Guest Post: Christopher Carter on Kazakh Mongolians in Far West

For the past month I have been living at the mountain pastures of the fourth bag of Saqai Soum in Olgii province Mongolia working on researching participatory planning and water resource development.

Olgii province is home to Mongolia’s largest ethnicity, a Kazakh and Sunni Muslim people who have lived a nomadic lifestyle in the Altai mountains of Mongolia for at least 200 years. Following the Mongolian Revolution in 1921 a permanent border was drawn between Mongolia, Russia and China, ethnic Kazakhs living nomadically in Mongolia were effectively cut off from freely moving  to their homeland.

Today they remain the aimag’s majority and taking a majority of political seats at the bag, soum and aimag level. In the next few posts here on Mongolia Focus I hope to share some first-hand accounts of development and social change amongst Kazakh Mongolians living nomadically in the nation’s westernmost province.

I first met Baelkhan and his extended family two years ago and today he is 83 years old, which makes him the oldest man in the Bag. I had the chance to sit down with him last week at his summer pasture (Jailao) to hear about the changes he has seen in society and landscape of  Central Olgii province.

Baelkhan and the youngest addition to his clan, Tilik, observe the rounding up of horses for the annual Kumis (Fermented Mares Milk) celebration.

What is your history of Jailao (Summer Pasture) here in Bag 4? When I was young, I began to work with animals and did not attend any formal education.  I instead learned all of the aspects of being a good herder and have done this my whole life.

What is the most important change you have witnessed in Bag 4? Ten years ago, at the end of the Soviet era, livestock became private property and the govenment started to work in a new way supporting herding/animals. From this time on, I noticed that the animals health, breeding and populations increased in quality.

You have lived in Mongolia as a Soviet Satellite and now as a Democratic state, what are your observations of this transition? Life before, life after? In the Soviet age there were good things like free universal education, today in a democratic Mongolia, higher education can be expensive. Under Soviet control when you would graduate from high school there where many government opportunities for employment and even some light industry jobs here in Olgii. Today, alot of countryside people here see little opportunity for regional employment after university (high school) and cannot afford higher education. Because they are not qualified for the few jobs here and can produce their own food/ sell cashmere to support a family, many choose to be Malchin (herders)in the countryside. I also think the health of our animal populations have gotten higher in quality today.

How has the landscape of the Muztao valley changed in the past 50 years? Life on this landscape 50 years ago was very difficult, low precipitation for many years, very dry with cold winters and many Dzuds (Severe cold events).  Today I have noticed recently here that we are getting more rains and that the grass is getting better. Muztao mountain had much more ice on the glacier and received more snow in the past, in the spring the runoff was sometimes hard to deal with, some flooding . Today there is less fresh water melting off in the spring but it is higher quality (less sediment) and more managable. I don’t worry that Muztao has less water runoff because some years it recieves alot of snow. It is always changing.

What are your hopes for this Jailao (Summer Pasture)? Over time the climate and pasture quality in this Jailao has varied alot. But in the past 5 years i have noticed the grass has been much better, also there have been fewer Dzuds. The climate here is changing so it is very unpredictable .My worries are about the Dzuds, I always pray that they will not come. My hope for the future is that our families animals remain healthy and that the natural resources in this place remain healthy.

What is your highlight of your life as a Kazakh herder? I think that working with animals, living off their products and living in the fresh air my whole life is the highlight.

 About Christopher Carter

Christopher J. Carter is a Masters Candidate in Comparative Development Planning at the School of Regional and Urban Planning (SCARP) at the University of British Columbia. His 2013 participatory research on water development policy in Olgii Province is supported by a fellowship from BioRegions International.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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