In the world’s most sparsely populated country, isolation is a fact of life. A Mongolian panorama embodies the concept of vastness; uninhibited by trees, you can gaze across immense swaths of landscape, the contours of grassland and desert contrasted by blue skies and shadows of distant mountains. Villages are absent. Roads take the form of track marks crisscrossing in the dirt. Occasionally, you’ll see a white speck in the middle of the land—a ger, the yurt of a nomadic family. And, surrounding it, smaller specks: goats, sheep, camels, horses, or yaks.
Rural life revolves around these animals. Their skins and furs form the insulation for the ger, the colorful rugs and blankets that decorate its interior, and the clothes of its inhabitants. Men spend the day herding them, while women transform their milk and meat into the family’s main sources of sustenance. As bitter nighttime cold sweeps in, their dried dung is burned in the stove, warming the air as the family curls up to sleep; just before sunrise in the morning, someone reignites the fire and begins heating the day’s first pot of salted milk tea.
On the Move
A sparse landscape requires adaptation in the ultimate land of extremes. Set far from the moderating influence of oceans, landlocked Mongolia is highly sensitive to any fluctuation in climate. Blaring hot summers contrast with frigidly cold winters in which temperatures dip to 40°F below zero. Almost half of its landscape is permafrost. Barely any of it is arable. It is one of the most inhospitable climates on earth.
But it wasn’t always that way. The Central Asian country was once heavily forested, populated by communities who relied on a mix of hunting, foraging, and, eventually, agriculture. But around the third millennium B.C., global climatic changes wreaked havoc on the steppes, drying forests into grassland and desert. No longer able to rely on hunting or crops, inhabitants adapted by focusing on what had been a small part of their survival strategy: herding animals. “Nomadic herding takes place in tough environments where nothing else works,” says Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who researches climate’s influence on dairy traditions.
A nomadic lifestyle gave Mongolians the flexibility they needed to move constantly in search of pasture. Milk (along with meat) became their primary source of sustenance. Enabling life on the fringes, the substance became revered. Considered the purest food, milk still figures prominently in Mongolian rituals: the first drops of the season are thrown into the air as an offering to the sky and mountain spirits; if any milk is spilled, you must put some onto your forehead to avoid bad luck; when someone sets out on a journey, they are squirted with milk.
“Nomadic herding takes place in tough environments where nothing else works.”
Here there are no “cheesemakers”; instead, milk transformation is woven into the fabric of everyday life, into a household cuisine based on not wasting a drop. Fresh milk is warmed on the stove, scooped up with a spoon, and poured back into the pot from a height of several feet repeatedly to encourage fat globules to float to the top. The following day, the top is skimmed off and set aside as orom, fresh cream which can be consumed right away or further processed into shelf-stable clarified butter. Remaining skimmed milk is often turned into yogurt called tarag. That yogurt can then be used to coagulate more milk, to make a fresh cheese called byaslag. If the yogurt is kept past its prime, it’s distilled into milk vodka—arkhi. Raw horse’s milk can be made into a fermented drink called airag.
In preparation for winter, fresh curds are formed into various small shapes and placed on the roof of the ger, drying out in the sun over a few days to form aarul or eezgii. These dried-curd cheeses are a far cry from the European traditions we know, but that makes sense: In sedentary societies, giant wheels can be matured slowly and carefully over time—in a culture always on the move, small-format, rock-hard curds are much more practical. The protein-packed morsels last indefinitely; acidic, yeasty, and pungent, they can be sucked on like candy, or mixed with hot water or coffee to make a nutritious drink when fresh milk is scarce.
According to legend, aarul gave Ghenghis Kahn the energy he needed to unite Mongolia’s tribes in the 13th century, a move that coincided with herding’s development into a sophisticated system. Tribes organized themselves to avoid abusive land and water practices, balancing the number of animals to avoid overgrazing. Built-in taboos and Buddhist values kept resources in check. “There’s this great environmental ethic built into the culture,” Kindstedt says, “a reverence for nature, for the steppes, for mountains, for water.” Over hundreds of years, that reverence helped Mongolians straddle a delicate balance, he adds, in an “environment on the cusp of not being able to support anything.”
