We stood at the base of the hill, considering how best to satisfy the needs of both curiosity and decorum. The gloriously blue sky overhead was a brilliant lie, giving the impression that this wasn’t a brief break between the downpours that had predominated our time here in Khatgal, and throwing the engravings on the headstones at our feet into garish relief.
I’d seen ovoos and stupas aplenty in the past ten months, but a cemetery was a new sight. I’d been told at some point that Buddhists usually burned their dead and accepted without question that Mongolians, even the ones who weren’t Buddhist, would do the same for pure practicality’s sake. Mongolia is a country of permafrost, where lakes freeze solid to a depth of four feet or more in winter and don’t thaw completely until June, and the snows that fall in late October have no chance to dissipate until February, when the temperature finally edges above freezing once more.
It doesn’t stay there, either, but flirts with both sides of the divide for the next three months. The first rain of the year fell on April 20th, but the snow continued intermittently until May 27th (when we got nearly a foot of it). Even in April, workers wishing to dig so much as foot-deep trench to lay cable were first obliged to literally set the ground on fire in order to soften it. Digging deep enough to lay a grave would be possible for a few months of the year, no more.
So it was with great curiosity that I moved about the remains of Khatgal’s dead, noting the differences between these graves and those I’d seen elsewhere. They lacked the space-efficient grid pattern that makes it impossible to walk through an American cemetery without stepping on someone’s grave, sprawling haphazardly in every direction. No marble angels here, either, nor a single imposing obelisk, though one solitary cross sat surrounded by its mostly-rectangular brethren. Some markers were of stone, others of a metal that, though tawdry in appearance, bore better witness to the lifetimes it marked than did its more traditional weatherworn counterpart.
It was fairly recent, this graveyard, with only a few birthdates predating 1900 and at least one resident who’d not moved there until the turn of the millennium. A few stones bore inscriptions in Tibetan, but all the names we found had been engraved after Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940’s. The dates bespoke the same communist era as the cemetery’s Spartan sensibilities: most of them marked lives lived in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
After only a few minutes of wandering, I noticed that one date was starting to sound awfully familiar. The birthdates differed, of course, but surely the last grave I’d looked at also marked a life ended in 1983 – and for that matter, so did at least four of the last ten. In fact, nearly half the stones in this section of the graveyard dated from that year, many of those from its first few months. Assessing each marker with new purpose, now, I noticed another pattern as well: a disproportionate number of the 1983 graves were heartbreakingly small.
What happened in 1983? I wondered aloud, and my companions murmured their mutual curiosity. And then someone made the inevitable suggestion: Maybe there was a zud.
None of us had witnessed one of these devastating winters, the last having occurred in 2010, but I’d learned the term within a week of arriving in the country. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions – most of the natural disasters familiar to us are (almost) completely absent in Mongolia[i]. But they do have winters so cold the livestock freeze to death, or so snowy they starve for lack of forage. A zud is not measured in degrees below zero or centimeters of snow, but in cost: I’ve heard it defined as a winter in which over a million head of livestock are lost to the elements. The zud of 2010 took over eight million, more than 17% of the country’s livestock population.
For the many urban residents of developed countries (as I assume most of my readers are), it might be hard to translate that number into more understandable terms. Yes, that’s an awful lot of dead animals, but what exactly does that mean in terms of human suffering?
A lot. In a country largely populated with subsistence herders, that’s a catastrophic loss. It means that at least one animal corpse for every three people lies frozen on the steppe, to rot there in the coming summer. It means that thousands of herders and their families will have to move to the city, having lost their livelihoods with the death of all or most of their livestock. It means that eight million animals will not contribute their monetary value to Mongolia’s economy, nor their meat to its people: Mongolians will eat no animal that died of natural causes, not even hypothermia. The fattest cow, once dead at hands not human, will feed only the varmints. Some herders will slaughter their animals themselves in the face of insurmountable cold, that their flesh might still be fit for human consumption – but once wiped out in this matter, neither herd nor livelihood will regenerate.
Even now, for most Mongolians outside the three largest cities, meat is the primary source of sustenance during the long months of winter. Permafrost is not particularly conducive to agriculture, so the few vegetables widely available in this country (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, beets) are recent, mostly imported, additions to the Mongolian diet. Mongolia’s three “national foods[ii]” require only meat, fat, flour, and salt; anything else is a recent addition, and in the most isolated parts of the country (a phrase akin to ‘the hottest parts of the Sahara,’ perhaps, or ‘the wettest parts of the ocean’), those additions often remain unavailable. Take the meat and animal fat out of the equation, and you’re left trying to survive the winter on flour, rice, and little else.
That might not mean complete starvation, but in my mind it certainly constitutes famine, and that level of malnutrition would also leave people vulnerable to the first spark of contagion to come wandering through the community. People compromised by malnutrition, its accompanying ailments (scurvy, rickets, and so forth), and exhaustion are also more prone to accidents. A zud doesn’t result in the sudden, large-scale loss of human life that we associate with most natural disasters; its toll is slow and insidious, taking months instead of minutes to end or alter lives.
We did not ask our hosts, nor anyone else in Khatgal, what had happened in 1983 to end so many lives; by the time we made it back to our lodgings, we were more concerned with not getting struck by lightning than unraveling the mysteries of years past. But I wish now that we had. Excepting its major interactions with the rest of the world, Mongolia is not a country whose historical events may be uncovered by a casual perusal of the Internet, particularly if the peruser doesn’t speak Mongolian. The story of Khatgal’s difficult winter of 1983 most likely exists only in the memories of those who survived it.
It might not have been something so widespread as a zud, after all. Perhaps that specific part of northern Mongolia was particularly cold or snowy that winter, and the local livestock populations were devastated, or the roads (such as they are) did not permit the transportation of food. Perhaps the soum was struck by disease, and the residents of the nearby aimag center preferred to watch their neighbors waste away rather than risk infection themselves. Perhaps a spark from someone’s stove caught in the felt or floorboards of a ger and the fire leapt from khashaa (yard) to khashaa, the smoke inhalation taking its toll on even those whose homes survived the blaze.
I wondered, as I wandered amongst the thirty-year-old graves, what it had been like for those who dug them. How many infants went into the ground that winter, before their first haircuts or even their first steps? How many children were left to those grieving mothers, and for how many was the loss of a hungry mouth a terrible sort of blessing?
What did they do for those who passed in March and April, that time of transition when the ground remains frozen, but the air is not? Did they cremate them, as they must have cremated those who died in the months so cold that one might freeze or burn without knowing which was which? Or did they strew smoking coals along the ground, chipping desperately at the half-frozen earth in order to carve out a space large enough to lay the dead to rest?
Did they curse that brilliant blue sky for its ghastly cheerfulness, wishing that it would weep, as they did, while they watched their loved ones fade away?
I don’t know; in all likelihood, I never will. Perhaps the people of Khatgal would prefer that I didn’t go digging about in their graveyard, uncovering old grief to satisfy my curiosity. But I can’t help but believe that some of those ghosts might want their stories told.
[i] The few volcanoes are long dead, and the earthquakes too weak to do much damage.
[ii] The term mostly annoys me, since the standard textbooks would appear to conflate national and traditional, but as what Mongolians call their “national foods” do not include the milk products that compose most of the traditional summer diet, the term is useful here. The “national foods,” for those interested, are бууз (buuz), хуушуур (khuushuur), and цуйван (tsuivan).