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Mongolian Crossing On Assignment

Mongolian Crossing On Assignment

Mongolian Crossing
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Where Grass is Greener

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By Glenn HodgesPhotographs by Gordon Wiltsie

In a remote, mountainous corner of Asia, nomads still follow their herds on an arduous migration. If given the choice, will they take a new path?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The old man hates it that he can't talk. As his wife tells us about his recent stroke, he pulls the blanket over his head and lies there in bed, peeking out. It's a seven-day trip over the mountains to their winter camp, she explains, and he's too weak to ride a horse. "Somehow we're going to take him," she says, "but I'm not sure how." They'll probably have to tie him to a stretcher attached to two long poles and pull him behind an ox. It's rough terrain, and temperatures are already well below freezing.

The old man, whose name is Purevsh, pulls the blanket from his face and calls to his son to help him sit up—"da da da da da da da." Once they get his emaciated body upright, Purevsh looks around the room, his eyes brimming with tears. He knows what everyone's thinking: He's going to die in the mountains.

People have been crossing the mountains in northern Mongolia, and dying in them, for generations. When fall comes to the Darhad valley, hundreds of families load up their oxen and move their sheep, goats, and cattle to winter camps where the grass is long enough to get the herds through until spring, and where the weather is a good 20 degrees warmer. Between the 1,300-square-mile (3,300-square-kilometer) valley and the winter camps stands a wall of 10,000-foot (3,000-meter), snowcapped peaks that can be as brutal as they are beautiful.

By now, early October, photographer Gordon Wiltsie and I have met many families who planned to travel along four routes through the mountains, but this is the first time we've seen life and death hanging in the balance. With us in the ger—the Mongolian term for a circular felt tent—is Cliff Montagne, a friend of Gordon's who has been working in the Darhad for six years doling out small grants and microloans as part of a regional development program he started at Montana State University. After taking a few minutes to let the family's predicament sink in, Cliff comes up with an idea: He will give Purevsh and his family money for gas, about $120, if they can find someone to drive a truck to their winter camp—the long way, skirting the mountains.

As Purevsh's wife, Tsegmed, explains the stranger's offer to him, he swallows hard and his lip begins to quiver. "These people want to help us," she tells him gently, and the grief he's held back since we arrived pours out in a torrent of sobs. It's such a wrenching moment that everyone looks away. After a time Tsegmed wipes her husband's face, lights him a cigarette and then one for herself, and they smoke with tears still in their eyes. "Virtuous people came to our house today," she says as we get up to leave. Cliff himself is crying as soon as we're out the door.

It seems like such a simple equation. "I was thinking of purchases I made to come on this trip—I bought a vest for $130," Cliff says later. "I couldn't just walk away." But the irony of what Cliff has done is not lost on any of us. We came here to document this migration while it still exists—it's much of what makes life in the Darhad special, and it may be just a matter of time before herders start migrating by truck instead of oxen. And here we are, making it possible for a family to travel by truck.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Listen to photographer Gordon Wiltsie's account of life on the migration trail.

RealPlayer  WinMedia


Watch wrestlers compete in the premigration festival; loaded-down yaks moving along the route; horse racing; and daily life inside a ger, a traditional felt tent.

Final Edit

Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of life inside the tent of Mongolian nomads, complete with TV.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In a land of extreme temperatures (from 90°F [30°C] in the summer to minus 50°F [-45°C] in winter) where the demands of forage call for seasonal migration and where trees are scarce, versatile portable housing is needed. For hundreds of years, since before the time of Genghis Khan, Mongolians have relied upon the ger, a collapsible wood-framed, felt- and canvas-covered circular tent. It is lightweight and quick to assemble, warm in the winter, and easy to open to refreshing breezes in the summer.

Over the centuries a complex system of etiquette has evolved around the ger. Stepping on the wooden doorframe is bad luck; it equates to stepping on the owner of the ger. It is bad manners to knock on the brightly painted wooden door of a ger. Instead, visitors arrive shouting "Hold the dog!" in Mongolian, which is used to mean "Can I come in?"

Furnishings have their established place in the ger. The doorway always faces south, away from the fiercest northern winds. The left side of the ger is for men. The airag (fermented mare's milk) churning bag, saddle stand, a bed, and a storage chest or two are all found here. Guests enter to the left, often pausing to churn the airag once or twice, and walk almost halfway around the ger, stopping at the guests' stools just left of center.  Most gers have a hospitality plate, usually including cheeses, ready for any guests who may drop by, and will usually offer salty, milky Mongolian tea or perhaps vodka.

