For These Nomadic Peoples, Life is Synonymous with Animals

Jess and Greg Stone are travellers that recently made the news. This Canadian couple embarked on a global journey on two bikes, accompanied by their six-year-old German shepherd, Moxie. What sets them apart is their daring choice to undertake extensive travel with a furry companion, a feat rife with challenges. Questions arise: How do they maintain a consistent routine for their pet? Where do they find veterinary care? What about the added expenses?

However, many nomadic societies have seamlessly incorporated animals into their lifestyles for generations. For these nomadic people, the question would be: "Is it possible to live a nomadic life without these animals?" as opposed to "How to live a nomadic life with animals?"

Here are three nomadic communities and their beautifully entwined lives with their animal companions. From their lives, there's much to glean, plenty to inspire, and ample food for thought.

1. Tibetan Nomads and Yaks

Summer Pasture (2010) is a touching documentary featuring Locho and Yama, a duo living in the high grasslands of eastern Tibet. They lead a nomadic lifestyle as herders, a tradition that has remained largely unchanged for over 4,000 years.

In the film, Yama, 27, is seen gathering yak dung each morning and spreading it out to dry. This dried dung is later utilised to fuel the winter fire — one of the many practical uses of yak by-products.

Yama is aware that city dwellers often stereotype Tibetan nomads as "smelly yak-dung nomads." Yet, she seems more amused than offended by this label. It's understandable, given how reductive this image is. Perhaps she realises they'll never understand the kind of bonds that can thrive between humans and animals.

Until recently, Tibet's Drokpa, or nomads, made up an estimated 25 to 40 per cent of the Tibetan population. Drokpa translates to "people of the solitudes," and they are indeed a mountainous people, tending to livestock across expansive high-altitude pastures. Tibetan yaks are revered as a prized possession and lifeline among the Drokpas. Traditionally, these sturdy animals have served as a means of transportation across Tibet.

And that’s not it. It's downright inspiring to witness the rugged resilience of Tibetan nomads, as they put every part of the yak to use — a profound lesson in sustainability.

The yak's fur, known as kullu, can withstand the harshest weather conditions. It is, then, no surprise that black yak hair is a primary material for constructing Drokpa homes — four- or eight-sided tents.

Yak dairy, including milk and butter, is commonly used to prepare Po Cha, known as Tibetan butter tea. Yak meat is a beloved Tibetan delicacy, prized for its rich nutritional value and tender, succulent texture. Yak hides make boots, bags, and leather accessories, the bones are used in tent construction, tails double up as brooms in some households, while hearts and intestines are used in traditional medicine.

In the documentary mentioned earlier, Locho expresses his love for his work and starts his day at four in the morning. “Nothing is better than animals," he remarks, despite the occasional challenge of retrieving wandering yaks. However, he mourns the increasing trend of nomads selling their herds and relocating to cities.

This shift has been largely instigated by government-driven relocation programs. Consequently, a chunk of the Tibetan nomadic community now has televisions and fridges for much of the year. However, seasonal yak migration remains crucial to the nomad life. After all, staying in winter fields would deplete food sources, and summer pastures bear medicinal flowers vital for the Tibetan yaks’ health.

So when summer arrives, many return to the ancestral lands of their forebears. At least for now.

2. Mongolian Nomads and Horses

Crafted from horse skin, the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle, is more than just a musical instrument in Mongolia. It stands as a cultural emblem of liberation and heritage.

In the expansive Mongolian wilderness, the resonant notes of this instrument keep the nomadic people company. To these wanderers, horses are more than just animals — they are beloved companions whose loyalty transcends even death.

Mongolia, often dubbed the land of horses, holds these animals in central regard in daily life — a tradition spanning millennia. Among all equines, takhi, the wild horses that once roamed the vast Eurasian steppe, are especially significant. In Mongolian, takhi translates to "spirit" or "spiritual." While the takhi faced extinction in the wild by the late 1960s, various programs have reintroduced these majestic creatures to the Mongolian steppe and the Gobi Desert.

 “It is not possible to imagine Mongolian history without horses,” says J. Tserendeleg, president of the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment. “I think it is not possible to view the future of Mongolia without horses as well. Mongolia is not Mongolia without horses.”

