Huld soum, Mongolia — It's nearly impossible to walk at a normal pace as you brace yourself against the powerful, biting winds in Huld soum, a particularly flat stretch of Mongolia's Gobi Desert. The gusts feel so strong that they threaten not only to blow you over, but carry you away.
Once you bend down and ease through the small doorway of Mr. Tumurchuluun's ger, however, all you feel is warmth and comfort. The dwelling is as colorful as the desert is stark: the furniture, wall hangings, blankets and even the structural supports are vividly painted with swirling shapes and symbols that illustrate a rich tradition.
Inside the ger, guests bear left and take seats on handmade chairs and benches. Hands warm quickly, and the memory of cold desert air begins to fade as Tumurchuluun's wife serves hot milk tea. A small metal stove near the door serves as both cooking surface and space heater. It's fueled by dried manure from the family's herd; it doesn't smell at all as it burns.
There is an overwhelming sense of home and hearth as Tumurchuluun begins to speak. This is nomadic life in Mongolia, now and how it's been for centuries.
The Master Herder
Tumurchuluun has roamed this area and grazed herds here his whole life. He's seen zuds — weather disasters that consist of hotter-than-normal summers followed by brutal winters — take the lives of thousands of animals and threaten those of his family. He's witnessed Mongolia's evolution from communist state to free-market economy. He's experienced the steady decline of forage as the desert continues to spread.
Nevertheless, he rises with the dawn and smiles as he sets out across the ochre-tinted desert to find grazing land for his herds. He faithfully brings them back to the fold as nightfall's blue transforms the landscape.
In the sometimes-splendid isolation of the Gobi, Tumurchuluun knows this is good work, important work. And Mercy Corps knows that, too.
Mercy Corps first made Tumurchuluun's acquaintance during site visits to nomad families in 2000 — a year after the agency started its work in Mongolia. That year and two years afterward brought the worst zuds in recent memory: In 2002, more than 800,000 animals perished in the deadly cold and snow. Mongolia was also undergoing a difficult transition to a free-market economy after 70 years of state-run systems. Herding families caught the worst of everything.
Mercy Corps representatives came with many ideas, but one above all: band together for economic survival. Share the risks of herding and also share in the rewards of success.
Tumurchuluun convened a group of ten local families in 2003, and they agreed to form a cooperative, the Oldohiin Devjikh herder group. (A cooperative involves a group of people that elect to work together toward a common goal, while the old Soviet collective system often forced people into work groups for the betterment of the state.) That's when he received the title of Master Herder — a mantle that not only signified his prowess at managing herds, but showed his neighbors' trust that he'd be able to guide their group toward a more certain, even prosperous, future.
He got to work right away, staying in close contact with Mercy Corps representatives. They helped the herder group procure a $1,000 loan to build new wells to supply their livestock with water. (At the time, loans were a rarity for nomads, who live far from banks.) They also used the loan to chart a new business direction: making trips to sell the cashmere from their goats for higher prices at regional trade fairs rather than in the local markets. This access to credit — as well as the newfound ability to sell valuable cashmere collectively, in bulk — turned the fortunes of the herder group completely around after two disastrous years.
"Since we first met in 2000, my family — and other families in this area — have established very good relations with Mercy Corps," Tumurchuluun says. "They've given us advice and technical assistance on marketing and cashmere production, and also send out veterinarians to help our herds make it through difficult seasons."
Over the last few years, Tumurchuluun's group has won dozens of awards at regional fairs for their cashmere and livestock. He proudly hands ribbons and medals to us, explaining through our interpreter what each one signifies. And then an even bigger grin lights up the Master Herder's face. He gets up, takes a manila folder from a chest of drawers, sits back down, puts on a pair of reading glasses and proceeds to riffle through the papers.
With a small "ah" sound, he finds what he's looking for and hands it to me: a brochure for a Best Western hotel in Denver, Colorado.
Lessons from two continents
In 2004, Mercy Corps financed a trip for Tumurchuluun to attend a livestock fair in Denver, to learn and share lessons with fellow ranchers and cattle herders.
"I still remember my room number," he says. "603."
In addition to the fair, he was able to visit some farms in the area to study innovations. He was particularly impressed by the use of renewable energy resources such as solar and wind, as well as sustainable agriculture and range management. He's brought some of those ideas back to Mongolia with him and put them to use: This year, his herding group fenced off 74 acres to cultivate better pastureland for livestock. They're also planting more than 3,000 trees around the perimeter of the pastureland to improve the environment and provide additional forage.
He is grateful for the eight days he was able to spend in the U.S. But he thinks that American farmers could learn one very important lesson from their Mongolian counterparts.
"Be kinder to your animals," Tumurchuluun says. "It matters."
Thanks to the work of Mercy Corps and Tumurchuluun, nomadic life goes on along one of the vast Gobi Desert's most forbidding stretches, just as it has for centuries.