`A HORSE,'' says herdsman Davaasuren, ``is the most precious thing a Mongolian man can have.'' Davaasuren, grizzled leader of a small group of nomadic herdsmen, says he is happy these days. A gradual evolution of perestroika - economic reform - in Mongolia has made it possible for him to resume the life he loves, and to have as many horses as he wants.
On the windswept grasslands of central Mongolia, the daytime sun burns, while the nights are chilly. Autumn, the season for deep blue skies and fattening horses, is just around the corner.
Davaasuren's band of four herdsmen's families moves from pasture to pasture every 20 or 30 days. This journalist and his colleagues have come upon their camp - five ger (round, felt tents) on the brow of a gentle slope - toward evening. On the wide plain below, a pack of about 70 horses is galloping toward us, driven from behind by two horsemen manipulating five-yard-long rods ending in lariat-like loops of rope.
It is the evening roundup, Davaasuren explains, inviting us inside his tent for a bowl of airak - mare's milk. In high boots, brown Mongolian dress, and brilliant yellow waistband, he looks like a latter-day Genghis Khan, the 13th-century warrior who united the Mongol tribes and went on to conquer half the known world.
We linger a moment outside the tent. One of the horsemen who has just brought in the herd dismounts and comes up to us. He is a lad not yet five feet tall. ``My grandson Bataa,'' Davaasuren says. He has taught Bataa to ride, from the time he was six years old. Neither of Davaasuren's own sons have become herdsmen, but he has high hopes that this grandson will follow in his footsteps.
It seems like an immemorial way of life. Yet, as we talk through an interpreter, Davaasuren explains that he has gone back to livestock-breeding only two years ago, after 25 years of driving trucks for an agricultural cooperative factory.
He comes from a long line of horse-breeders, Davaasuren says, and he loves horses. Yet, as a youth, the job the Communist state assigned to him was that of truck driver. In any case, he could not have continued as a herdsman, because the government had set up a string of collective and state farms that all livestock breeders had to join.
Davaasuren and his wife, Tsend, met and married on the steppes. ``We chose each other, not our families,'' Tsend says with a smile. Their parents gave them a new ger (pronounced gair; Russians call them yurts; in Chinese, they are pao), and relatives and friends each brought a sheep to the wedding festivities, which went on for days.
When Davaasuren became a truck driver, Tsend worked as a nurse at the local hospital. The couple lived in town, and had four children, all of whom went to the local school. The two sons became truck drivers. One daughter became director of extracurricular activities at her school. The other worked in a drugstore. The grandchildren number more than 30, Davaasuren says, and all of them visit him during their school holidays.
During his days as a driver, Davaasuren covered the length and breadth of his country, which has just 2 million people in an area twice the size of Texas. But he longed to get back into livestock-raising, especially horses. Davaasuren loves horse racing, one of Mongolia's ``three manly sports'' (the others are archery and wrestling). He takes us outside to show us his favorite horse, Hurdan, which has already won two silver and two bronze medals.
OFFICIALLY, Mongolia has 24 million head of livestock, though these figures are disputed by economic experts. What seems clear is that, after a long period of decline, livestock figures are beginning to grow again, thanks to the wave of economic reforms that Gorbachev began in the Soviet Union and which have gradually seeped into Mongolia, Moscow's oldest satellite.
Two years ago, restrictions on private ownership were eased to a point where each family could have up to 75 head. This was when Davaasuren decided to take the plunge. Both he and Tsend were eligible for retirement with modest pensions, and Tsend was willing to give up the comforts of town life for a nomadic life on the range.
``It's our traditional Mongolian way,'' she says as she stokes her stove with firewood and cakes of dried dung. ``Fetching water, gathering firewood and dried dung from some distance away. I'm quite used to it.'' She says she likes making her own butter and cheese, her own fermented or dried milk.
Her daughter Badamjav, who is helping out during the school holidays, chimes in. ``Milking mares is easier than milking cows, even though you have to do it eight times a day.'' (The colt is allowed a short drink, then forced away, and the mare yields one or two cups per milking). Badamjav says she loves children and loves animals, and feels that she has the perfect life, alternating between taking care of children at school and horses, cows, and sheep on the range.
Mongolia is changing, she continues. When she was growing up, every school child wanted to join the intelligentsia (she uses the Russian word) - to become an engineer or a professional of some kind. ``Nowadays, though, young people are beginning to want to be herdsmen,'' she says.
Politically, the country is changing as well. Badamjav helped to count votes in the recent election. She ended up voting for the ruling party, the Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party (the Communists), but for months the hottest topic both at home and among her neighbors had been which party - the Communists, or one of the new democratic groups - would be the best for the country. She voted for the Communists because they promised change and they had experience, but she says it is possible that in the next election she would change her mind.
Davaasuren agrees that change is in the air. As of this year, all limits on private livestock herds have been lifted, he says, and he now has more than 100 horses, plus growing numbers of cattle and sheep. And there is still plenty of room for expansion. He and his neighbors have never had a fight over water or grazing rights - the two essentials of nomadic life.
``In four or five days, we will be moving on to new pastures,'' he says. And next year? ``Oh, next year around this time, we'll be passing through here again. You won't have any trouble finding us.''
Egged on by Tsend, and for the benefit of his guests, Davaasuren bursts into a song. ``Under a magnificent sky was I born. ... Oh, how fortunate am I!''