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 outlines his career aspirations while playing near a rocky stream 50 metres (164 feet) from a small ger, the traditional Mongolian tent he calls home.
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, shifting location with the seasons. And for generations, Octonbaatar’s family has relied on the small stream that now serves as his son’s playground.
He and his wife, Chuluunchimeg, 30, and their three children move to this quiet corner of the valley each autumn for the long grass to feed their horses and yak and the steady flow of water in their private creek.
But for the third year running, the stream has slowed to a trickle while the hills, once vibrant and healthy, are now barren and lifeless.
“We don’t have green summers anymore”, Octonbaatar wistfully tells Al Jazeera. “And there is less water here than last year.”
He points towards a distant hilltop, lightly dusted in greying, barely-visible snow.
“[The mountain] used to be snow-capped all year round. But it has been melting,” Octonbaatar added.
Abandoning 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.
For Tsaikhir locals, the dramatic transformation of their landscape has taken place within only a single generation.
Bayarkhuu is a 32-year-old herder based in the valley.
Al Jazeera spoke to him at the end of a local horse-wrangling competition, in which Bayarkhuu was victorious.
He remembers a childhood rich in greenery.
“We used to have grass to our knees”, he said, recounting his childhood while looking out over the now brown landscape.
Although the summer droughts are the most obvious sign of climate degradation in the Tsaikhir, it is in the depths of winter that the cultural ramifications of climate change are most felt.
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.
For five months, three young men nominated by the Tsaikhir community will watch over the horses.
The men camp alongside the animals in the harsh conditions, often firing warning shots at the hungry wolves that opportunistically follow the herd.
Protecting the winter herd may be risky and a potentially dangerous coming-of-age ritual, but it is also an honourable tradition and one the young men who seek a future in the valley aspire to participate in.
The only son among five children, 18-year-old Shwara left school at 14 to pursue a nomadic life. He has long hoped to be honoured with the protection of 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.”
But the changing climate means Shwara might never get 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.
Because the droughts have so damaged the grass cover, there is not enough undergrowth to sustainably feed the herd during the winter. Recognising this, in 2019, Batsehen and other community leaders made the difficult decision to cancel the winter herd for the first time in memory, fearing that if they went ahead with the tradition, they might irreparably damage what remained of their grasslands.
They have been unable to hold it since and families have been left to protect their horses on their own throughout winter, with often 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.
As border trade has slowed, a domestic glut of these products has lowered prices, reducing incomes in the 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.
Even more exotic exports have been smashed by the ruptures in trade with China and Russia.
Bahktur and his neighbours used to collect the antlers of deer, which the animals drop each season. Before China closed its borders, Bakhtur would gather the antlers and sell them to traders bound for China, where they are used in traditional medicines.
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.
As the people of the Tsaikhir fear for its future, they are finding solace in the spiritual protection they believe their valley enjoys.
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.
Most local gers have shrines to the monks, who Tsaikhir families believe continue to provide good luck and protection from whatever their valley might throw at them.
“Once, someone brought a snake to Tsaikhir, but it got sick”, laughed Governor Batsehen. “We are protected from the snakes here.”