Tsaikhir Valley, Mongolia – Myagmar-Ochir may only be three years old, but he already has big plans for the future.
“I want to be a rider,” he says. “I want to rope the horses.”
Myagmar-Ochir lays out his career aspirations as he plays by a rocky stream 50 meters (164 feet) from a small ger, the traditional Mongolian tent he calls home.
Among the rocks and melting snow, the child spends his days riding a wrought iron bar – his pretend horse.
He beats the bar, wanting it at a gallop, in imitation of his 29-year-old father, Octonbaatar, who lives in a small community of Mongolians who make a living as shepherds in Tsaikhir – a cold and desolate valley 800 km (500 km). miles) west of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.
They are nomads, changing their location with the seasons. And for generations, Octonbaatar’s family relied on the small stream that now serves as his son’s playground.
He and his wife Chuluunchimeg, 30, and their three children move to this quiet corner of the valley every fall for the long grass to feed their horses and yak and the steady flow of water from their stream private.
But for the third consecutive year, the stream has slowed to a trickle, while the hills, once vibrant and healthy, are now barren and lifeless.
“We don’t have green summers anymore,” Octonbaatar sadly tells Al Jazeera. “And there’s less water here than last year.”
He points to a distant hilltop lightly dusted in barely visible gray snow.
“[The mountain] it used to snow all year round. But it melted,” added Octonbaatar.
Leaving the steppes
The Tsaikhir Valley may be one of the coldest places in the world, with winter temperatures routinely falling below -50C (-58F), but the increasing intensity of its drought conditions, fueled by ever-warming summers, has left locals to he wondered how much longer. can withstand. Myagmar-Ochir’s dream of following in his father’s footsteps—and maintaining a culture that has survived for millennia—is threatened.
The Taikhir may be on Mongolia’s climate frontline, but its herders are not alone in their fight for the environment.
A third of Mongolia’s three million citizens continue nomadic traditions that are closely linked to their natural environment.
As the climate becomes more extreme, both droughts and worsening winter storms, known as dzuds, are disrupting the ancient traditions of Mongolia’s steppe.
Many of Tsaikhir’s young boys and girls no longer see a future in the valley where they were raised; instead, most have their eyes on a career in the city, a trend that has seen Mongolia’s capital swell in recent years as herders flee the volatility of nomadic life for the relative stability and modern comforts of Ulaanbaatar.
For the Tsaikhir locals, the dramatic transformation of their landscape took place in a single generation.
Bayarkhuu is a 32-year-old shepherd from the valley.
Al Jazeera spoke to him at the end of a local horse-fighting competition, in which Bayarkhuu won.
He remembers a childhood rich in greenery.
“We used to have knee-deep grass,” he said, recounting his childhood as he looked out over the now brown landscape.
Although summer droughts are the most obvious sign of climate degradation in Tsaikhir, it is in the depths of winter that the cultural ramifications of climate change are most felt.
Traditionally, valley families muster a huge winter herd of over 2,000 horses every October. By gathering the animals in one table, the families’ horses – their most valuable possessions – are protected from arctic conditions.
For five months, three young men nominated by the Tsaikhir community will watch over the horses.
The men camp alongside the animals in harsh conditions, often firing warning shots at hungry wolves opportunistically stalking the herd.
Protecting the herd from winter can be risky and a potentially dangerous coming-of-age rite of passage, but it’s also an honorable tradition that young men seeking a future in the valley aspire to participate in.
The only son of five children, 18-year-old Shwara left school at 14 to pursue a nomadic life. He had long hoped to be honored with the protection of the winter flock.
“My friend advised me ‘if you go and follow the winter herd, it will be very good for you physically and you will become an excellent rider,'” he told Al Jazeera through a translator.
“I want to go. I want to join the herd.”
But the changing climate means Shwara will never get the chance.
Tsaikhir’s governor, Batsehen, 48, spoke to Al Jazeera as he traveled through the valley collecting donations for a community member affected by cancer.
“The winter thrall used to gather every year,” he said. “But it hasn’t happened since 2018.
“We haven’t been able to get the herd together for three years,” Batsehen pointed out.
Because the droughts have damaged the grass layer so much, there is not enough bush to sustainably feed the herd through the winter. Recognizing this, in 2019 Batsehen and other community leaders made the difficult decision to cancel the winter herd for the first time in living memory, fearing that continuing with the tradition could irreparably damage what remains from their meadows.
Since then, they have been unable to keep it and families have been left to fend for their horses alone throughout the winter, with often devastating consequences.
“A family lost 12 horses to wolves,” Governor Batsehen said.
China, Russia effect
The environmental threat facing Tsaikhir’s herding community has been compounded by Mongolia’s weak economic position.
Sandwiched between a wartime Russia to the north and a zero-Covid China to the south, Mongolia’s economy has been hampered by the unprecedented isolation of its two biggest trading partners.
Many shepherd families survive by selling animal products – mainly lamb, yak and sheep wool – to markets in China and Russia.
As border trade slowed, the domestic glut of these products drove down prices, reducing incomes in Tsaikhir.
“[The] The price of sheep’s wool dropped so much because the border was closed,” said Bakhtur, the 22-year-old eldest son of a shepherd family.
Even more exotic exports were destroyed by trade disruptions with China and Russia.
Bahktur and his neighbors used to collect deer antlers, which the animals shed every season. Before China closed its borders, Bakhtur collected the horns and sold them to traders heading to China, where they are used in traditional medicines.
But with the closure of China’s borders, demand for horns also collapsed.
“The stag’s horn has dropped to just 20,000 Tugrik [$6]Bakhtur said.
Mongolian President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh was at COP27 in Egypt this month promoting his country’s climate efforts.
“Mongolia is one of the countries most affected by climate change,” the president said, using the event to promote the country’s “One Billion Trees” campaign, an ambitious national effort aimed at reversing Mongolia’s years of deforestation and transforming areas of vast steppe land. in a carbon sink.
Mongolia was also among the emerging economies pushing for a “loss and damage” fund – a compensation mechanism agreed after much bargaining that would allow the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and those richer countries to compensate developing nations that are vulnerable to climate change.
As the people of Tsaikhir fear for its future, they find solace in the spiritual protection they believe their valley enjoys.
At Tsaikhir’s entrance, the tombs of two partially frozen monks, believed by residents to be in a semi-alive state, watch over the valley.
Most locals have shrines to monks, which the Tsaikhir families believe continue to offer good luck and protection against whatever their valley throws at them.
“Once someone brought a snake to Tsaikhir, but it got sick,” laughed Governor Batsehen. “We are protected from snakes here.”