All the services that had regularly distributed produce through the state suddenly came to a halt. In the late autumn of , my friend found that she was without winter boots, something everyone had previously been able to purchase from the state-run shop. Her mother took out an old pair of Buriad antelope- skin boots which had been given to her on her wedding day by her own mother. Slowly and carefully she took them apart to see how they were made.
She then made an exact replica for her daughter, being careful to decorate the heels with the same pattern as her mother had done. When I first visited this area in , I was told that the early s had been incred- ibly difficult. Some households had gone without adequate food and clothing. In response to this great change, many families formed their own herd- ing groups, often based around the animals they acquired through redistri- bution from the co-operative.
They moved out to the pasturelands, with men claiming winter encampments where their parents had herded. In order to secure a means of subsistence, most people in Ashinga are now herders.
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They move, sometimes up to four times a year, with their cattle, sheep, goats, and horses, which make up the main livestock in the area. This household-based subsistence economy is, therefore, something that has emerged out of the economic and political shifts that began in the early s. Increasingly, some people are turning not just to herding as a form of survival, but as a strategic choice to ensure they raise the means by which their children can achieve a different kind of life.
For instance, many people in their forties and fifties continue to herd livestock in order to acquire the means to pay for education and goods such as flats and cars that will offer a different kind of future for their children. Despite this emerging diversity, the district centre still provides the main administrative facilities for those who live in the district.
The government building, stadium, post office, cultural centre, and petrol station are all still located here. In addition, two local businessmen have acquired the pre- viously state-run sawmills.
It is the continued although by no means con- stant activity of the local sawmills that has generated limited opportunities for employment in the area. While government salaries are infrequent and 4 The ability to pay university fees, for instance, is often generated by selling dairy products, such as dried curds and cream. School and university graduations are huge occasions, with different relatives donating money for outfits, feasts, hair-extensions, make-up, shoes, etc.
The graduation and the photographs taken during these events conceal the fact that most gradu- ates will be hard pressed to secure a job as a result of this education.
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Several young female entrepreneurs, who procure goods from the provincial capital, have also opened a variety of shops and kiosks. Many local people acquire goods from these shops through a credit system, whereby the name of the person and the product they take is noted by the seller. The entry is deleted when the person brings something to the kiosk owner in exchange for the products they have taken. Sometimes, money is exchanged.
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Pension books are often taken as a form of security and returned once the pension has arrived. Forms of barter are also common, especially with high inflation in the cost of everyday goods. Produce, such as meat, dairy products, skins, pine nuts, and berries from the surrounding countryside, is frequently exchanged at district centre kiosks for sunflower oil, cigarettes, vodka, sugar, flour, soda, school textbooks, and other items brought to the district from markets around the country. Herding families may also exchange produce such as cream or butter with others in return for favours or the use of some crucial equipment.
Barter of this kinds tends to occur between people who know each other well, not least because the exchange of goods is often delayed. Animal parts, such as antlers, are then sourced by middlemen who sell them to city traders for medicinal purposes in China and Korea.
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The district centre is essentially an in-between place—it is neither a town nor is it truly the countryside. It has the feel, at least initially, of a for- gotten remnant of an unfinished Soviet project. Humphrey 7 on Soviet Russia. This was a derogatory term used during the socialist period for a person who sold privately owned goods, outside of the co-operative. But slowly, as the district centre begins to remake itself as a place on its own terms, this sense of stasis is changing. For those who live here, wealth and status is immediately visible in the clothes one wears, the wooden house one builds, and the political networks one is able to sustain.
When leaving their houses, for example, people spend a substantial amount of time getting dressed and making sure that they look presentable, for appearances are everything. Equally, when visiting a neighbour, one must go with news of some kind so as to appear to have a purpose. Location in a household Before Bataa left for Ulaanbaatar, he made sure I was safely housed in the one-roomed family home of a man named Bat-Ochir, who was one of the local sawmill owners as well as being a wealthy herder.
There had been some debate about where and with whom I should stay. It was only later that I came to realize that this recommendation was highly political and a mani- festation of the kinds of favours that were exchanged between people who held power in the district centre. Bat-Ochir was a dedicated and successful herder and because of this, he did not usually live in the district centre. This year was to be the first winter the family had spent there since his wife had left her job as a primary school teacher in the late s.
They had to be in the district centre this year because they needed to oversee the construction of three large wooden houses which had been commissioned by wealthy clients in the city. They had hired local people to build the houses using machinery acquired when the local sawmill collapsed in the early s. Their young son was to attend kindergarten for the first time, and their daughter, who normally stayed with relatives in the district during term time, would be living with us too.
Like me, they were nervous about staying there. But we had different reasons for feeling apprehensive. Arson attacks in the district centre had been happening for three years before I arrived in Ashinga in By , a total of fifty-five buildings had been targeted. Speculation as to the possible cause of the attacks was varied, but the response was uniform: people sought to avoid any form of confrontation or direct accusation that might spark jealousy and anger in the form of arson. During this first period of my fieldwork, I stayed in the district centre with Bat-Ochir for just over six months.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, I learnt, the Buriad had felt marginalized by the Mongolian state Buyandelgeriyn ; Empson a. During this period I also got to know the local diviner, Burgaasnii Oyunaa lit. It was the shaman and diviner who told me that, because of the persistent threat of arson, people were keen to avoid public disputes of any kind. Increasingly, people I met outside the house began to comment about the family I was living with and what this must mean for me.
They would ask me questions about them and their activities. At the house, the family were similarly curious about my movements. They wanted to know who I was visiting and what had been talked about during my visits, but they rarely introduced me to anyone. Instead, I had to make my own connections while they deliberately kept themselves away from people and got on with managing the construction of their wooden houses and increasing their herds.
At the same time, I also acted as a mirror. By asking how people had received me, they were able to gauge how people in the district were viewing and per- ceiving them. In this sense, I was an active extension of who they were. After the Lunar NewYear celebrations, I began to realize that by basing myself within this family, my ability to move among different people was severely restricted and that I must try to find another host family.
My close friend Tsendmaa, a young married woman of my own age who lived on and off in the district centre, helped me to leave. She suggested that I stay with her in-laws in the countryside. One evening, her husband met me at the gate of our house to negotiate the logistics of my move. It felt dramatic and I was warned that the situation would have to be handled delicately. Moving to a different household could be interpreted as my wish to sever links with Bat-Ochir and his family and as my rejection of them as people.
In fact, when I had raised the issue with Bat-Ochir a few weeks earlier, he became extremely agitated and concerned about what other people might think of him if I did leave. Before I left, we agreed that I would stay with Bat-Ochir and his family again in the summer, once they had returned to the countryside. Their winter pasture was located on the edge of the deep taiga forest, with a small stream nearby and large mountains behind.
The wooden cabin, which consisted of one room with a fire in the centre, was messy and chaotic. Visitors were frequent and there were many guns and large knives lying around. At night, the dogs would bark at the wolves while the wind made shuddering sounds as it wound itself around our house. Every morning, I would jump on to a horse and, pulling a small cart with a metal container attached, would ride across the steppe and down through the bare shrubs to a stream where I was taught how to break the ice so that I could collect our water for the day. I also worked with the other women, milking cattle and feeding them with the hay that had been collected in the late summer.
I helped with sewing boots and gloves for sale, preparing food, and making sure that tea was always available for visitors and hunters as they returned from the forests. Figure I. When sober, he could carve almost anything from wood and was an excellent hunter and storyteller.