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The Sunday Times – The White Plague

Mongolia is in the grip of an ice age. The nomads who roam the steppe have watched their herds starve. Now they are dying of famine and disease. Is this the end of an age-old way of life? Report by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark. Photographs by Harriet Logan.

They say that no two snowflakes are ever the same – that a nomad who learnt to read the crystals that fell on his canvas tent could foresee the passage of an ice storm long before it pitched across the Mongolian plateau. But as the westerly galloped yet again into Zag on January 5, clattering along the frozen foothills of the Khangai Nuruu range, Barkhum, a 35-year-old herder, knew nothing except fear.

The Mongol families who first rode the mountain steppe 2,800 years ago once called the swirling columns of freshly fallen powder duche, or winter butterflies. Barkhum saw only snow. He had been caught out by the heavy falls that had begun six weeks early, on September 15, and now couldn’t tell when they would blow out. He was unable to distinguish the tiny, tree-like flakes that signalled colder weather was on its way from the hoary ice pellets that announced the approach of spring. He could barely remember the tales of the White Old Man of the Steppe, the spirit his ancestors believed dictated the weather, and protected the nomads and their herds.

As the wind galloped back into Zag, forcing the exhausted nomad out of his ger, or tent, for the second time that morning, all Barkhum was certain of was that he had only minutes to corral his few surviving animals before they were buried. Those who survived that day told later how visibility had been barely one metre, in a land called “Blue Sky”; where the sun usually shines 260 days a year and winter never lasts for more than 81 days.

One week later, the squall lifted long enough for Shatar, Barkhum’s neighbour, to discover how his friend had succumbed to the snow. They had met as children, in a time when Mongolia’s communist government had outlawed the legends of Genghis Khan. Together they had embraced the nomadic lifestyle when democracy came in 1990. They learnt to tether wild horses and ride with their animals across an inhospitable terrain, reviving a romantic history dating back 800 years, to when the Great Khan’s nomads controlled a third of the globe.

When Barkhum’s body was pulled from the ice, the elders of this remote village met to discuss the harshest winter in living memory and to talk in disbelief of the day that a nomad froze to death. Once, herders would have foreseen this storm, they said, and known how to survive it. Now Mongolia was a country without understanding or faith.

Before anyone could mourn Barkhum the west wind hit Zag on January 27, bringing with it another sickly snow-sky, and Shatar and his brother plunged back into the whiteness. Without a cash economy, all depend on their ability to keep their animals alive. Frozen and dried meat feed them in winter; dung fuels their stoves until spring; milk nourishes a family through the summer; fresh and dried cheese are traded for fodder, bridles and clothes. The herds are symbols of Mongolia’s reclaimed past and the herders’ new-found independence.

Like others in Zag, Shatar had been given his herd by Mongolia’s first elected government and he had named, nurtured and stabled their offspring inside his ger.

The brothers stumbled blindly, bare hands stuffed into the long, flared cuffs of their quilted robes, feet rammed into knee-high boots with curled toes, wolf-skin hats pulled down over their heads. Their cheeks slapped red-raw by the blizzard, they consoled themselves with the thought that winter’s end was in sight. It was now less than a month before Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian lunar New Year, when Zag’s 500 nomadic families would gather to celebrate the beginning of spring.

However, 400 miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator, the meteorological office was predicting disaster. Below the mountains it rarely snowed at all, but the scientists who had been monitoring the progress of the storm since September had charted record lows of -56C. They would later reveal that more snow fell on January 27 alone than in a typical Mongolian winter. Worse was to come.

Doctors estimate that by the time Shatar had found his stranded animals, he had burnt more than 3,000 calories, struggling against the wind and snow on an empty stomach. When he ordered his brother to return to the ger and boil up a pan of tea, his mind must already have been fogged by the extreme cold. “Go back, go back. I can manage on my own,” Shatar’s brother remembered him shouting above the storm, pushing him away. “I’ll see you very soon.” Slowed down by cramps in his muscles, chilled as the sweat began to freeze, his core body temperature would have dropped quickly from 98.6F towards the danger zone of 95F. As the minutes passed he would have become disoriented as his vital organs rapidly drew blood and heat away from his fingers, toes and face, turning his skin a mottled grey. By the time ice crystals began forming in his veins
Shatar’s core temperature had dropped to 90F.. It is said that a man dying in snow feels euphoric and may even believe that he has beaten the cold. However, Shatar would have finally succumbed to the storm when his body temperature slumped to 78F, the point where respiration ceases.

His uncle and brother found him two hours later, encircled by listless animals. They carried him back to Zag, the second victim of the worst freeze Mongolia has seen for more than 50 years. In a brief lull, Naramalla, his 16-year-old daughter, buried him in a Russian-built cemetery overlooking the village, beside a small headstone that marked where Barkhum was interred.

New Year came and went, and the snow-sky still hung over Zag and hundreds of other valleys like it. By the time we reached the village in April, the ice storm had isolated 45% of Mongolia’s population. Over one million people in 12 of its 18 provinces were trapped in a frozen slick. Over three million livestock had frozen or starved to death, and, where the snow had retreated, all that remained was a landscape of permafrost littered with carcasses ripe with infection. What had begun last year as a three-month cold spell had become an eight-month ice age, which the nomads called the davkhar dzud: an unprecedented multiple disaster of ice, famine, plague and disease.

The United Nations Disaster Management Team and Red Cross delegates who converged on Ulan Bator in February warned of a catastrophe. “Ice and snow have poured over so much of Mongolia that we feel we are living through another ice age and there is no sign of the situation improving. There is already widespread malnutrition and we are staring at the prospect of mass starvation,” said Rabdan Samdandobji, the secretary general of Mongolia’s Red Cross. “Will it just get colder? We don’t know. But for the first time in the country’s history there is panicked talk of the end of the nomads.”

Early this month, the impact of the disaster was still being analysed, but a Red Cross spokesman said the human death toll was rising sharply. “Untold millions of animals have starved or frozen to death, and aid agencies are dealing with tens of thousands of cases of extreme malnutrition. This month or next, the government will attempt a full census of the disaster, but what we know now is that the countryside, the lives of the nomads, have been decimated, torn apart.”

In Zag, where 100,000 animals had died and as many were missing, there were four new headstones in the Russian cemetery and three more in graveyards further east when we arrived. Four thousand families who had managed to dig themselves out of the ice had fled east to Ovorkhangai, a neighbouring province where it was rumoured that the snow had melted.

Inside a spartan ger, Naramalla, Shatar’s daughter, steeled herself. “The weather is turning against us but I don’t know why. We have no feeling for the land any more. I don’t want to live like this. It’s too hard, too cold. I don’t want the nomad’s life.”

Their ambition crushed beneath sheets of ice and valleys of snow, the young herders struggled to understand the catastrophe, while their elders warned about angry spirits. Mongolians had abandoned their monks, their faith and their beliefs during the long years of communism. Now, they said, the gods who had once protected the herds and the nomads, and made the valleys fertile, were seeking revenge.

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