Tsaikhir Valley, Mongolia – Myagmar-Ochir may be just three years old, but he already has big plans for his future.
“I want to be a horseman”, he says. “I want to catch horses with a rope”.
Myagmar-Ochir describes his career goals while playing next to a rocky stream, 50m (164ft) away from the small ger, his traditional Mongolian tent.
Among the rocks and snow melt, the toddler spends his days straddled atop a wrought-iron bar — his pretend horse.
He whips the bar, willing it into a gallop, in imitation of his 29-year-old father, Octonbaatar, who lives among a small community of Mongolians eking out a life as herders in the Tsaikhir — a frigid, desolate valley 800km (500 miles) west of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.
They are nomads who move with the seasons. And for generations, Octonbaatar’s family has relied on the small stream that now serves as his son’s playground.
He He and Chuluunchimeg (a wife and father of three), move to this peaceful corner of the valley each fall to find long grass to feed their horses, yak, and water in their creek.
The stream has slowed to an impasse for the third straight year. Meanwhile, the hills are barren and dead.
“We don’t have green summers anymore”, Octonbaatar wistfully tells Al Jazeera. “And there is less water here than last year.”
He Points to a distant hilltop, which is lightly dusted with greying, barely-visible, snow.
“[The mountain] There was once a snowcap that covered the entire year. But it has been melting,” Octonbaatar added.
Resigning from the steppes
The Tsaikhir Valley may be one of the world’s coldest places, with winter temperatures routinely plummeting below -50C (-58F), but the increasing intensity of its drought conditions, fuelled by ever-warming summers, have left local people wondering how much longer they can hold on. Myagmar-Ochir’s dream of following in his father’s footsteps — and maintaining a culture that has survived for millennia — is under threat.
The Tsaikhir may be on Mongolia’s climate front line, but its herders are not alone in their environmental struggle.
One-third of Mongolia’s three million citizens continue nomadic traditions that are intimately entwined with their natural environment.
As the climate becomes more extreme, both droughts and worsening winter storms, known as dzuds, are disrupting ancient traditions across Mongolia’s steppe.
Many of the Tsaikhir’s young boys and girls no longer see a future in the valley where they were raised; instead, most have eyes on a career in the city, a trend that has seen the Mongolian capital swell in recent years as herders flee the volatility of nomadic life for the relative stability and modern comforts of Ulaanbaatar.
Tsaikhir residents have witnessed a dramatic transformation in their landscape within a matter of a few generations.
Bayarkhuu is a 32 year-old herder who lives in the valley.
Al Jazeera spoke with him after a local horse wrangling competition in which Bayarkhuu won.
He Remembers a green childhood.
“We used to have grass to our knees”, he said, recounting his childhood while looking out over the now brown landscape.
While the Tsaikhir’s summer droughts are the most evident sign of climate decline, the Tsaikhir’s winters are where the cultural consequences of climate change are most acute.
Traditionally, the valley’s families assemble a huge winter herd of more than 2,000 horses each October. By gathering the animals into a single mass, families’ horses — their most valuable possessions — are protected from the arctic conditions.
Three young men from the Tsaikhir Community will be responsible for the horses’ care for five months.
The men often camp beside the animals in harsh conditions and fire warning shots at hungry Wolfs that try to follow them.
While it may seem risky and dangerous to protect the winter herd, it is also a noble tradition that young men looking for a better future in the valley want to take part in.
Shwara, 18, is the only son of five children. At 14 years old, he left school to lead a nomadic existence. He It has been a long-held dream of her to be honored with protection for the winter herd.
“My friend advised me ‘if you go and follow the winter herd, it will be very good for you physically, and you will become an excellent horseman,” he told Al Jazeera via a translator.
“I want to go. I want to join the herd.”
The changing climate may mean Shwara won’t have his chance.
Tsaikhir’s 48-year-old governor, Batsehen, spoke to Al Jazeera while he travelled the valley raising donations for a community member stricken with cancer.
“The winter herd used to assemble every year,” he said. “But it hasn’t happened since 2018.
“We haven’t been able to gather the herd for three years,” Batsehen stressed.
The droughts have caused so much damage to the grass that there isn’t enough undergrowth for the winter. Batsehen and other community leaders recognized this and in 2019 cancelled the winter herd. They feared that if they continued with the tradition, it would irreparably damage the grasslands.
Since then, they have been unable hold it and their families have had to take care of their horses all winter. This has often led to devastating consequences.
“One family lost 12 horses to wolves,” said Governor Batsehen.
China, Russia effect
The environmental threat facing the herding community of the Tsaikhir has been made worse by Mongolia’s tenuous economic position.
Wedged between a war-time Russia to the north and a zero-COVID China to the south, Mongolia’s economy has been hampered by the unprecedented isolation of its two largest trading partners.
Many herder families survive by selling animal products — mainly lamb, yak and sheep wool — to markets in China and Russia.
Due to slowing border trade, a glut domestically of these products has resulted in lower prices and decreased incomes in Tsaikhir.
“[The] sheep wool price has declined so much because the border has been closed”, said Bakhtur, the 22-year-old elder son of a herder family.
Trade disputes with China and Russia have smashed even more exotic exports.
Bahktur and his neighbors used to collect the deer antlers, which are lost each season by the animals. Before China closed its borders. Bakhtur would gather the antlers, and then sell them to traders headed for China.
But with China’s border closures, demand for the antlers has also collapsed.
“The horn of the deer has decreased to only 20,000 Tugrik [$6],” Bakhtur said.
Mongolia’s President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh was at COP27 in Egypt this month, promoting his country’s climate efforts.
“Mongolia is one of the countries most affected by climate change”, the president said, using the event to promote the country’s ‘One Billion Tree’ campaign, an ambitious national effort aimed at reversing Mongolia’s years of deforestation and turning swathes of sprawling steppe land into a carbon sink.
Mongolia was also among the emerging economies pushing for a ‘loss and damage’ fund — a compensation mechanism agreed after much haggling that would see the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and wealthiest countries, compensate developing nations that are vulnerable to climate change.
Tsaikhir’s people are afraid for their future but find solace in the protection of their valley.
At the Tsaikhir’s entrance, tombs of two partially frozen monks, believed by residents to be in a semi-alive state, keep watch over the valley.
Many local gers have shrines dedicated to monks. Tsaikhir families believe that they continue to bring good fortune and protection to them, no matter what the valley throws at them.
“Once, someone brought a snake to Tsaikhir, but it got sick”, laughed Governor Batsehen. “We are protected from the snakes here.”