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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Dans les steppes de la Mongolie intérieure, l’éclosion des yourtes

by Pierre Barbancey

Two Hundred Miles Away from the Beijing Olympics, Yurts Bloom across the Steppes of Inner Mongolia

Translated Thursday 21 August 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Environment: On the vast stretches of land scattered with those livestock-breeders’ tents, the animals will only have had half their fill after a full day’s grazing. Desertification is gaining ground. A report by our special correspondent.

The place is somewhere on the Silamu steppe in Inner Mongolia. The declining rays of the early evening sun bathe the scene in a mellow, honey-coloured light, the softening effect of which is all the more poignant as this is a country inured to the hard life. Two young beekeepers (whose ages do not add up to 15) are having a tiff by the roadside over the planting of a few flowers from which they no doubt hope bees will gather pollen. Adobe houses can be seen in the far distance. Life, real life at last, one might be tempted to think.

The wild beauty of the steppe, its deceptive uniformity, the grandeur of its vast expanses – all this has been violated so to speak by the plague of tourism. And tourism here means the yurt trade, the yurt being the Mongols’ traditional tent, for which the Chinese have a far more funny name: they call it “menggu bao”, which means “the Mongol bread roll” because the shape of this nomadic dwelling, a cylinder with a (nearly) pointed roof, reminds them of the steam-cooked bread rolls they are so keen on!

There are now as many yurts as you could wish for: they have literally mushroomed. And the result is a mix between Astérix’ s camp and the Schtroumpfs’ village, with cohorts of tourist-filled buses instead of Romans and Gargamelle. Tourists are the new Gengis Khan: wherever they tread, grass will never grow.

Our two little bee-keepers somehow guard an invisible door that is closed to those buses and tourists. Small mounds of earth, sand or stone will be seen at regular intervals along the roads. The Mongols call them aboao, “celestial graves”, the fruit of nomadism, the place where a body fell that was carried on an ox-drawn cart out on to the range. Not an implausible match for our Assumption [1] after all…

But to be fair, if the steppe grass is not as thick as it used to be, the reason is not those city-dwellers coming for a taste of the native life in a yurt. One mu (about the thirtieth part of an acre) now yields only 11 to 13 pounds of grass against the 66 pounds it yielded before. Not nearly enough to feed the livestock: after a day’s grazing the animals have had only half their fill. Desertification is gaining ground.

There are several reasons for this. Over-pasturing, of course, in a region of ancestral livestock breeding, but also global warming and declining rainfall. The figures speak for themselves: whereas Inner Mongolia represents the eighth part of China’s total area, Mongolia’s deserts and sandy areas make up a fourth of all of China. To remedy this, the authorities have imposed restrictions and even bans on livestock breeding. That also accounts for the tourism boom in this region, as Mongol shepherds are left with no income to speak of. But as is everywhere the rule, those that have grown rich on the local tourism are not natives of the region, but investors from other regions.

Anyway, it was in those whereabouts that we met with Sain Bayrer, a fifty-five-year-old man with a deeply furrowed face, broken veins on his high cheekbones, a long and tapering beard, and decidedly little hair left (he has passed the incipient stage of baldness). He does not speak much at first. He just stands in front of his house, the yurts being used as sheds now, or even guest-houses for a few bold visitors who won’t be put off by spiders and other insects not listed in my private encyclopaedia. His wife plays host and serves the famous Mongol tea, a tea with salt milk, usually sipped with some sort of small biscuits that look like white chocolate but are really made with slightly sweetened cheese.

One cup, two cups, three… the big Thermos is not empty yet. In the adjacent room the sound of a TV program about Olympic events can be heard intermittently: Beijing is not so far away - a ten-hour ride on the train. She gives her seat to her husband – a funny man, really, who stands blinking as he listens to you, and tells you nothing unless you worm it out of him. And so you learn that he has been looking after animals on the steppe ever since he left school at the age of fourteen. First oxen, then horses, then camels. “We used to live within a community,” he reminisces rather grudgingly. “Even if our yurts were far between, you had to work for the community, one way or another. At the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976, editor’s note), many Beijing intellectuals were sent here. For three years they stayed and looked after the animals. They were nice fellows, quite helpful.” Then in the eighties, after Mao’s death, “everybody got their own plots.” Clearly Sain Bayrer has not forgotten Mao Zedong. The portrait of the Great Helmsman — his face unperturbed — hangs in an adjacent room that serves as a dining-room when there are guests.

Goats, sheep, oxen, pigs, chickens: as late as last year livestock farming was forging ahead — until a government emissary came and warned that it was banned for ten years. “We’d been expecting that because other areas had been hit,” our man philosophically reflects as we go over to the table. “Sand is a real problem; the steppe has to be protected. We killed a few animals and gave over the rest to peasants in other areas who are allowed to breed stock.” Three hundred kilometres (186 miles) away, he specifies. The authorities did not let the breeders shift for themselves. Aid was handed out. “For the time being, our life has not changed much, but that can’t last for very long,” he predicts.

The meal is now over, washed down with swigs of rice and maize brandy. Outside the air is warm. The moon is nearly full and sheds a faint light over the steppe around. Then comes a startling sound. Then a kind of rumbling. Out there on the bank, a stone’s throw away, dozens and dozens of sheep are munching grass greedily: am I in the grip of delirium tremens or or is this a case of sheep-farming by moonlight, despite the ban? A smile lights up Sain Bayrer’s face: he strokes his beard with great pride…. It is definitely high time we went back to the yurt.

Translator’s note:

[1] Assumption Day, decreed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, falls on August 15, possibly the date at which the article was written. A fixed and important date in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar (and a public holiday in France), it celebrates the bodily "assumption" of Virgin Mary to heaven at the end of her lease on life in this world.

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