yugur nomads sheep flock gansu china

Yugur Nomads of China’s Desert Mountains

Amid China's Smallest Ethnic Groups

Into a desert mountain canyon we drive. But the ravine’s so narrow, that we wonder where we’re going to camp.

After a couple of hours, we get lucky and turn onto a gravel road, and a gentle valley surrounded by red-earth ridges emerges. Now, this looks like the place to stay!

Watch Video of the land of the Yugur Nomads

It’s the Chinese National day holiday week, so we want to be anywhere away from the crowds.

Yugur woman at water hole on her mobile, as thirty sheep crowd around.
Yugur nomad shepherd at the water hole, on her mobile, as her thirsty sheep crowd around.

And it’s my 54th birthday, the following day.

Tranquil, spectacular scenery, and good food and drink are my requirements.

The arid landscape is empty, the road quiet. We find a watering area, just off-road, and decide this is it for the next couple of days.

van life in yugur nomadic water hole gansu china
Before all the sheep arrived, soon we’d be engulfed by sheep or 5 or so flocks.

Little did we realize, that each afternoon flocks of sheep would emerge from the hills, running to the water pump. Often, the troughs were dry, until a shepherd arrived to start the pump.

And then the sheep rushed the flowing water – as any thirsty creature would.

Quiet spot, when the sheep had come and gone. They arrived usually in the afternoon.

Each day, Wei chatted to the Yugur shepherd women. Sometimes they all gathered around to check-out the van – and the foreigner.

They said that this spot was one of 3 seasonal pastures. We were parked at the Autumn grazing area. Another region was Spring and Summer, another for Winter.

When I said that their sheep acted like goats – scrambling up steep slopes; they laughed. Seemed they had to adapt to find food.

Incidentally, they’ve not allowed to herd goats as their hooves really rip-up and damage the land.

sheep compound yugur nomad lands gansu
Temporary sheep pens of the Yugur for keeping the flocks safe at night. The flapping white sheets scare wolves away, along a string of solar-powered LED flashing lights. But they conceded that wolves gradually catch-on to this ruse. The Yugur shepherds have seasonal housing some kms away and don’t stay with the sheep overnight.

According to Wei and the conversations, these Yugur women – outside of their occupation, were the same as any modern Chinese women, and this was so-true judging by their glamorous social media updates (on Wechat).

Furthermore, many of the Yugur shepherds herd their flocks by motorbike. And off course, they were all glued to their mobile phones when the sheep were behaving themselves.

Yeah, like other rural and nomadic folk across the world in the 21st century, their traditional way of life is in decline and many have settled in towns.

When we’re camped-out in the countryside and we encounter locals, they often say that we’re living a simple life, just like them.

And in this case, we too, are nomads.

Yugur Ethnic Group – Cultural Background

Of China’s 56 ethnic groups, the Yugur(1) are one of the smallest at 15,000 people.

scarved Yugur nomadic women posing for photo
Yugur women happily pose for a photo (We sent it to them via Wechat). These women said they weren’t religious (you could mistake them for Muslims), however, Yugurs traditionally are followers of Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism.

Traditionally, they’ve been known as the Yellow Uyghurs, but detailed factual accounts are slim.

Historically, there were two groups of Yugur people – the Mongolian-speaking and the Turkic-speaking, and now, they mostly live in the Sunan Yugur Autonomous county of Gansu.

Today, the Yugur of Sunan speak Chinese.

And the nomads we met, I assume, were of Turkic origins because a woman said only in recent times have partners from outside their group been allowed. Now marrying Han Chinese, Tibetan, whoever, is okay; except, that intermarrying with Mongolians is still forbidden.

Now, I don’t know this reason but I’m guessing it stems from past grievances. As once, the Yugurs lived in Mongolia, but in 840 AD they had to flee after the destruction of their Uyghur Khaganate.

desert lands of gansu yugur nomad lands
Hiking above the valley reveals our van: right-side near that white pole. (Poles have been placed in the landscape by the local government as an environmental protection method to allow eagles to perch and to watch for prey, as many rodents and hare have dug burrows and degraded the arid landscape).

From Mongolia they relocated south, settling at the base of the Qilian Mountains, where they established the Ganzhou Uyghur Kingdom (870-1036).

Van Life on the road in Gansu.

However it didn’t last, and defeat in an 8-year war saw Yugur lands annexed by Western Xia in 1097.

And in the following centuries, the Yugur people eventually joined the Qing Empire (in an era that shaped the borders of contemporary China).

yugur nomads historic photo
How Yugur nomads once dressed. IMAGE by ralph repo – Flickr: Family In Lanchow, China [1944] Fr. Mark Tennien [Restored], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15843396

Notes: (1) Yugur is also spelt Yugu and Yughur.

van life meals traveling in china
And so what did I eat for my birthday and the other days? There was fresh fried salmon (stashed in the freezer from the mountains of Sichuan) for lunch; a breakfast of Marmite toast with scrambled eggs with spring onion, bacon + sausage; a dinner of home-baked bread with Yunnan steak, garlic and onions – and off course: red wine. (Now, isn’t this a BS Instagram food post ? Luckily, I don’t do social media ? )

Travels in China – 2020

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