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The horsemen who face an apocalypse
Sunday 12 March 2000

On the steppes of Mongolia, a mediaeval disaster is raging. Mongolia's nomadic herders, proud horsemen directly descended from the warriors of Genghis Khan, are losing the animals that feed and clothe them.

More than a million head of livestock have died, killed by the worst winter in a generation. In February, 245,000 animals perished in a single week. Ice, endless blizzards and temperatures of minus-50 degrees have followed last year's drought: a once-in-a-lifetime disaster known locally as a zud.

Gurzan, a tall, grey-haired patriarch at the head of a family of 10, remembers the exact date, two months ago, when the last of his 35 horses disappeared. He has not ridden since. It is the longest time he has spent on foot since he was six years old.

Inside the family ger, the high-domed felt tent which is home to Mongolia's nomads, Gurzan's wooden saddle sits against one wall, its elaborate silver roundels and leather straps coated with a fine layer of dust. This is not its usual place - indoors is where the women sew and children warm their hands at the steel stove.

An old man now at 53, Gurzan has moved his family 20 times since the drought began, ranging far from his home turf, seeking out the last thin pastures in the breaks between storms.

Gurzan's sons now herd the animals on foot. They dare not move too far. Four herders died when sudden blizzards cut them off from their camp - early casualties in what will be a long-term disaster.

Gurzan has no intention of giving in. A religious man, he believes that better times must come. When they do, he will ride again.

His horses ran away in the first of the bad winds. If they are still alive, the sand storms and winds of spring will soon kill them. The plains of the Central Gobi are filled with stray horses, and knots of men walking in search of their animals. As a Red Cross convoy drove south from the capital Ulan Bator, it took four hours for the first dead ponies to appear.

Their bodies could be seen as the dirt road crossed a wide plain flanked by bare stone cliffs. Some had been skinned by herdsmen, looking for something to sell for cash. The carcasses were being pecked clean by white hawks.

As night fell, herds of animals - sheep, goats, horses and camels - huddled near the roadside, hardly moving in the icy wind. The Land Cruiser's headlights caught brief glimpses of death - a young cow flailing on folded back legs, a pony perfectly upright by the road's edge, still kneeling where it had collapsed in exhaustion. Nearby, other ponies grazed hopelessly, pawing at the ice with their front hooves.

Mongolian ponies are stocky, incredibly strong for their small size. They are prehistoric-looking animals, with long manes over thick brown or black fur and large, ugly heads, like the horses in cave paintings. But these ponies were starving, their ribs showing through skins mottled white with frost.

Snow fell very early last autumn, so that it later melted, only to freeze again as a hard sheet of ice, preventing animals from finding the grass beneath. There was little grass in the first place, thanks to the drought last summer.

Seven decades of communism could not stamp out the culture of Mongolia's horsemen, could not erase their pride as the natural aristocrats of the steppes, men who once struck fear across half the world.

But communism weakened them, corralled them into collectives, told them which animals to raise, and handed them their fodder. Now, the first zud of the post-Soviet era has struck, and a way of life has been thrown into question.

The collapse of the Soviet Union robbed Mongolia of its "big brother". Russian tanks and armies turned Mongolia into a front line of the Cold War, but they also sustained its population of 2.3 million, scattered across a barren land three times the size of France. Last month, Russia cut off Mongolia's electricity across three provinces when the Government failed to pay the bill.

The survival of the nomadic way of life is balanced on a knife edge. In one of the worst affected provinces, Central Gobi, there were two million animals before the zud. "We have 52,000 herders in the province, and they need at least 1.5 million animals to sustain them," explained Urjin, the provincial secretary of the Red Cross. "They are now down to that figure, with 5000 to 10,000 dying a day, depending on the weather. These people cannot do anything but herd livestock. There is no possibility for them to raise money from any other source. There are no natural resources."

To restore the animal populations will take 10 years. In that time, an already difficult life will be miserable. The zud has already brought unimaginable loneliness.

Mongolian economists argue that, if it were not for the soaring unemployment in the cities, herders should be encouraged to leave the steppes for good. The weather, by day at least, is finally growing warmer, and the earth is showing from beneath the snow. The cruel paradox is that the spring sandstorms will only bring more death.


Posted to take your mind off where your next MSG laden fried chicken roll will come from...& as Mongolian economists argue...; there's something medieval about the world and its weather today - a kind of creative anarchy of disturbing imagery as surreal as a Bosch.

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (, March 11, 2000


Mongolian economists are all zuddites.

-- (ghengis@con.artist), March 11, 2000.


Now we know which country [Jim Lord's quote] lost 50% of its power.

Best wishes,,,,,,, ,


-- Z1X4Y7 (, March 11, 2000.

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