Learn the Steppe through Me and Learn Me through the Steppe (J. Nasunov)

Learn the Steppe through Me and Learn Me through the Steppe (J. Nasunov)

Lushly blooming steppes are beautiful in spring but incessant dry winds in summer often turn blooming steppe into a standing herbariums

Maria Ochir
Maria OchirMay 19, 2023

The steppes of our Kalmyk Republic occupy the right bank of the Volga River downstream to the banks of the Manych and Kuma, which separate the Volga’s right bank from the Stavropol uplands. The territory is not insignificant - 75.9 thousand square km. It is almost twice as much as the territory of Denmark or Holland and a little less than Austria. On the territory of Kalmykia there are three geographic landscape zones - the Yergenini highlands, the Kumo-Manych depression and the Caspian lowlands.

Lushly blooming steppes are beautiful in spring but incessant dry winds in summer often turn blooming steppe into a standing herbarium - a collection of dried and semi-dried herbs, by the mid-summer. It's as if nature herself takes care of preserving the cattles’ winter fodder, the most natural and beneficial "hay". In spring, all small lakes on the steppe fill up with water, the songs and sounds of birds fill the air, the wind ruffles with green stalks of grassy reeds. But during the long, hot summer the small lakes dry out, the shallows turn shallower and large lakes turn into wet marshes. In autumn, birds migrate with their young. All that remains are the tall reeds that have grown over the summer, the wind rustling through their tops and there is a lull below. Here you can shelter flocks of sheep in bad weather. Cows graze willingly here, picking out the still green parts of the young reeds. Dry reeds are an excellent fuel during the cold winter, and their bundles can also be used to reinforce and insulate felt yurts - the homes of the "eternal traveler" nomads.

Cold piercing winds are as relentless in winter as are the hot dry winds in summer. It is they that steal the heat out of our homes, it is they that turn mild frost into piercing frost, it is they that sweep away and scatter rare and scarce snow, leaving the bare steppe covered with dry grass. Only shepherds rejoice in this harsh wind, grazing their bountiful flocks of sheep on the snowless, wind-blown plains. They know that the most important thing for them is to safeguard their cattle and not let them get weak or die of starvation during the long winter. And for that they need grazing weather like the air they breathe, so that every day the cattle can re-nourish themselves with the very dry grass which nature herself has prepared since summer. These features of climate and relief have at all times attracted nomads here - the ability to keep cattle on pasture all winter and the abundance of convenient places for winter camps on the shores of the steppe lakes.

It is by no accident that in the early years of their arrival on the Volga River in the 17th century, the Oirat tribes made every effort to occupy the right bank of the river. And even in the years when this territory was still controlled by the Nogais, despite the danger of bloody confrontation, some Kalmyk Khoton moved to the right bank for wintering. The risk was justified as they had a better chance of preserving their livestock there. The Ryn-Peski tract between the Volga and the Ural rivers was also used by the Oirat as winter pasture. There, the area was not covered by snow in winter, but it was much smaller and less grassy in the spring and autumn. The latter was very important, as the cattle weakened after the winter, needed new pastures which were not used during the winter before the new grass sprouted. Therefore, the mountain side, or as the Kalmyks called it, the Crimean side of the Volga was of great value for the nomads.

It should be taken into account that winter pastures played a decisive role for nomads. There were special requirements for winter nomads. Winter is dangerous for nomadic economy because of scarce vegetation, hungry wolf packs, blizzards and freezing temperatures. No matter how bad the summer pastures are, the cattle do not die of starvation in summer. Unwise choice of winter pasture could lead to total loss of livestock. Therefore, winter pastures were allocated particularly carefully and their boundaries were strictly observed. Winter pastures were also perceived by the nomads themselves as something stable and more native than summer pastures. The old Kalmyks always wished they would die on a winter pasture: "Uvzgdnyan kurch ukhlya-bolkh (the main thing is to die when you get to the winter pasture)" they used to say. Having survived the winter they greeted each other at the main feast of the year, the spring Tsagan Sar, with a traditional exclamation: "Was the winter well spent! (Uvlyas syayahn mend garuta!)". In ancient times it was not a rhetorical question.

Nowadays, the inhabitants of modern cities and villages often complain about the peculiarities of our climate and landscape without suspecting that they attracted our ancestors, the nomadic Oirat, to the lower reaches of the Volga.

Maria Ochir


Maria Ochir

Maria Ochir is a PhD of History, archeologist, author, corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute and a specialist on Eurasian Nomads of the Scythian era.

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