Moving yaks, sheep, and goats to a summer settlement location, Kok qiya, Bayan-Ölgii
In rural Mongolia, sounds and soundscapes that help mobile pastoralists evaluate, communicate, organize, and mobilize are impacted by two especially strong forces: climate change and new economic practices. Climate change has brought drought, flooding, periods of heavy snow and ice, and generally unpredictable weather patterns, and this has been especially difficult among people whose success depends upon lifeways linked over time to the regularity of the seasons. At the same time, new trade networks have been established to improve economic opportunities for urban Mongolians and their Chinese and Russian neighbors, but the outcomes of these relationships often diminish the effectiveness of herders’ sustainable grassland management, and this contributes to land degradation.
This soundscape-focused essay highlights the sounds that mobile pastoralists value, especially sounds of winds, water, livestock, and landscapes. Traveling to different regions in Mongolia between 2004 and 2018, with a particular focus on the westernmost province of Bayan-Ölgii, I have explored music and other sound practices largely with rural herders who move seasonally with their livestock to grazing sites in the spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The sounds, images, and narrative information in this piece, in which I have chosen to anonymize my research participants, highlight some of the soundscapes and sonic practices that herders shared with me and that I was able to hear in various locations. I experienced many different acoustic communities where sound is animated in social relationships among human and nonhuman actors. My discussions with herders who regularly connect to essential resources and vital life practices with sound shows that their sonic practices play a significant role in maintaining and supporting both human and ecological well-being.
(for the optimal listening experience, please wear headphones)
Camels in Dundgov’ province, 2017
The wind—its strength, character, sound, and impact—may be Mongolia’s most distinguishing feature. Herders talk about different kinds of winds, some are soothing and others destructive, sending fear through a community of people and their livestock. Wind is not only a meteorological event, but for pastoralists it generates meaningful sound.
One herder in the western Altai Mountains talked to me about how much he likes the sound of the wind, especially as it blows through the coniferous trees in the nearby forest. Every species of tree makes a different sound, he said, and its timbre changes in each season. The sounds are different in autumn because the needles have dropped, in winter they are frozen, and in spring new needles are growing. He noted that such forest sounds are even finer when accompanied by birds that sing while sitting deep in the branches of the trees. If sounds like these are gone, he said, there is no life. Sound is a sign of life, it is life.
A sound signal for herders in the mountain regions of the western provinces is the sound of winds whistling and roaring down rocky mountain passes. Some herders spoke to me about the fear of an oncoming storm that such wind-generated sounds predict. In grasslands, swirling spring winds can displace the soil, making it impossible for enough grasses to grow and provide nourishment for herders’ livestock. A community may lose many animals when high winds continue for weeks on end. I experienced this in 2018 when swirling winds and blowing soil continued without stop from February until early June causing herders to lose large numbers of yaks and reducing the number of foals their mares produced.
Brook near an encampment at Zhalghyz aghash, Bayan Ölgii, 2018
Water is life giving. And Mongolian herders make decisions about their seasonal settlements based on access to water. Their daily water sources range from lakes and rivers to a flowing brook or small stream. In mountainous regions the sources are fed by melting snow. Whenever I stay with herders settled for the summer near a running brook, I am fascinated by the complex soundscape that accompanies their daily lives. This includes the sound of running water along with the wind, the sounds made by their animals, and the vocalizations family members use to communicate with their livestock. The continuous sound of water reminds herders of their good fortune . The water is readily available for their animals and for the family’s use, while many herders have to walk long distances to fetch water daily.
Throughout Mongolia, water security is a serious issue. In some areas mining industries affect the quality and amount of water available for local herders. In others, drought conditions impact the amount of rain and snow, and thus of water, and this has caused lakes and streams to shrink and even disappear. Seasonal settlement locations, even those that have been in families for generations, have become unusable.
I walked to fetch water with the young son of a family I was staying with in the Tövshin Lake region near the Chinese border. We stopped periodically in the rocky terrain to listen but didn’t hear running water as we expected to. Arriving at the usual water gathering site, the small stream they relied on was dry. We had to walk much farther to find water and carry it back to their encampment. Later, standing in front of the family yurt, with the wind blowing around us, the boy’s father pointed to an expanse of land a short distance away and said his family was once settled just a short walk from the huge lake that I could not see. He recalled the bird songs and the beautiful flowers nearby that also inspired him to write songs about this place. Then, one year they arrived at their family summer grazing site with their livestock to find that the lake was gone; it had dried up. When I returned to visit the family at that site a few years later, they too were gone. Their search for another suitable settlement site took them to a different province, then they left Mongolia for Kazakhstan, leaving behind the herding life they had built, their ecological knowledge they contributed to their community, and the sounds and soundscapes they valued and shared.
