Celebrating yak culture to preserve tradition in Mongolia

 

Yaks have been integral to Mongolia’s nomadic herders for centuries. With the yak population in decline, officials in the province of Ovorkhangai have introduced an annual festival to help preserve and encourage the age-old tradition of yak herding, as well as to attract tourists to the area.

July 2022

 

Wearing a black leather jacket and a red bandana tied over her head, seventy-two-year-old Mongolian matriarch Badarch carries a portable speaker as she sets off on foot to round up her yaks. Stopping sporadically to dance to her favourite tune, Badarch’s yaks clearly know the drill.

The prehistoric looking animals walk sedately with their calves towards a pen set up next to Badarch’s ger – a round traditional Mongolian tent made of wood, animal skin and tarp. “I really like listening to music,” says Badarch, a widow and mother of five. “I have many tasks (as a herder) so I don’t have much free time to listen to music. When I’m walking to round up the yaks I have free time, so I listen to music then.”

Seventy-two-year-old mother of five Badarch plays music from a portable speaker while she rounds up her yaks on foot.
Badarch separates the calves to milk their mothers. If the yaks are agitated or angry, she sings to help them feel calm.

Badarch worked as a midwife for 25 years. In 2000, she retired and moved to the countryside to be close to her children who live nearby.

In the valley below the grassy hillside where Badarch and her family live, storm clouds gathered over the sum – village – of Khatgal, located next to Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia. The iconic lake is the country’s largest freshwater lake by volume and the second largest by size.

Horses trot along the shore of Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia on their way out to graze for the night. Like yaks, horses are central to the cultural identity of Mongolia’s nomadic animal herders.

Badarch's grandchildren (from left to right) Lkhagva-ochir, Ochirhuyag and Byambadulam sit inside their family ger located near Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia. Their parents are semi-nomadic herders and keep yaks, horses, sheep and goats.

In the mountainous regions of Mongolia, yaks have for centuries been integral to the livelihoods of nomadic herders who rely on the animals for their meat, milk, wool and as working animals to transport gers, fuel and water.

Yaks have evolved to survive in extremely harsh environments, thriving in higher altitudes, with their thick hide and dense wool making them highly resistant to cold weather.

Yak riders prepare to take part in the festival's events, which include yak racing, roping, riding untrained yaks, a yak beauty contest, and the much-anticipated game of yak polo.

With the rise of migration from rural areas to urban centers contributing to a decline in the country’s yak population, officials in the province of Ovorkhangai, one of Mongolia’s twenty aimags – provinces – have introduced an annual yak festival in an effort to promote the tradition of yak farming as well as to attract tourists to the area.

A rider pushes a herd of yaks towards the festival grounds near the soum of Bat-Ulzii in the Orkhon Valley.

In July 2022, I travelled to the Orkhon Valley in central Mongolia and the sum – village – of Bat Ulzii where the yak festival is held each July. The Orkhon Valley is well-known as an area of outstanding natural beauty, rich in cultural, religious and political history.

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, the valley has been home to nomadic people for thousands of years who have lived in harmony with the environment and the animals it sustains.

Yaks and horses graze in open grassland as a storm approaches in the Orkhon Valley.

The Orkhon Valley is located in Ovorkhangai province, the only province in the country to organize an annual yak festival. In July 2022, the province hosted the fourth of its kind.

A yak and rider near the finish line after a 4 kilometer race, one of the events of a yak festival near the village of Bat-ulzii in the Orkhon Valley of Mongolia. A horse rider follows to encourage the yak to keep going as rain pours.

The festival has several events, including a four-kilometer-long yak race, roping, riding untrained yaks, a somewhat surreal yak beauty contest, and traditional Mongolian wrestling. However, the main attraction is the cheerful and comedic game of yak polo.

Yaks are not the quickest or most nimble of creatures, making for an unusual and entertaining game of polo.

The crowds cheered every time someone was thrown off a yak, which happened often.

With just a piece of the yak’s mane to hold onto, those brave enough to ride untrained yaks didn’t manage to stay on for very long.

“People forget how to catch yaks, ride them, lasso them,” the event’s organizers said. “They forget the culture, so we would like to maintain it.” The festival was introduced to preserve and encourage that culture.

A Mongolian girl helps round up the yaks.

A man dressed in a deel – an item of traditional Mongolian clothing – prepares to take part in the yak roping competition during the yak festival in the Orkhon River Valley.

Mongolian men take part in a wrestling competition during the yak festival. Traditional Mongolian wresting is a popular sport in Mongolia, with competitions held across the country during festivals.

Participants show off their traditional clothes as well as their yaks during the beauty contest.

Although the day started off with some sunshine, the clouds looming over the surrounding hills were a clear indicator of the impending storm. By late morning, summer had turned to winter and the storm brought a heavy downpour and gale force winds that blew the stadium tents down. With most of the main events yet to take place, officials told us they would have to cancel. Luckily, the storm passed quickly and the sun reappeared for a few hours before the next storm.

Traditional herding family Tomoo and his wife Otgon-jargal stand outside their family’s ger near the sum of Bat-Ulzii in the Orkhon Valley. The family keeps around 100 animals in total including yaks, horses, sheep and goats.

Thirty-nine-year-old Tomoo sits with his favorite horse outside his home in the Orkhon Valley near the sum of Bat Ulzi. The family attended the yak festival which is held a few kilometers from where they live. “I really like to see the yak festival,” said Tomoo. “I prefer yak festival to Naadam (a traditional festival celebrated across Mongolia that has three events: horse racing, archery and wrestling) because it’s very rare. My favourite was the polo – it was very funny when they fell down.”

Ten-year-old Saran-davaa rides a horse outside her family's ger in the Orkhon Valley of Mongolia.

Saran-davaa’s mother Orgon-jargal, 37, makes yak vodka to sell in the nearby village.

Traditional Mongolian gers near the festival grounds.