Why Kazakh Nomad Women in Mongolia Can Spend All Day Milking


It’s milking time. Again. All hands on deck. The women of the Kazakh nomad community in Western Mongolia are in all-out commando mode. Their tongues click and arms wave as they chase their herds of goats and sheep into a pen. Hundreds of hooves dart this way and that, swirling and spinning, trying to avoid what’s coming next.

One woman uses her long cotton skirt like a whip, flicking it at the goats as she drives them toward the gate. At the last second, they make a hairpin turn and lose her. She puts on the brakes, exasperated.

Little Kazakh girl pulling goat from herd for milking in Mongolia

The spectacle reminds me of the scene in Rocky where Rocky chases a chicken as part of his training, and I can’t help but chuckle, albeit quietly. It’s clear the ladies aren’t finding the situation as amusing.

Not all the animals are rebellious, a few run into the corral on their own. Hands immediately wrap around their horns or a back leg and drag them to a rope line. With the animals staggered, one facing north, the other south, they’re tied together as tight as sardines.

Kazakh girl pulling goat from herd to milk in Mongolia

The majority, however, is defiant, scattering in all directions. The phrase “herding cats” crosses my mind more than once.

A few sheep escape by leaping over the four-foot log fence with the ease of a gazelle, only to be yanked back into the enclosure, defeated. Others leap into the pen and then look around befuddled as if wondering, what did I just do?

Kazakh woman ties goat for milking in Mongolia
Goats waiting for milking-in-mongolia

During my two-week summer adventure in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, I’ve seen this spectacle of horns and hooves many times. It’s one of the chores assigned to the women and children, though sometimes the men chip in to tie up the animals, but never the milking.

The teat-pulling task doesn’t stop with their goats and sheep, they’re just the beginning. Whenever I visit a family’s ger, the women and children always seem to be just finished with milking, in the middle of milking, or on the cusp of milking. They milk the cows once a day, the herds of goats and sheep twice, and lactating mares every two hours.

Kazakh Woman milking goats in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

Why So Much Milking?

On the whole, a Kazakh’s diet consists of meat and dairy products. There’s no agriculture to speak of. As nomads, they live hundreds of miles from the nearest town or grocery store. They slaughter their own livestock and practically everything else they make is derived from milk. They make their own bread, butter, and yogurt, plus a variety of hard cheeses they produce by the truckload and store for the winter.

Their dependence on animals is the cornerstone of their culture. They move up to six times a year based on where the land will support grazing.

Pen of goats wiht Kazakh women milking in Mongolia

Phase Two

Once all of the goats and sheep are tied up, phase two begins. The older women sit behind all the woolly butts, teetering on tiny wooden stools the width of one butt cheek; the children kneel. They grip their pails between their thighs and not so gently tug on the teats of their captives, letting the warm white liquid fill their containers.

Old Kazakh Woman milking sheep and goats in the Altai Mountains, Mongolia
Kazakh-woman and little boy in goats pen-in-mongolia

From start to finish this daily Kazakh tradition takes nearly two hours.  It was exhausting just watching. Afterward, the herds are released and they run off into the hills to graze. In a matter of hours, it will happen all over again.

I can’t imagine multiplying this ordeal times two, in addition to milking the cows and the mares along with everything else the women do. They raise the kids, cook all the meals, and take care of the home. The Kazakh nomads live the gift of a simple life but it’s not for the faint of heart.

As I watch the hodgepodge of fuzz nibble on the grass in the distance, and the swoosh of the ladies’ skirts disappear into their gers, I feel a sense of awe. When I go home I’ll bask in the ease and variety of my local Trader Joe’s, but these Kazakh women have no such luck.

(The images above were taken over a few days with multiple families.)

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Kazakh women in Mongolia spend hours milking their cows, goats, and mares everyday. Their story in pictures.

117 thoughts on “Why Kazakh Nomad Women in Mongolia Can Spend All Day Milking

  1. Meghan Fitz-James says:

    I am wondering if you could add detail of what season this milking takes place…from when to when within the year, as may give the impression that it is year round activity….And this is for herding families, not town-dwelling Kazakh women. The women’s range of activities is indeed more diverse and it would be nice to see some comment about what they do in the wintertime which to my understanding is the season to relax from this activity and enjoy the diverse pleasures within the nomadic herding culture. In the summer they also make felt (July usually) etc.. I think it would make your article seem fuller and more culturally-informative. These are just some suggestions.

