crossing the China-Mongolia Border with some foreign friends

On the train, I stared out the window in awe. Beside me was a German man in his late forties who I met crossing the Chinese-Mongolian border. He too, was staring out the window. He turned to tell me, “Do you know Mongolia is the 100th country I have been to? And I am still amazed by this landscape.” I nodded in agreement, before he continued to say, “Life is not about the number of breaths you take, but the number of times your breath gets taken away.”

The Land of the Eternal Blue Skies

Mongolia is indeed a place that takes your breath away. The least densely populated country in the world, it has largely preserved and protected its natural landscapes. Boasting incredible landmarks like the Gobi Desert, Altai Mountains, as well as beautiful lakes and forests, Mongolia is a place of pristine beauty.

Mongolia is not all desert, there are mountains in the West too

Apart from the beautiful landscape, Mongolia also has a story to tell. At the height of its prowess, the Mongol Empire was once the largest in the world. Led by the legendary Genghis Khan, the Mongols were dominating yet brutal in their conquests to claim the largest contiguous territory ever. A big reason why they saw the need to conquer such a large plot of land was due to their nomadic lifestyle. With large herds of animals, nomads are required to move from one place to another from time to time, to ensure the sustenance of their animals.

Animals are a big part of Nomadic culture

In the 21st Century, a bulk of the Mongolian population resides in the Capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which looks like any other city in the world with their high-rise apartments. Now, only a quarter still carries on with their ancient nomadic lifestyle, which is a sign of a dissipating culture.

In the month I was there, I travelled to the Altai Mountains in the West and the Gobi Desert in the South. Both regions, despite its stark differences in weather and landscape, were distinctly beautiful. Because these regions were away from Ulaanbaatar, there were no high-rise apartments, and people had to live in Gers, igloo-like structures that are portable, so that the nomads can choose to move when they have to. They have hordes of animals, mostly cows, goats, sheep, horses and sometimes camels. These animals will feed on whatever grass there is around the area, and when there are no more, the nomads will leave to look for greener pastures (literally). There is some sense of serenity about the way in which they live their lives, alone with their families, together with their animals. However, the nomadic way of life is also full of hard work and sacrifices.

The Nomadic way of life in Mongolia

In recent years, the nomadic lifestyle is getting threatened. Globalization has led to changing demands. Amongst the many demands from wealthy foreigners, one that has threatened the nomadic lifestyle the most, has been cashmere wool. Traditionally, nomads do not rear many goats because they consume grass at a much more detrimental rate than the other animals. While sheep graze the grass, goats will dig out and eat the roots of the grass, making regrowth much harder. However, because of the demand for cashmere wool, nomads are rearing more goats, affecting the sustainability of the pastures.

This is compounded by the fact that nomads do not get substantial monetary benefits from producing the fundamental unrefined wool. Unlike the large price consumers pay for the finished product, such as an expensive cashmere sweater, only a small fraction of it goes to the nomads. The remaining amount goes to the middle-men.

This is something that is about to change. Mongolian nomads, unwilling to give in to modern economic pressures, are banding together to stabilize their incomes. They do so through a co-operative business model. Co-ops are not exactly new to Mongolians. Having been through Soviet influence, they have worked in government mandated, state-owned co-ops. However, ever since the collapse of the Soviets in the 90s, the nomads are pretty much on their own.

The vast and seemingly desolate Gobi desert

Now, rising Co-ops like the Ar Arvidjin Delgerekh Cooperative, a Co-op made up of 210 yak herders are looking to change the narrative. With the collaborative spirit, they are taking control of the entire process, from start to finish. This means that they are in charge of the production of raw materials, assembling of intermediate goods and ultimately the distribution of finished goods. This will allow each member to benefit from the entire sale of their goods, rather than just a small proportion. Founded in 2010, the cooperative has delivered dividends totaling $45,000 to about 220 members in six counties in the province. This is just a first step to bigger and better things for the members, with the potential to venture into different income streams, such as dairy, meat and tourism.

Desert or Mountains, animals are a constant among families

Globalization has changed much of the world we live in. Cultures and traditions are slowly dissipating as a result. It is now difficult to find a place in the world that has not succumbed to the economic pressures from external sources. Mongolian nomads are indeed one of the few, and respect has to be given to them for that. Respect can come in many forms, but one of the greatest forms of respect would definitely be to support their co-operative businesses. It is only if we do so, will the ancient nomadic culture be preserved, and the pristine beauty of the landscape be protected.


This article was written by Tok Yin Jie, who is a first-year Accountancy and Business Undergraduate from Nanyang Technological University currently interning in SNCF, Campus and Youth team. He is passionate about travelling and learning about new cultures. He hopes to be able to make a change in society in the future

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