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To see Mongolia is to leave Ulaanbaatar, the capital. Mongolians are nomads, and the nomadic tradition is still deeply cherished. Urbanites, who blend comfortably into the global megapolis value any chance to escape to the Steppe. It isn’t far from the truth to say that every Mongolian knows how to ride a horse.

Ulaanbaatar is a chaotic city under recovery from the brutalism of Soviet urban planning. There are 3 million people in Mongolia and forty-three percent of them live in Ulaanbaatar. High-rises, condos and commercial buildings climb fast. Louis Vuitton opened a store that immediately became the highest grossing of all its worldwide locations. Meanwhile, public infrastructure is neglected. Traffic is such a nightmare that the mayor devised a desperate scheme whereby cars with certain license plate numbers were restricted on certain days. Of course, one only needs to own more than one license plate. A relatively easy task in a political environment of favoritism and back door deals. The pay-to-play system especially benefits foreign mining companies that take what they want and give back only the usual “operating costs” of exploitation, i.e. bribe money that finds its way into the Louis Vuitton store.

Outside of Ulaanbaatar, existence appears almost divorced from the political. Individualism is a liability. Survival depends on communalism. Yet the people do more than survive on the Steppe. They live.

Life on the steppe is hard. The land cannot be easily farmed. The storms cannot be stopped. The rivers cannot be easily dammed or bridged. The distances cannot be easily covered. It’s cold at night and hot during the day. The herds must be constantly monitored.

Yet there is a calm, a peace in the land. The horizon stretches infinitely. Disintegrating hills mountains outcrops wrinkle the land, revealing an history beyond human comprehension. Small lakes reflect the unobstructed sun like sheets of plate glass. White circular Gers sit naturally amongst the brush weed and iron rich earth. There is a surrendering here; a surrender of ego and meaning. The steppe cannot be fought. It cannot be adapted. You must adapt. I imagine it must be analogous for astronauts or divers.

In the sea, in space and on the steppe orientation is everything. We drove 5 hours to the Soum (a seasonal outpost used between the migration seasons) via Land Rover over unmarked terrain. We used no GPS map or compass, simply intuition and memory. The door of the ger must always face south and when sleeping the head must always point north. In this way, home becomes the only absolute reference. A beautiful irony considering a nomad by definition has no fixed concept of home.

Being nomadic means moving light and fast, with only the essential possessions. I felt comfortable here somehow. For me, mobility is everything and this lifestyle seemed to suit me. Of course, that is a privileged delusion. A romanticized, Orientalist fantasy. The fact is, this life is hard and to want anything more is almost is a struggle. It is not tourism and you don’t get a break. You don’t get to go home to your post-industrial conveniences with a feeling of rugged self-satisfaction.

So, the people of Mongolia are faced with the challenge of reconciling a desire to modernize with out compromising the nomadic tradition, the core of their national and personal identity. Modernization is not Westernization and the Mongolian people are tough, resilient and wary of the schemes of foreign influencers. I hope to return sometime soon.

1) On the edge of Ulaanbataar lies the Ger District, a massing conglomeration of gers and other structures sprawling from the city center exponentially every year. The government incentives people from the country side to fill in the edges of the city with little support beyond offers of land plots. This transitioning to a stationary lifestyle illustrates the effect of two contradictory paradigms encountering each-other; nomadism and capitalism.

2) Traveling to the Soum involves many obstacles and hazards. Encountering a river means stepping out of the car, quietly observing, throwing a stone or two into the middle driving across, praying the water doesn’t flood the engine.

3) The family home of Gonchigoo, our protagonist. We slept here with his parents and nephews, all facing north.

4) Gonchigoo’s father surveys the Soum atop an outcrop. Built on these high-points in the landscape are modest Buddhist shrines, whose subtly do not betray the edicts of essentialism and presentness.

5) At 4am, Gonchigoo’s mother prepares the salty milk tea for breakfast before we got to meet the herd.

6) Gonchigoo, with some scholarship support from SDC, is now a doctor in Ulaanbaatar as well as a member of the Ministry of Health. He still sits effortlessly in the saddle.

7- 9) We arrived at the end of the rain season and the beginning of the migration season. The herders move their homes with the herd, using horses trucks and collective participation. This day, we helped members of Gonchigoo’s extended family push the herd across a few rivers.

10) The next generation of Mongolia.

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