Mongolia: Nomadic Pastoralists, their Livestock, and their Landscape


Fig. 4 Mongolian woman 

2. People

The population of Mongolia is 2.7 million, with slightly more than half concentrated in the capital, Ulaan Baatar (pop. 700,000), and a handful of other cities. The nation's population is fairly homogeneous, with 85% being Mongolian (Fig. 4). The present annual population growth rate is about 2.8%. Two thirds of the Mongolian population is below 30 years old, and two fifths of the population is 14 years or below. A significant portion of the urban population still lives in gers on the peripheries of municipalities. While the average population density of Mongolia is just over 1 person per sq. km, the population density of South Gobi Province is only 0.2 per sq. km. The chief religion of Mongolia is Buddhist Lamaism, following the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

The national language of Mongolia is based on the Halh dialect, which is spoken by 75% of the Mongolians. Other dialects of Mongolian, spoken by 15% of the people, include Helha, Buriad, Oirat, Tsahar, Harchin, Horchin, and Ordos. Mongolian is also spoken in Inner Mongolia and several other provinces of China as well as parts of Russia. It is just one of the languages of the Mongolian branch of the Altaic language family. This branch also includes Buriad, Kalmyk (Russia), Dungshian or Santa (Gansu province, People's Republic of China), Dagur (Heilongjian province and the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, PRC), Mongour (Qinghai, Gansu and other provinces, PRC), Bao'ang (Gansu and Qinghai provinces, PRC) and Mogol (Herat, Badakhsan and Maimana regions, Rep. of Afghanistan).


Fig. 5 Kazakh eagle hunter 

Turkic languages are spoken by 7% of the people of Mongolia. The several Turkic languages of Mongolia include Kazakh, Tuvinian, Urianhai, and Hoton. The Kazakhs comprise the largest group of Turkic speakers. They live in the Altai Mountains in the southwestern part of the country (Fig. 5). Kazakh people differ from Mongolians in their language, religion, cultural history, artistic motifs, yurt design, music, and many other aspects. Most Kazakhs practice the Sunni Muslim faith.

Tsaatan people (who speak Tuvinian), are related to the 200,000 people in the Republic of Tuva in south-central Siberia (Fig. 6). The Tsaatan of northern Mongolia can be found in the Sayan Mountains around Lake Hovsgol, where they herd reindeer and live in tipis very similar to those used in the North American Plains (Fig. 7). Although no accurate census has been made, the Tsaatan say there are only 200 of them living in Mongolia and that their reindeer number only about 400. They are at great risk unless they obtain more reindeer from Tuva soon. The Tuvinian language, which is basically Turkic, borrows a great number of roots from the Mongolian language and a few words from the Russian language.

About 4.5% of Mongolia's population is Evenk and speaks a Tungusic language. They are related to the other Evenk people, most of whom reside in Siberia and herd reindeer.

The remaining 3.5% is Chinese, Russian, and other minorities, mostly concentrated in the cities.


Fig. 6 Tsaatan girls with their reindeer herd 


Fig. 7 Tsaatan reindeer herders' tipis near Lake Hovsgol 


Mongolia stretches 2,400 km west to east and 1,260 km north to south, and is just slightly smaller than Alaska in area. More than 80% of the land is higher than 1,000 m above sea level and the average elevation is 1,580 m.

The geography of this large country is heterogeneous (Fig. 8). The eastern half of the country is dominated by sweeping steppes. This relatively flat environment provides valuable grazing lands for livestock herds and rivers and streams for watering the animals.

A large portion of Mongolia, particularly in the western half, consists of quite mountainous terrain. The best-known peaks are in the Altai range, which covers much of the southwest (Fig. 9). The highest summit, Tavan Bogd, in Bayan Ulgii Aimag, rises to an elevation of more than 4,374 m. This is the region where the Kazakhs live. The landscape is extremely barren and rocky, but one can still see occasional camps here and there. The winters are quite cold here and the growing season is extremely short, but because they are so well adapted to high elevations, yaks are plentiful. Other mountain ranges include the Sayan, Khangai, and Khentii. Wildlife in the mountains includes argali sheep, ibex, snow leopard, rock ptarmigan, and Altai snowcock. Plants include the dwarf Siberian pine and white gentiana.


Fig. 9 View of a lake near Shiveet Khairkhan, in the Altai Mountains 


Fig. 10 Lake Hovsgol 


Fig. 11 Flaming Cliffs, or Bayanzag 

To the north lies the magnificent Lake Hovsgol (Fig. 10), traditionally known as the Mother of Mongolia. It is 137 km long and 260 m deep. Because the region is not commercially developed and its cold temperature limits the biota living there, it is the cleanest large lake in the world. The adjacent Sayan Mountains, which span the border with Siberia, are home to the Tsaatan people who keep herds of reindeer. This is where the Siberian taiga, or coniferous mountain forest zone dips down into Mongolia. The taiga consists mostly of fir, pine, and spruce, with some larch, aspen, birch, and balsam poplar. Mongolian people live at the lower elevations around the lake with their herds of yaks and other livestock.

The Gobi desert, which runs along the southern border, is mostly gravel, but also has sand dunes and badlands, like the Flaming Cliffs (Fig. 11), famed for their vast dinosaur fossil beds. Camels and sheep thrive in this region, where water is scarce and salt-loving vegetation is common.


  1. Introduction 
  2. People and Landscape  
  3. Livestock Herding  
  4. Characteristics of Livestock: Horses, Sheep, Goats 
  5. Characteristics of Livestock: Cattle and Yaks, Camels, Reindeer  
  6. Sharing the Labor 
  7. Suggested Reading  


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