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24 September 2014

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The Mongolian nomads of the Darhad valley are some of the most self-sufficient people in the world. Across the steppes and mountains of the Darhad Valley, they move huge herds of sheep, goats, cattle, yaks and camels, relying on their tough little horses. It's a harsh and spectacular place, and a gruelling life.

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The Darhad valley is in northern Mongolia, just south of Russian Siberia. Ringed with mountains, it's a land of extremes. The winter pastures around Lake Hovsgol for instance support both camels and reindeer. The short summers get as hot as 30C and during the six-month winter, temperatures can drop to -54C.

There are still about 10,000 nomadic herders in the region. Life has been much harder since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the collapse of the Socialist system brought widespread poverty. Since then, tough winters and droughts and the lure of jobs in the city have hastened the decline of herder numbers.

Darhad life

The Darhad people live in gers - also known by the Russian word yurt. They are portable wooden-framed huts, covered in canvas or felt. The herders can put one up or take it down in under an hour.

The ger is always set up so the door faces south, out of the fierce north winds. The left side of the ger is the men's area where the leather bag for fermenting mare's milk is kept, along with the horse tackle, bed and storage bags. The women's area is on the right of the door, and that's where meals are made. In the middle of the ger, right under the roof vent, is the fire or, more often nowadays, a stove. The fire is sacred: never stamped out, never put out with water, and never used to burn rubbish.

Mongolians are known for their hospitality and welcome. As well as a warm fire, there is always tea and bread on offer for visitors.  Anyone can enter anybody else's ger but there are some rules. For instance, it is bad manners to knock on the brightly-painted wooden door. Instead, if you're visiting, you shout "Hold the dog!" to announce your arrival. It's also bad luck to step on the doorframe - that would be like stepping on the owner.

Meat and milk are the mainstay of the herders' diet and animals are treated with respect and care. The proper way to slaughter sheep and goats is to make an incision in the chest cavity, reach in and break the aorta. That way, nothing is lost - even the blood from intestines is boiled and eaten. Milk is turned into 'white foods' in summer, like fermented mare's milk, wine distilled from cow's milk yogurt and cheese curd. In a land without refrigerators, sheep and goats are eaten in the summer, since they are small enough to consume before they can spoil. Cattle, camels and horses are eaten in the winter, when natural refrigeration allows for them to be eaten without waste.

The Darhad year revolves around finding pasture for the herds, which can mean moving four to six times a year. Come the first weeks of October, Autumn migration begins. The families pack up the gers in their fall pastures and head eastward over the 10,000-foot Khoridal Saridag mountains. The smallest children and the very old are carried in warmly insulated boxes, slung across the backs of specially chosen oxen. In March they return over the high passes. The spring migration in particular can be very hard, given the risk of sudden blizzards in the mountains; young and vulnerable animals weakened by the tough winters are sometimes lost in the extreme conditions.

For two days in July, the Darhad families from across the valley meet in the little town of Renchinlumbe to celebrate the festival of Naadam. At the heart of the festival are the 'Three Manly Games' which together test the wisdom, courage and strength of the competitors.

The first of the Manly Games is archery - though these days, women and children have archery events too. The second is wrestling. It's a nine-round knock-out competition, there's no time limit on the matches, and the prize is a horse or other livestock.

The last is horse racing. In a world where everyone lives on horseback, some horse races have more than 700 riders. The horses are raced according to their age; for instance, stallion ('azarga') races are for horses over six years old who run a 28km course. The jockeys are not much older - some are as young as five. The winning horse is feted with a long verse sung in its honour before the prize is given to its owner.

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Darhad beliefs

From the 1930s on, Mongolia's Communist government banned both Buddhism and the practice of shamanism. Although hundreds of Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and monks killed and imprisoned, shamanism and Buddhism survived. Living far from the government authorities and towns, people continued to practice secretly an amalgam of Buddhism and shamanism in their everyday lives. In the Darhad Valley, shamanism is the dominant religion.

Across the steppes and mountains, you can see clear signs of the spiritual beliefs of the Darhad people. Shrines called ovoos stand by the roadside, tied with bright blue flags. To mark an offering to the spirits of the area, passers-by stop and circle the shrine three times (for the present, the past and the future) and drink vodka, or throw cigarettes or sweets in the air to please the spirits.

It's the shaman who communicates with the spirits. Beating a large drum, dancing and chanting, he puts himself into a trance. The spirits advise him, for instance, on future migrations or plans. 'When I hit the drum it echoes across the valley,' one shaman explains to Bruce. 'All the spirits gather at the roof of my ger. I see the spirits as my ancestral relatives and speak to them. When I'm in a trance the spirits communicate in signs. If they are angry, they send images of wolves threatening our livestock.'

But even in the Darhad Valley, where Shamanism remains strong, modern life means shamans can make a better living in the city where people will pay for consultations. This shaman is leaving the valley. 'Life in the country is getting harder with higher prices for flour and rice,' he tells Bruce. 'It will be better for us in town. There are now many fake shamen ruining our reputation. I think Shamanism will die out.'

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The future

Until 1991, the Soviet system of collective farms offered some basic protection to the nomadic herders in Mongolia, even if they weren't allowed to own their own herds. Many rely on entirely their livestock; as incomes have fallen, a third of the population live below the official poverty line. Meanwhile, because the government wants more people to join the modern economy, children from the countryside are encouraged to go to college.

'I'm planning to give my children a good education so they can take up a profession,' says Purahan, who Bruce lived with. 'Work they would be interested in like a driver or teacher, whatever they'd like to do. They could go herding but I'd like them to have better jobs. People going into herding now are not so successful, so jobs in town would be easier than here.'

Mongolia faces very difficult challenges. There has been talk about privatising the land, fencing it in where previously it has always been held in common, to establish large-scale agriculture. In some parts of the country huge new mines are planned, as resources like copper are one of the few industries to survive the end of Communism.

But some believe modernisation could help the herders survive. Better transport, communications and management of local resources could help make the vast region viable for today's herders. The lack of proper health-care in the remote regions is a particularly pressing issue - even the traditional shamanic healers, who many herders relied on, are being forced by scarce resources to relocate. The small family groups that dominate herding today don't have the scale to deal with unpredictable weather and unreliable pasture. In order to continue, herding needs to be made more co-operative. Mongolia has a long, hard road ahead if this nomadic way of life is not to vanish altogether.

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