The site for Tövshin Lake, Bayan Ölgii province, 2007
Herders make sounds to communicate with their livestock and to influence animal behavior. The bonds between domestic animals and pastoralists are reinforced through sensory experience, especially sound and touch. They talk about how specific sounds can be used to calm livestock while milking and guide their herds in grazing land. A woman milking a sheep, yak, or horse may lean in, placing her head close to the animal’s side. When she vocalizes or sings in such a setting she establishes an interspecies relationship that is both tactile and acoustic; specific sounds and songs are believed to play a role in calming animals and helping milk to flow. Near their yurts or in grazing fields herders are tuned in to sounds their animals make; their cries may warn of weather changes, approaching wolves, health issues in the herd, or identify their location in grazing lands. Herders listen carefully at the end of a day for lost lambs and kids, they delight in the sounds of horses and their different gaits, and they talk about their enjoyment in hearing sounds of wildlife such as wild mountain sheep, deer, and rare birds.
Horses in Dundgovi province, 2017
Horses are highly valued as a herder’s source for transport and a companion while herding or traveling. Many herders still sing while riding; it is not unusual to hear songs echoing from rocks or across the steppes as riders travel or tend their animals, the horse’s gait is often tied to the rhythm of their song. Communication between herders and horses includes gestures horses make before riding and sounds such as vocal directions provided while riding and action-related sounds used while moving a herd.
Lambs and kids reconnecting at Oiqadaghai near Dayan lake, Bayan Ölgii, 2007
A great deal of care goes into the management of sheep and goats that for herders are sources for milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, meat; and the wool and leather is used for felt and rugs, decorative rope, clothing, and storage vessels, Cashmere goats provide cash used for material goods (such as technology) and for their children’s education. In the process of managing herds, a family separates the lambs and kids from their mothers for milking. Children often take part in gathering the young, and then are there to release them all at once to find their mothers to suckle. I was surprised to find that my own response to the collective sounds of lambs, kids, sheep, and goats, as the young search for and then successfully finds their mothers is actually not shared by many herders. This daily practice is so routine that some herders say they do not even hear it.
Milking a mare for Kazakh qymyz (fermented mare’s milk), Tolbo, Bayan Ölgii, 2013
Fermented mare’s milk is a widely enjoyed social drink in Mongolia. The production of this highly valued seasonal product involves gathering mares and foals and using vocalizations (in styles passed in families) while milking that is believed to contribute to the flow of the mare’s milk. Whole families are often involved in the complex process of collecting animals, tying them, keeping mares and foals together, milking, and vocalizing. The milk is then brought to a vessel in a yurt. Among Kazakhs it is expected that each person who enters the yurt will take a turn in stirring the milk as it is fermenting; the sound of hard churning and the movement of the milk in the vessel becomes a backdrop to conversations during this season. Sharing this slightly alcoholic drink among neighbors during the summers offers opportunities for friends to pass along news. When the weather is too dry, or the winds blow away the topsoil leaving poor grazing land, mares produce few foals and there is little fermented mares’ milk for people to share. One of the most critical impacts of this absence is on the sharing of news and knowledge among neighbors—these days often related to climate change issues and its effects on local herding.
Tuvan herder at Tavan Bogd, Bayan Ölgii, 2011
Engaging with landscapes using sound, herders express their relationship to place. Such activities indicate what is customary and ordinary and what signals change for herders. Musical forms are sometimes directly connected to soundscapes, and herders’ instrumental tunes sometimes imitate the sounds of horses, the calls of a bird, or the sound of water. Enbek, a local end-blown flute (sybyzghy) player, spent his youth and young adult life as a herder in a region near the well-known mountain range called Tavan Bogd before moving to the small city of Ölgii. Part of a national park established in 2000, much of the land to the east, north and south of Tavan Bogd is grazing land used by Tuvan, Kazakh, and Uriankhai herders for spring, summer, and some winter settlements. When Enbek performs on his flute (sybyzghy) he sings a vocal drone and plays the melody. His composition that he calls “Besbogda”—the Kazakh name for Tavan Bogd—describes the landscape: the waves on its rivers, different kinds of birds, and the sounds created by the wind. His music creates a sound image of the place. Enbek said that in his piece, all sounds sing together. In recent years, the tourism industry centered in the Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar has changed the soundscape in this region as jeeps, land rovers, and motorcycles in increasing numbers travel along the unpaved roadways past grazing lands carrying Mongolian and international tourists to the mountain region.
