It has been a bad year for the big-tailed sheep. The grass in the high mountain pastures here in northwest China has been sparse, and the sheep have not eaten well. They are scrawny. That means the Kazakh herders have suffered, too.
“The drought has affected everyone,” one herder, Aijamal, 32, who like many others here uses one name, said on a recent afternoon as she rode a horse to drive hundreds of sheep across a barren plateau. “We can’t sell the sheep for the same price we did before.”
Sheep that wholesalers bought last year for 1,000 renminbi, about $160, are commanding only 830 renminbi now, she said. The price drop has come as a big blow to the nomadic Kazakh herders whose families have for decades produced the most famous sheep in China.
And the season for fattening up the sheep is at an end. Across this remote area of pristine grasslands and alpine forests, along the southern slopes of the Altai Mountains, nomads are in the middle of their annual multiweek autumn migration, as they bring their families, yurts and livestock down from the high pastures to lower altitudes for the winter. They are using horses, camels and flatbed trucks for transport, and horses and motorcycles to herd their animals. Clouds of dust rising from the steppes signal nomads on the move.
This lifestyle has continued for centuries here, north of the Xinjiang region’s desolate Dzungarian Basin and near China’s borders with Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, despite official efforts to force nomads to settle in newly built villages. The nomads pass the winter near the lower towns before making the reverse migration once the snows begin melting.
A history museum in Altay pays tribute to this way of life. “The Altay region has been a paradise for nomadic peoples since ancient times,” the text on one display says. “The Tiele, Scythians, Xiongnu, Xianbei, Rouran, Tujue, Mongol and Kazakh have lived here successively for thousands of years and created a splendid grassland culture. They have contributed to the history of not only the Altay region but also of Xinjiang and China.”
The big-tailed sheep of the region, especially those near Fuhai Lake, have been prized for more than 1,000 years, according to the Ministry of Commerce website. During the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.), rulers in the area sent sheep as tribute to the imperial court in Xi’an. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the region’s mutton was served as official food to athletes from Muslim countries, according to an Altay government website.
Adult sheep can weigh more than 300 pounds, making them ideal for meat production. The sheep are known for tails that weigh more than 20 pounds, where they store fat for the winter.
One recent day, Aijamal — dressed in a turquoise sweater and a red head scarf (Kazakhs are mostly Sunni Muslims) and astride a white horse — was watching over 200 sheep. Her two children were in a mud-walled shelter nearby. She and her family were in the middle of their migration, driving the sheep down to winter pastures near a riverside village.
There, they would hire other herders to look after the sheep until the spring. That is an increasingly common practice among some Kazakhs, especially those who have traded their nomadic occupations for other pursuits.
“We’ll stay here for a few days,” Aijamal said as she got off her horse. “Then we’ll go down after the sheep have eaten.”
She said she and her husband had just sold 80 lambs to two wholesale meat merchants, ethnic Uighurs who were among the few Uighur buyers visiting this year. Officials in Xinjiang have been restricting their movements because of a surge in ethnic violence.
Many Uighurs resent rule by the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, and hundreds of people have been killed this year in violence in Xinjiang. Chinese officials blame terrorist groups among the Uighurs, though insurgency experts and scholars of Xinjiang say they have seen no evidence of a widespread terrorist influence.
The shortage of buyers has also contributed to the drop in the price of sheep, Aijamal said. “Before, the Uighurs would come north from Urumqi to buy our sheep,” she said, referring to the capital of Xinjiang, a vast region that makes up one-sixth of China. “But now many of them can’t come.”
The drought has been a much bigger problem, though. This year, it killed 8,000 animals and destroyed 3,800 square kilometers of crops in northern Xinjiang, according to a report in the state news media. Three million animals lack sufficient drinking water. The Civil Affairs Bureau said 800,000 people were affected, and officials estimate the economic loss at 4.7 billion renminbi, or $760 million.
Some nomads were leaving earlier than usual from the summer pastures so their sheep could graze lower down. North of the town of Burqin, near a mountain pass, a man named Los’han was dismantling his yurt with his family and tossing their furniture into the back of a white flatbed truck. Nomad families sometimes split the daily rental rate of $100 or more for a truck and driver for their migration.
“My older brother is watching our sheep in the mountains,” said Los’han, 40. “He’ll bring them down to join us.”
East of Altay, in the area of Koktokay, a nomad on horseback pointed to some of his 200 or 300 sheep. Way too thin, he said.
“Soon there won’t be any grass,” said the man, Urzbek, 62. “Maybe next year there will be none at all, because it hasn’t rained.”
He lives with his family in one of a half-dozen white yurts by a road leading to the Koktokay nature park, a Yosemite-like valley with towering granite peaks through which the Irtysh River flows to the Arctic Ocean. In the park, nomads were coming down from the summer pastures each day with camel caravans.
On this morning, Urzbek’s daughter walked among their sheep to help ensure that none of them wandered off. A half-dozen camels that his family owns loped in formation, tied together, near the dry hills. Then there was the horse on which Urzbek rode. “My horse is more important than my life,” he said.
He began riding off. “I need to keep the sheep in line,” he said. He whistled and cracked a short whip to get the sheep moving.