Tipping the Balance
Yet starting in the 20th century, everything began to change. First, communism arrived. With the founding of the Mongolian People’s Republic—a Soviet satellite state—in 1924, nomadic life was turned upside down. Animals were confiscated and herding was collectivized. Instead of a life based on self-sufficiency, nomads began working for the state, supplying wool and cashmere to distant Soviet factories. As urban centers and the industrial complex expanded, many rural inhabitants followed, abandoning the way of life they’d known for millennia.
Then came capitalism. The transition to democracy that began following the Soviet Union’s 1989 fall was peaceful in Mongolia, but the adoption of a market economy was problematic. With the government no longer propping up factories and cooperatives, many Mongolians once again adopted the nomadism practiced by their grandparents.
The herding they’ve taken up, however, has been different, driven by the new capitalist pressure to scale up. “The herders are thinking about the quantity of the animals, not the quality,” says Tsetsgee Ser-Od, a Mongolian cheese expert. On the steppes, the population of grazing livestock exploded from around 25 million at the fall of socialism to 70 million today. Instead of keeping a traditional mix of ruminants, herders are pressured to sell one lucrative product: goat cashmere. Upping the number of goats has a caustic impact: Goats are aggressive grazers, destructive in arid environments; they enjoy ripping up plants at their roots, making it difficult for grasslands to grow the next year.
That “market-driven nomadism” has created a loss that’s more intangible, says Kindstedt. “The coordinated dance of all these different tribes, the old taboos that prevented the dark side of increased herding…the capability of adapting to the climate with careful migration.”
These days that adaptability is needed more than ever, as the effects of global climate change play out drastically in Mongolia. Over the past century, temperatures have increased four times more quickly there compared to the worldwide average. Even more alarmingly, seasonal extremes are becoming more drastic. Summers are drier, preventing grasslands from regenerating. Severe winter events—locally known as dzuds, in which ice and snow cover grass and cause swaths of animals to starve—are happening more frequently.
“In the rural area in an ordinary yurt with less than 100 sheep and goats you are poor—but you will not be hungry.”
In the past, vulnerable goats could huddle up alongside pillowy sheep to ride out aggressive dzuds; these days, “once your herd is mostly goats, they are more vulnerable,” says Ser-Od. A herder with less than a few hundred animals can lose them all during a single drastic winter. And without the social services offered during communism, there’s no longer a safety net. Families struggle to pay school fees that were previously free, often needing to sell their animals; lacking veterinary services, foot-and-mouth disease threatens entire herds.
Faced with uncertainty, many nomads (particularly young people—over half the population is under 30) are abandoning rural roots in search of unskilled jobs in the city. Urban migration leaves no market-driven reason to develop infrastructure in rural areas, where roads are absent. Today, about half the Mongolian population lives in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, a large portion of them in slums. There, former nomads forego the potential for self-sufficiency and face poverty. “In the rural area in an ordinary yurt with less than 100 sheep and goats you are poor—but you will not be hungry,” says Ser-Od. “Now the country is going hungry, and that’s a problem.”
For decades, Ser-Od has been working to maintain viable options for nomads. A dairy technologist educated in Russia who apprenticed with cheesemakers in Switzerland, she sees a potential solution not in the increasingly destructive wool industry, but rather in the substance long at the heart of Mongolian nomadic life: milk.
After years working with the government and NGOs to develop dairy technology in rural areas, Ser-Od founded a rural plant in mountainous Bayankhongor province that makes seasonal cheeses from yak milk. The high-altitude location (over 6,500 feet above sea level) yields the perfect conditions for aging wheels of Alpine and cheddar styles. Now that her cheeses are being sold in the city, the business can support the 10 nomadic families who supply its raw material. “It’s market access for the herders,” says Ser-Od. “It has a social impact.”
Yet ironically in dairy-centric Mongolia, domestic products like Ser-Od’s comprise only a small percentage of the cheeses on urban supermarket shelves; most cheese is imported. To make matters worse, “the supermarkets give us the lowest shelf, and [save] good shelves for imported products,” Ser-Od says. She’s on a mission to educate consumers and shop managers about the quality of Mongolian dairy. “I’m trying to explain that the cheese is natural, and that you have to recognize natural cheese from garbage,” she adds.
