Rains that Don't Wet


Nomadic herder Hurelchuluun (far left), his wife (center rear, in blue) and some of their extended family. Image by Daniel Grossman. Mongolia, 2011.

If you visit a Mongolian ger, be prepared for a few things. First, you’ll be served a thin-walled bowl of weak tea. Sometimes it tastes salty. Sometimes the surface glistens with a few spots of fat that’ll coat your lips. It’s always served with milk—yak, cow or camel—and never with sugar. A ger, in case you’re wondering, is what Russians and some American’s call a yert: a round felt tent held up by wooden stays tied together with animal-hide thongs. Even though Mongolia was occupied by the Soviet Union for about 70 years, here this white, domed hut, with a name that rhymes with air* and begins with a hard “g,” is never called a yert.

In Mongolia’s countryside—almost everywhere outside the capitol, Ulanbaator—hosts invariable also offer visitors rustic snacks, such as crispy chips of salty homemade yak cheese. I anticipated these pleasant customs with eagerness when I ducked through the low doorway of the livestock herder Hurelchuluun. (As is customary here, Hurelchuluun uses only one name. He generally goes by the nickname Hurlee, pronounced just as it looks: HER-lee.) Hurlee lives with his wife, whose name, unfortunately, I never learned. Several of their nine grown children and two grandchildren live with them in their snug ger. The members of Hurlee’s extended family are the sole human residents of the emerald-colored Dalbay valley in Northern Mongolia. They share the mountain steppe pasture, nestled between larch-covered mountains and Lake Hovsgol, with a flock of several hundred goats, sheep, yaks and cows. When I visited the family, I knew they’d offer me food and drink. I didn’t expect the exotic food I got.

I had joined a scientific research team led by Clyde Goulden, an ecologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Goulden had set up a seasonal research camp in the valley in 1994, and he’s been returning there every year since. At first Goulden studied the ecology of Lake Hovsgol, a long skinny body of water nicknamed the Blue Pearl, in testimony to its beauty and purity. Lake Hovsgol is 100 miles long and contains about 70% of all of Mongolia’s surface water.

About a decade ago Goulden noticed that the government meteorological station in Hatgal, the town nearest to his study site, had recorded rapidly rising temperatures. It made him wonder if global warming might be causing mischief at his research site, 70 miles away. Studies by others have since shown that Mongolia has heated up more than almost anywhere else on Earth. Averaged over its entire surface, Earth has gotten about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in the last century. Mongolia, in contrast, has grown nearly four degrees hotter since 1960. Many of Mongolia’s lakes and rivers have shrunken or disappeared entirely. Its rangeland has become less lush, a fact one leading Mongolian scientist says is due in equal parts to over grazing by livestock and to soil desiccated by higher temperatures.

Goulden wanted a detailed, long-term record of how the weather had changed all around the region by lake Hovsgol. But he couldn’t ask a weatherman which way the wind blows—since the entire region had only one meteorological station with a good long-term record. Fortunately, though, he didn’t need one. He realized that the herders he had gotten to know casually in years of bumping along the jeep trails here watch the weather vigilantly. He decided to survey them on local weather changes and whether any differences in weather had affected their lives. What he found surprised and disturbed him.

When I had arrived at Goulden’s research camp, he was just completing his third season of surveying herders. Our stop at Hurlee’s ger was one of the last interviews of this year. As with all the season’s visits, Goulden’s Mongolian wife, Tuya Goulden, came along, to translate. In response to a series of standard questions, Hurlee and his wife described changes they’d seen in the 30 years they’ve grazed animals in the valley.

Hurlee and his wife told Goulden that summer winds are colder and stronger now than they used to be. The two herders also said that when they were younger they could easily anticipate a day’s weather and dress accordingly. Now they can’t.

They said that when they were young the pastures were watered by long gentle rains known in Mongolian as shivree rain. Now showers fall torrentially and only briefly, events called adar rains. They said the adar downpours fall so hard and pass so quickly that the water flows directly into nearby streams and the lake instead of soaking into the soil. A Mongolian wildlife biologist calls adar showers “rains that don’t wet.” Hurlee said their pasture’s vegetation is stunted, making it harder to fatten their livestock. “If the animals die, what’s the future for us?”

Goulden has not yet systematically analyzed the approximately 100 herder surveys he’s conducted in the last two years. He hasn’t published his results in any scientific journal. But eyeballing his data, he says that what Hurlee and his wife said tracks closely the responses of the vast majority of his informants. He says he was surprised to hear about changes in rainfall patterns. He hopes to confirm what the herders said by inspected rainfall records collected by the Mongolian government. Goulden say that if what the herders say is borne out, and if past trends continue, “they’ll have to invest more time looking for good pastures.” The extra work will make herders’ tough lives tougher.

When Goulden’s interview with Hurlee was done, the couple offered us dinner. They had slaughtered a sheep, and a meal of mutton had been simmering on a wood stove since we’d arrived. It took a few seconds for the steam to clear after Hurlee’s wife lifted the lid off the big stew pot. Inside I saw a taut soccer-ball-size orb of meat, shiny with melted fat. It reminded me of a well-basted Butterball turkey. The illusion dissipated, though, when they cut it open. The bulging ball was the intestine, and it was stuffed with the other organs. Hurlee’s wife dumped the assorted parts onto a well-worn platter of wood. She served us the meal’s centerpiece: the stomach, itself stuffed with blood sausage.

We carved brown chunks off the congealed blood stuffing with a bone-handled knife and ate with our hands. I sampled other delicacies as well, including kidney, lung, heart and liver. I could claim that I was just humoring our hosts, but it would be more honest to admit that I was curious about the flavors.

Later, after vodka toasts, Hurlee’s wife realized she had forgotten something, and she brought it to our table, though we were already sated. It was a bottle of ketchup. “Foreigners like it with their meat,” she muttered.

*The original post incorrectly stated that the "ger" rhymes with "fur."