Directly across from the door is the Buddhist shrine, often set up on top of a storage chest. During the socialist era, when Buddhism was suppressed, this area became a showplace for family portraits and mementos. Some families have retained this custom; others have reverted to the Buddhist shrine or mixed the two.

The right side of the ger is for women and is usually furnished with cookware, water buckets and jugs, and other housewares, along with another bed and more storage chests.  The fire, these days likely to be a metal stove, is set in place first, before the walls of the ger are erected. It sits in the very center of the ger under the roof vent, with a box for dried dung or wood beside it. Fire is sacred in Mongolia and is never stamped out, doused with water, or used to burn any garbage.

—Elizabeth Snodgrass

Did You Know?

Related Links
AlpenImage Ltd.
Photographer and explorer Gordon Wiltsie's official site features his images, multimedia, contact information, and more. 

Mongolian Tourism Board Official Government Website
Explore Mongolia remotely through this good introductory website. General country information is augmented by historical, regional, and tourist information sections

Mongolia Today Online Magazine
Stay in touch with Mongolian arts, current events, and more through this engaging online magazine. Peruse archive issues for texts covering such categories as culture, tradition, nomad way, lifestyle, arts, ethnography, current affairs, and sports.

Library of Congress Country Study: Mongolia
Tour this exhaustive, well-researched website offering easily accessed links to chapters on Mongolian history, society, economy, and government. (This is the online version of the book edited by Worden and Savada listed in the Bibliography section.)

United Nations in Mongolia
Learn more about the economy, politics, and socioeconomic trends of Mongolia as the country transitions from a socialist to a capitalist system. Other sections touch on everything from climate and religion to a chronology of major events.

Mongolia's Wild Heritage
Want to learn more about Mongolia's natural heritage? This excellent site breaks the country into climatic zones, giving characteristics for each along with typical flora and fauna.  A section on conservation outlines what Mongolia is doing to preserve its biodiversity.

The BioRegions Program at Montana State University
Learn more about Cliff Montagne's holistic community programs in Hovsgol, Mongolia; Hokkaido, Japan; and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

United Nations Dzud in Mongolia
Visit this site for more information on Mongolia's recent sweep of severe winters.  Definitions of dzud and statistics from natural disasters are backed up by published reports on disaster management in Mongolia.

American Museum of Natural History: Teacher's Guide
The exhibit may have left the museum, but this AMNH teacher's guide still offers an interesting look at Mongolian history and performing arts. Study sections and the  glossary could be useful supplements to a social studies lesson plan.

BBC News Timeline: Mongolia
Scroll through the history of Mongolia at a glance, from the rise of Genghis Khan in 1206 to the Dalai Lama's visit in 2002.

WorldVision Mongolia General Information
Visit this site for basic fast facts on Mongolia, but especially for the sections Building a Ger, and Recipes.

Yak Page
Learn all about yaks in this well-illustrated personal page featuring River, a pet yak.

Ger Camps
Managed by Boojum Expeditions, this site offers links to Mongolian  exchange and assistance programs: Renchinlhumbe School Ger Camp; Mongolia-Montana Hunting Exchange; Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation; and a new project to build Warming and safety huts along the Darhad migration route.

Renchinlhumbe School Ger Camp
Read about the development of a ger camp at the Renchinlhumbe school, and how to contribute with tax-deductible donations.


Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Cynthia M. Beall. The Changing World of Mongolia's Nomads. University of California Press, 1994.

Major, John S. The Land and People of Mongolia. J. B. Lippincott. 1990.

Sabloff, Paula L. W., ed. Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2001.

Sermier, Claire. Mongolia: Empire of the Steppes, trans. Helen Loveday. Airphoto International Ltd., 2002.

Worden, Robert L., and Andrea Matles Savada, eds. Mongolia: A Country Study. Library of Congress Federal Research Division, 1991.


NGS Resources
Millard, Candice S. "In the Mountains of Mongolia: Hunting With Eagles," National Geographic (September 1999), 90-103.

Edwards, Mike. "The Great Khans: Sons of Genghis," National Geographic (February 1997), 2-35.

Meserve, Ruth I. "Changing World of Mongolia's Nomads," National Geographic Research Journal (Summer 1994), 374-76.

Beall, Cynthia, and Melvyn Goldstein. "Past Becomes Future for Mongolian Nomads," National Geographic (May 1993), 126-38.


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