“I’m trying to explain that the cheese is natural, and that you have to recognize natural cheese from garbage.”
Chalotte Vad, project leader at the Khovsgol Dairy Project, agrees: “It’s crazy that in Mongolia they have this thousands-of-years-old tradition for dairy products, but they import so much,” she says. A joint venture between Dairy without Borders and Danish Architects without Borders, the Khovsgol Dairy Project was launched in 2015 to establish a cooperative for herders to produce and sell traditional Mongolian dairy near a popular national park.
Based on the positive response she’s seen from Mongolian tourists, Vad doesn’t think the problem is a lack of interest in domestic products. “They know that Mongolian products are best, that there’s no pollution outside the city, that what the animals are eating is pure.” And they’re right: Organic without being certified, much of Mongolian land has evaded the chemical pesticides and fertilizers common elsewhere in the world. Instead, it’s an issue of infrastructure and market access. While traditional dairy production is still going strong in rural areas, it’s largely confined to individual households.
Both Ser-Od and Vad note that nomads need to band together to benefit from shared technology and market access. According to Isabel Sande, project manager at the Khovsgol Dairy Project, one of the biggest obstacles has been convincing nomads—still scarred from communist collectivization and historically self-reliant—of the cooperation’s benefits. But after investing in education about democratic governance and bringing in leaders of successful cooperatives to share their stories, the project’s beneficiaries “could see the possibilities,” Sande says.
Beyond the Border
Back in Ulaanbaatar, Michael Morrow, executive director of the Mongolian Artisan Cheesemakers Union (MACU), is also using a small-scale approach—but he’s thinking big. Three years ago, the American expat founded the company to produce European-style cheeses through a growing network of tiny cheese plants in rural areas. Not only will the plants offer local herders an outlet for their milk, but Morrow sees them as mini “agro-industrial centers”—bringing electricity, water, local management, and trade to areas with little infrastructure.
Morrow began by teaming up with Ligiin Ukhaa, a small cheese company run by Urtnasan Tumurkhuyag, a Mongolian who trained with a Dutch cheesemaker in the 1990s. Together they began selling Tumurkhuyag’s Khustai Gouda as well as various summer cheeses from local herders. The duo then set up a small pilot plant to make cottage cheese and quark, then moved into mozzarella, brie, and pecorino styles. MACU also collaborated with Swiss cheesemaker Carlos Marbach and Ikh Khalbagant, a small dairy in the western Gobi desert, to make the world’s first Bactrian camel’s milk cheese.
“Progress is slow, but we are hopeful.”
While MACU’s cheeses are now sold in a few local shops and five-star hotels, Morrow sees little potential to compete with the tons of industrial processed cheese imported into Mongolia each year. Instead, he’s looking toward neighboring countries that have markets for artisanal cheeses: South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. “We started by sending samples to Moscow and Tokyo, and we immediately had orders,” he says. Yet he’s also faced a disheartening battle against government red tape, including concerns about hygienic and traceability standards. Mongolia hasn’t yet established protocols for exporting cheese, so MACU has hired a full-time worker to pioneer it. “Progress is slow, but we are hopeful,” he says.
Ser-Od is not as optimistic about export opportunities. “After five years, we can talk,” she says, instead preferring to focus on building demand for domestic products at home. Yet there’s one thing all parties can agree on: the challenges are monumental. “Nothing in Mongolia is easy,” Morrow says.
But has it ever been? Over thousands of years, nomads here figured out how to live in one of the Earth’s harshest climes—and for a good 30 percent of the population, nomadic lifestyle persists. “This is arguably the last place in the world where you have the opportunity to maintain nomadic pastoralism,” says Morrow. “A country where most of the land is not owned. Where people move freely across it.” In their varied efforts to adapt Mongolian milk to the modern market, Ser-Od, Vad, Sande, and Morrow are each working to preserve something broader than business. “The cheese is not simply the cheese,” says Kindstedt. “It’s the place, and the people, and the culture. It’s worth supporting.”
(Want to know more? In this web exclusive interview, Urtnasan Tumurkhuyag describes what it’s like to be a cheesemaker in Mongolia.)
Header Photo Credit: Pierre Jean Durieu/shutterstock.com