The Gobi is an extreme, arid desert, covering a third of Mongolia. Traversed by ranges of sand dunes constantly lashed by the wind, the first European to cross it was the Italian traveller Marco Polo in 1275. With temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade in summer, which generally fall to 40 degrees below zero in winter, life in the Gobi is harsh and difficult. With the arrival of summer, the nomads of the desert card the wool to make felt canvases which will protect the ger during the long, cold winter months. It is also a good time to collect and store camel excrement. These animals are essential if man is to survive in these barren deserts. In a landscape where there is not over a single tree, this is the only possible source of energy for heating and cooking. Without it, life here would be impossible. But every year, with the summer storms, the Gobi gives a brief respite to its inhabitants, and for a few weeks the miracle of nature returns to the desert, covering everything with a fresh, green blanket of grass. Water once more runs between the dunes, and is thirstily absorbed by the parched, cracked land, and the Gobi again comes to life. What until just a few days ago was simply stone and dust, now takes on the appearance of a lush garden, with all the variety of greens you could possibly imagine. The storks stop off here to regain their strength on their way to the cooler lands of the north, while in the Gurvansaikhan Nuruu mountains, the almost exclusive domain of wild goats and scavengers, the ibex descend from the summits in search of food. Wherever it is possible, grass grows, and the Gobi is transformed from an extreme, arid desert into an incredible, almost surrealist landscape. Everyone wants to take advantage of this gift of nature while it lasts, and the desert is populated by humans and animals from the high steppes which surround the Gobi. In a country where 60% of the population are nomadic cattle breeders, with over 35 million head of cattle, fresh pasture is the most precious commodity of all, and each family will try to lead its herds to the best places. But here, the camel continues to be king. It is by far the most valuable animal for the nomads, and has been used by traders and travellers since antiquity. For these ruminants, now is the time to store energy, and their erect humps are evidence of this, an unmistakeable sign that they are well fed. If they do not work, they can go for up to ten months without drinking water, living on the accumulated reserves, and losing up to 25% of their weight without suffering any consequence, because the water they lose is only from their body tissues and not from the blood, so the heart does not have to make any additional effort. For over 80 years, the Tansendarya family has moved to this region every summer, with their 200 horses, 800 sheep and goats, and 200 cows. They continue to be prosperous cattle-breeders, despite the fact that two years ago a particularly harsh winter killed over half of their cattle. The Tansendarya live in a camp composed of four gers, the traditional shelter perfectly adapted to the needs of nomadic life. It is cheap, large, can be put up and taken down very quickly, it is easy to transport, robust, cool in summer and warm in winter. The gers always face south, and the entrance is painted in bright colours to ward off evil spirits. Inside, the stove, which also serves as heating, stands in the centre, and around it the beds, the few pieces of furniture and, most important of all, the Buddhist shrine. Obviously, the base of their diet is meat, especially lamb, as well as milk, from which they produce at least twelve different products, including Airag, a drink they make only in summer from fermented mare’s milk – it is very healthy and helps combat tuberculosis – and Argi, an alcohol made by distilling cow’s milk, which they have been making for thousands of years. While the women remain inside the gers, taking care of the home, the men get ready for one of the favourite activities of these nomadic herdsmen breaking in the colts born the previous spring. Under the direction of Ninten Pasara, the chief of the clan, the riders round up the horses, trying to make sure the untamed colts are trapped in the centre, so they can be caught using a pole. The Mongols never mark their horses or give them names, they distinguish them by their colour, and have over 200 words to differentiate them. For them, the horse represents much more than simply an animal used for transport and carrying goods, which they began to tame 4,000 years before Christ. Small, fibrous, and incredibly resistant, with strength greatly out of proportion to their size, these horses were key in enabling Genghis Khan to create such a powerful army. The chronicles tell us that the soldiers slept on their mounts while they continued to travel through the night. When food was scarce, they even drank the blood of their horses. At the other side of the country, beyond the desert and the infinite steppes, along the border with Siberia, a vertical world rises up, dominated by taiga. Taiga is a Russian term for the northern forests composed of firs, larches and silver birches, perfectly adapted to the strong winds and the low temperatures. We are in one of the most remote areas of Mongolia. Here, there are no roads, and settlements are connected only by the paths trodden by the nomads. At the end of the summer, the melt waters from the mountains cover the majority of the surface
of valleys and grasslands, making it extremely difficult to move the cattle from one place to another. For the Darhat, the inhabitants of these lands since the days of Genghis Khan, it is time to transfer the herds from the highlands to less demanding regions, where they will spend the autumn. The Darhat can move up to fifteen times a year in search of more fertile pasture or places where the wind is less fierce. In winter, however, when grass is scarce, the families must separate and search for food independently. The only boat raft still remaining since the Russians left cannot carry all the cattle from one side of the river Tsagan Nuur to the other. But here, time is not important, and while they wait, they chat and drink tea. If they can’t cross today, then they will do so tomorrow.