National Geographic : 2003 Oct
day we're playing cards by the woodstove when son Davaanyam bursts into the ger. "Wolves are chasing the horses," he says. The herd was behind the hill last night, but he's spotted wolf tracks-"the size of a palm"-and the horses are nowhere to be seen. He was out looking for a couple of hours, but it's bitterly cold, and he decided he'd better suit up and eat something before he heads out to find them. They could be a half day's ride away by now. Davaanyam grabs a .22 rifle, and we saddle up our horses, which were tied up apart from the main herd. As we ride up the mountain behind the ger, I finally get a taste of how punishing this life can be. The wind is fierce and frigid, and my face goes from stung to numb in seconds. The terrain is steep and slowgoing in the slick snow, and I'm profoundly relieved when Davaanyam spots the horses clustered near the top of a dis tant ridge. We circle around and ride up the back side of the ridge so we don't scare them in the wrong direction, and there we find wolf tracks. Nyamhuu, the wrangler, grabs the rifle, and we take off on foot, my translator, Achit, and I huffing and puffing behind him. The tracks go around a rock outcropping and then double over our tracks. The wolves have been following us! But for some reason, it seems, they've thought better of it and disappeared. Nyamhuu keeps hoping to find them in his sights somewhere on the slopes, but he'll go home without a trophy, and no one's complaining: All 30 horses are pres ent and accounted for. We're lucky. "Every year a few horses get eaten," Davaanyam says. By the next day the weather has cleared, and Nyamhuu, Achit, Chinbat (our cook and resident card shark), and I decide that we need to head back to the Darhad. By the time the family moves to the winter camp, the weather might be too harsh for us to make the trip back over the mountains. I give the family a fistful of chemi cal hand and toe warmers for those 40-below January days when they've got to chase down errant horses, and we start riding back. As we weave through the snow-dusted can yons, Nyamhuu sings Mongolian folk songs and whistles with a warble that reminds me of a Native American flute. "My father was born here, I was too," he sings. "This land is my future...." A brawny 25-year-old with a wrestler's swagger and an easy laugh, Nyamhuu tells me he loved migrating as a kid. "The migration is a lot of 118 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2003 work, but it's also something to look forward to," he says. "Old people say when they migrate, it lifts their spirits." Nyamhuu met his wife migrat ing on this very route. But his nomadic days are over. The year he got married his parents gave them 30 cows, and that same year-the dzud winter of 1999-2000-half of them died. He de cided he had better options. Now he works as a wrangler for Boojum Expeditions, the American owned company handling logistics for Gordon, the photographer, and me. Nyamhuu is paid 25,000 tugriks a month-about $23-plus 2,500 tugriks for each day in the field. "In the coun tryside it's a big salary," he says. Herders make some cash in the fall selling meat and hides and in the spring selling cashmere from their goats, but they've got to make that last for a year's worth of flour, clothing, and other necessities. "There's no herder with a monthly salary like this."