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Long walk to the ballot box for Mongolian nomads

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Mandalgovi (Mongolia) (AFP)

It took Mongolian nomad Pagvajaviin Shatarbaatar seven days to get to his polling station to vote in Wednesday's general election -- accompanied by more than 2,000 sheep, goats and horses.

His family spends the year travelling around the Gobi Desert in search of pasture for their animals, maintaining a way of life largely unchanged for centuries.

As the vote approached they were hundreds of kilometers from their polling station in Mandalgovi, the capital of Dundgovi province. So began the slow process of herding their animals north for the summer, following one of Mongolia's few paved roads.

The journey is a difficult one, said Shatarbaatar's wife Otgontsetseg, but they feel a responsibility to make their voices heard.

Mongolians have grown increasingly apathetic about the democratic experiment they began when they shook off Soviet influence 26 years ago.

Many claim there is little difference between the two major political parties, and no chance for third parties to make their voice heard.

“We want politicians who are responsible for the people in the same way we are responsible for our animals,” said Otgontsetseg, leaning on a pillow in the small mobile home they use to follow their flock.

They intended to vote for a candidate from the Xun Party, a small group of reformers mainly composed of Mongolians educated at elite universities abroad.

“Our government policy is totally wrong,” she said. "The greediest ones have the power.”

The night before the election, the family camped by a lake about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from town. On Wednesday they rose with the sun and tended to their herd, eating a quick breakfast of tea and homemade curds.

Otgontsetseg phoned a friend to check the location of their polling station, to be told that 500 new voters had registered ahead of the election -- a large number in a sparsely-populated province that sends only one delegate to the 76-member parliament, the Great Hural.

The sudden change raised suspicions of political gamesmanship, but Otgontsetseg's friend was more interested in discouraging her from voting for a candidate with little chance of victory. “You're throwing your vote away,” she said.

- 'No more herders' -

At the polling station, Shatarbaatar and his wife embraced relatives they had not seen in months, brought together by the vote.

The family say they are voting for a better future for Mongolia but the ballot is also about different visions of the country: one driven by businessmen in Ulan Bator's handful of skyscrapers, the other by men living off the land.

“All of our generations were herders,” said Shatarbaatar. But that is changing.

The couple -- who have two hired stockmen -- raise cows and sheep for meat and goats for cashmere, which they say has made them wealthy.

Their lifestyle has some modern touches: instead of the traditional ger, also known as a yurt, their home is on wheels, towed from pasture to pasture by an old Korean truck with their black sheepdog Bankhar running behind.

The men herd the animals with a Yamaha motorbike as well as horses, they have a cellphone for communication and satellite television to keep up to date. Shatarbaatar wonders about buying a drone to help manage the flock.

Their daughter is studying business in Miami while their son is in Shanghai, training to be an electrical engineer.

As herders, they are far better off than Mongolians who depend on jobs in the struggling mining sector, they said.

But the price of sheepskins has dropped to around 10 cents apiece, Otgontsetseg laments.

“In the US, people pay $30 for a manicure," she said. "We care for a goat for a year and only get $30 for a kilo of cashmere.”

She worries whether they will be able to maintain their way of life.

The government has debated whether to privatise the country's endless grasslands, now publicly owned and available for anyone to use, as they have been for centuries.

"If someone owns this or that land we won't be able to move around the countryside anymore," she said. "There will be no herders."

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