Horses hold such paramount importance to Mongolia’s national identity that the country's ceremonial banner is crafted from horsetail hair. Alongside the wild takhi, Mongolia has its own native breed, believed to have retained its original traits since the time of Genghis Khan — short, sturdy, swift, and with a long tail and mane.

Mongolian nomads are hailed as the world's best equestrians. Children as young as three learn to handle horses, a common sight in the Gobi Desert, where tiny figures clad in traditional deels lead animals by harness and rope. In fact, herder families not only breed and race horses but also regard them as kin.

Interpret this as you see fit, but Genghis Khan owes much of his legacy to the humble Mongolian horses: in the 13th century, his Mongol Empire, powered by these horses, conquered vast swathes of Asia and Eastern Europe.

Today, while the pastoral lands on the Mongolian Plateau diminish, Mongolian horse culture persists like an unstoppable river. Beyond the capital Ulaanbaatar, horses remain an important mode of transportation in Mongolia. Highly prized for their milk, meat, and hair, mares are milked up to six times daily during the summer months. Families also use horse milk to produce airag, a mildly alcoholic beverage fermented from horse milk.

At the Nadam Fair, a cherished annual event for Mongolians, horse racing is one of the "three manly games," alongside wrestling and archery, and it always steals the spotlight. Seeing numerous Mongolian horses and riders galloping through a pasture is to witness the ancient bond between them in action.

3. Sami Reindeer Herders

Reindeer are vital to the Sami way of life. In fact, many Sami nomads attend a specialised university to learn how to care for them, much like we study Maths or English.

The reindeer migration is a tradition dating back thousands of years among the Sami, an indigenous population of around 80,000. They reside in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, collectively known as Lapland. This nomadic community traces its heritage back to the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 years ago.

Before the 17th century, Sami reindeer herders primarily relied on the animal for clothing and sustenance, keeping a few tame ones for transportation. However, significant changes occurred as nations aimed to integrate the Sami into their populations. Taxes were imposed, payable in reindeer hides and meat, leading to the development of reindeer herding among the Sami nomads.

This might explain why it's considered extremely impolite to inquire about the size of their reindeer herds. To them, it would be akin to asking about the balance in your bank account.

Many Sami herders still rely on selling reindeer for their livelihoods. They endure months of moving their herds in freezing, often sub-zero temperatures, and shelter in lavvus, traditional structures made from spruce wood poles and reindeer hides.

Similar to Tibetan nomads, the Sami people have always made use of every part of the reindeer. They even incorporate the animal's blood into various foods, including pancakes, dumplings, and blood sausages.

Sadly, the cherished bond between the Sami nomads and reindeer, also faces threats. Rapidly fluctuating climate conditions, such as changes in snow consistency, are already yielding dire consequences. Instead of the soft, fluffy snow that reindeer can easily dig through, these shifts result in hardened layers of snow and ice. Struggling to penetrate this surface, reindeer are forced to venture farther in search of food, drawing their herders along with them.

Besides, the ancestral lands of the Sami people are increasingly affected by industrial activities such as logging and mining, which pose threats to their traditional way of life. Many reindeer herders rely on forests for their deer to graze, further exacerbating the impact. 

In response, the Sami actively engage in political advocacy to safeguard their homeland and its biodiversity, as well as their livelihoods. Without adequate protection, the invaluable ecological knowledge, reindeer herding practices, and nomadic lifestyle of the Sami people risk being lost forever.

Common Threads Across Nomadic Lifeways

We've just taken a peek into the lives of three distinct nomadic communities from diverse regions — Scandinavia, the Tibetan Plateau, and East Asia. What's striking is the common theme:

  • Nomads cherish their animal companions; they're essential to the nomads’ life.
  • Unsustainable industries threaten their sustainable lifestyles.
  • Resilience and adaptability keep their unique bond with animals alive.

These nomads defy norms day and night, pushing against the current of what's typical and necessary for survival in an ever-modernising world. 

As long as these communities, and their timeless ways of living endure, our well of inspiration remains endless.