Springtime in the Gobi as life-giving as it is treacherous. As the -45-degree lows of winter yield to 100-degree summertime highs, the traditional livestock of the area’s Mongolian herders start to give birth. Risks are many. Shaggy Bactrian camels (two humps!) are pregnant for 13 months, and usually give birth to a calf every second year. But the harsh, dusty climate is unforgiving, and it is not uncommon for mother or baby to perish during or after delivery. The result is often orphaned babies and grieving mothers who need one another—but don’t have any filial bonds.
After centuries in the desert, the nomadic herders have developed a unique musical ritual to help form these bonds, or reestablish one when a camel mother has rejected her own offspring. In the half-light of dusk or dawn, a musician wields his instrument, usually a horsehead fiddle, known as a morin khuur, or a Mongolian flute. Everyone present wears their best clothes, out of respect for the rite. The mother and calf are tied together, and, on the orange dunes, another musician begins to chant: “khuus, khuus, khuus.”
At first, observers say, the mother either ignores the calf altogether or lashes out by biting or spitting at it. The “coaxer,” at this point, adjusts the melody based on the behavior. The singer begins to weave elements of poetry or song into the tune, to mimic the sound of the camel’s walking, running, and bellowing. After many hours of this, it is said, the mother and calf begin to weep. The spell is cast, and the animals are joined for life.
The rest of this piece, originally published by Atlas Obscura, can be read here.