Nomads of the Gobi Desert: Tradition on the move

January 2024


For millennia, the vast Gobi Desert has been home to semi-nomadic animal herders whose traditional lifestyle depends on their livestock and the land that sustains them. With the arrival and assimilation of modern technology to this remote and isolated part of the world, change, of course, is inevitable. 

As many families, in particular younger generations, move to urban areas in search of educational pursuits, professional development and a more stable income, those who choose to remain in the desert are taking advantage of at least some staple features of the modern world from beyond the Gobi. 

This series explores whether technological advances are contributing to the progressive decline of the culture and traditional way of life of the desert’s nomadic people, or whether they may be helping families remain in the desert as more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns threaten the sustainability of their pastoral lifestyle.

With small homes on wheels replacing, or supplementing, the traditional Mongolian ger – a round-shaped tent that’s ubiquitous with the Mongolian countryside – camels are no longer essential for transporting traditional Mongolian homes. Instead, four-wheel drive vehicles tow the mobile homes that have become more common in the desert in the last few years, making it easier to relocate with the change of seasons in search of better grazing. Motorbikes are an increasingly common form of transportation – faster, although arguably less reliable, than horses. Such changes herald a shift in the traditional role – and perhaps value – of camels and horses, animals that are integral to the cultural identity and lifestyle of nomadic herders. Solar panels and car batteries provide light instead of candles, and charge mobile phones and other devices.

While these modern influences present positive advances in making life a little easier in an exceptionally challenging environment, they also lead to an inevitable shift in culture and a decline in traditional practices. With greater access to communications enabling a more outward perspective, younger generations are increasingly choosing an alternative way of life, often far from the Gobi.

“I prefer all my children to stay in the countryside and keep the culture,” says mother of seven Odonchimeg who has lived in the desert her whole life. “But some of them don’t like it. They prefer the city life, maybe it’s more comfortable. When I was a little girl, I went to school in the local village and came home on weekends. I couldn’t wait for the weekend so I could come home, but nowadays children don’t feel the same. They want modern things.”