  2. lawcompareblog says:

    Good day, Dear Susan. I have just registered here and was exploring the blogs that have any relation to my country. I came across your article and started reading curiously, as I am Kazakh…
    I was quite shocked by the fact that you say that half of the life Kazakh woman spends milking the cows…
    There were times when all nations with turk roots used to be nomads and they would lead such a lifestyle. But that is long gone for Kazakhs.
    Even if the people you have met happened to be Kazakh, it is not right to generalise and to put up such a title for your article, making people believe that Kazakh women spend half their lives milking the cows….:)

    I am kazakh and I have never milked a cow. Moreover, there is a country called Kazakhstan, you may want to visit, so that you may write your next article about Kazakhs based on the things that you saw in Kazakhstan and not in Mongolia. Mongolia is a separate country. Bordering with Kazakhstan. But it is a separate country.
    Thank you and I am sorry if it came out offending.
    I know you most probably did not mean any bad.
    Have a good day.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hello – Thank you very much for taking the time to state your concerns regarding my article and I understand why you would feel that the title was too much of a generalization. Therefore, I have updated the title to: The Reason Kazakh Women in the Altai Mountains Spend Half Their Life Milking. I hope that alleviates some of your concern. All the best, Susan

  3. huntermg1024 says:

    I love this post, it reminds me of all the things I take for granted. Its fascinating hearing about how the women and children do this exhausting task and the child in the one picture has such a happy laboring look. This post also gives a lot of back ground on the culture of the area. All in all, I love the article; it brings a sense of gratefulness and cultural influence.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much for such a kind and thoughtful comment. I am thrilled that you felt the post was a good one. Welcome to the blog and I hope you return. Consider sighing up for my updates if you’d like to see more. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so very much. I really appreciate it. Did you sign up for the newsletter? It will make sure you don’t miss a post. 🙂
      Plus it always includes a cool Travel Gem..an item I’ve used while traveling that I really like. Great tips.

  4. kingajpg says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog and this was the first post that I read – It was so interesting, I love your writing! And the photos were amazing as well, definitely following:)

  5. dorie says:

    Wow! Impressing photos and story.
    Mongolia is defnitively a place I also want to see one day.
    Thanks for this nice post.
    Greeting, Dorie

  6. luceudaemonia says:

    What unique insight! These women spend half their life with a goats ass in their face. Not too much unlike life today in the US if you live in a highly dense metropolis! Please forgive my candid comment.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I’m so glad that you did too, Christina. Thank you for checking it out. Did you sign up for the newsletter update? It’s a way to make sure you don’t miss any future posts. 🙂

  7. soupconraclette says:

    Thanks for a fresh perspective – it’s good to remember how lucky I am (though there’s a part of me that yearns to spend a month or two just milking, sometimes). Your photos are stunning.

  8. awtytravels says:

    I can see the difference between cows and goat/sheep here! Cows, where I worked one summer, where the most placid of the animals. Go there, queue up, get milked, get out, all with the aplomb of British gentlemen en route to the club.

    I adore the sky and light of Central Asia that your photos show, someplace I wish to be visiting sooner or later…


  9. bethanyk says:

    This was just fascinating. What a gift to be able to watch and learn. I was happy to hear they got to be let out to graze. How exhausting the women must be. But what a group effort !

  10. drawingbackthecurtain says:

    I loved how you told that story and it really showed the immense amount of work involved. I admire these women. I did the “living off the land” for a number of years and remember the never ending shores. But there was also a great satisfaction and peace that came with making your own cheese etc. Great writing and pictures!

  11. shaunlo says:

    These photos are amazing. It’s all a bit surreal to know there are still a lot of traditional cultures & practices still being carried out. I wonder what it’ll be like in another 50 or 100 years.

  12. hmunro says:

    What a beautiful post! I sometimes dream of “living off the land,” but you’ve reminded me that living a simpler life doesn’t necessarily mean an easier life. Thank you for this glimpse into another culture. Your writing and your photos are stunning.

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