Tall grasses at an encampment at Qyzyl töbe, Ulaanhuus, Bayan Ölgii, 2018
One musician told me that when he plays “Qur oinaq” (playful birds) on the two-stringed long-necked lute dombyra, the melody expresses the movement of the small birds he often sees in the tall grasses in Ulaankhuus where he lives. When he plays, he is reminded of how they fly above and through the grasses and interact with one another.
Herders’ engagement with birds and other wildlife reinforces their relationship to the land, including their attunement to changes that are both anticipated (such as seasonal changes) and feared (such as a sudden storm).
Near Dayan Lake, Bayan Ölgii, 2017
Soundscapes characterize place. A soundscape at dawn—a dawn chorus—offers significant information on biodiversity in a specific location. It can also record evidence of interspecies relationships. This was clear to me when I recorded a dawn soundscape at the edge of a forest and a short walk from a herder encampment. Different segments of this long recording illustrate relationships between birds, the intermingling of wildlife and domestic animals, as well as the combination of human and nonhuman sources of sound. The recording features the sounds of many black kites (that tend to hang around rural and urban areas populated with people), wagtails and many other birds that are common in the forests and grasslands, yaks that belong to the families settled nearby offer a low rumble throughout, and sounds of sheep and horses that are closer to the encampment enter the soundscape briefly. These sounds in an early morning characterize this herding encampment’s acoustic community.
Rock formations near settlements in Dundgov’, 2017
An early morning soundscape in Dundgov’ in south central Mongolia, closer to Ulaanbaatar and to the mining operations close to the Chinese border, similarly captures the characteristics of the land, but in a desert steppe setting. When herders discuss their soundscapes, the specific birds they referenced not only play roles in communicating seasonal changes, and even warning about a coming storm, the collection of sounds characterize their homeland. When the soundscape changes with the introduction of new sounds (of new insects or the intrusion of machinery) or due to the absence of sounds (of specific species of birds or other wildlife), herders not only express discomfort, but share their sense of loss. What began as a recording of a dawn chorus in this location became an acoustic record of what herders expressed to me as an intrusion of industry on their pastoral lives. The new corridors increasingly crisscrossing grazing lands, such as roads, railways, and flight paths, impact how herders manage their livestock and how wildlife chooses to move, and they affect the sense of well-being for human and nonhuman actors.
It is difficult to know what future soundscapes will like be for Mongolian pastoralists. Not only should we be concerned about events, activities, and sounds that impact the health of resources, such as plants and animals, but also about loss of specific sounds and soundscapes, including the sounds of communities of herders and their domestic animals along with the wildlife around them that together have contributed to the well-being of land and lifeways for generations. One herder said to me as we talked about sound and nature and its importance in his community’s life:
We can’t live without nature.
We need all of it—air, water, wind.
We can’t live without water; it is the main part of our herding lives.
All photographs were taken by Jennifer C. Post.
My recordings were made at various rural sites and under varied conditions. My travel to remote locations was always by Russian jeep, and the degree of dust and displacement sometimes damaged my recorder (and camera equipment). In one incident our jeep was nearly entirely submerged as we attempted to cross the wide and overflowing White River near Tavan Bogd in the Altai Mountains. I was carried across while my traveling companion remained in the sinking jeep holding up my recording equipment to keep it safe until someone came by horseback to rescue him. I learned to travel with as little equipment as I could get away with. Some recordings in this piece were made on a Tascam (DR-100) with external Sony or Sennheiser mics, while others were made using a Sony or Rode shotgun mic attached to my Sony video camera.
For additional information on sound, music, and the effects of environmental change on western Mongolian herders, see the following publications by Jennifer C. Post: “Ecology, Mobility and Music in Western Mongolia.” In Performing Environmentalisms: Expressive Culture and Ecological Change, J. H. McDowell et al., eds. University of Illinois Press, 2021; “21st Century Trading Routes in Mongolia: Changing Pastoral Soundscapes and Lifeways.” In Silk Roads: From Local Realities to Global Narratives, J. D. Lerner and Y. Shi, eds., 177-196. Oxbow Books, 2020; “Songs, Settings, Sociality: Biodiversity and Wellbeing in the Altai Sayan Ecoregion of Mongolia.” Journal of Ethnobiology 39(2019): 371-91; “Climate Change, Mobile Pastoralism and Cultural Heritage in Western Mongolia.” Cultural Sustainability: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy, T. Cooley, ed., 75-86. University of Illinois Press, 2019.