As one travels away from the city’s core, the ratio of gers to more permanent structures increases. About 6 miles northeast of downtown UB, the city runs out, and beyond the last wooden fence there is nothing but steppe and mountains and desert. It was here where I saw 62-year-old Dolgorsuren Chimeddulam stacking dried dung to fuel her stove.
Chimeddulam erected her ger the month before in this narrow, treeless valley, framed by a dump on one side and a cemetery one ridge over. She squinted her weathered face and waved me inside. Chimeddulam had hunched shoulders, and she wore rubber shower sandals, a bright turquoise headscarf decorated with images of flowers and a burgundy deel — the traditional neck-to-ankle tunic that Mongolians have donned for centuries — embroidered with geometric designs and detailed with gold thread. Inside her ger were a few painted dressers, a frame filled with photos and a small shrine.
Chimeddulam offered me candy from a bowl and apologized for not being able to pour me a cup of salty milk tea, a staple of nearly every guest-host interaction in the country. “I lost my livestock in the dzud,” she says, by way of explanation. “I lost them all.”
If you ask five people to define dzud, you’re likely to get five answers. Most describe a brutal winter or spring storm in which the temperature plummets as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, fodder is inaccessible and animals die en masse. Herders will tell you dzud starts earlier, with a summer drought that prevents animals from thriving. Others, like Hessl and researchers at the World Bank, refer to a social component — a sort of collective narrative of hardship and loss that reifies the dzud as a national phenomenon. It’s unclear whether dzud can be linked to climate change. What is clear is that overworked grasslands and worsening weather conditions are making dzud harder to mitigate.
For Chimeddulam, the calamity meant the loss of wealth, income and lifestyle. Without animals, she had no milk for her tea, and nothing to sell. So she traveled more than 200 miles to the capital — one of the city’s latest arrivals, judging by her spot on its outskirts. As I talked to other residents of the district, I heard Chimeddulam’s story repeated with slight variations:
“The grass used to be tall, up to my waist, you could get lost in it.”
“The rain used to be regular and predictable, but now it’s confused.”
“The soil never used to blow away in the wind.”
“My animals died, and I have nothing left.”
Most people visit Hustai National Park — an expanse of more than 123,000 acres about 90 minutes west of UB — to see the takhi, or Przewalski’s horse, the last truly wild horse left on the planet. But after hearing about the changes to Mongolia’s steppe, I came to stare at the ground with Tserendulam Tseren-ochir, a biologist studying grassland degradation and recovery.
The rolling hills surrounding the park were covered in greenish-gray vegetation. “Artemisia
dominate this area,” Tserendulam says, referring to the plants in a buffer zone between the unprotected steppe and the sanctuary of the park. “That is a sign of degradation,” she explains. Overgrazing has led to imbalance: Some native plants thrive while others diminish.