Mongolia: Modern Transition

Text by Polly Pindman
Photography by Nathalie Daoust

Fulfilling a lifelong desire to travel to Mongolia, Canadian photographer Nathalie Daoust has recently returned from a month living among a nomadic community on the Mongolian steppe. During her time, Nathalie experienced the unique lifestyle of the herders, subsisting entirely off the land, as they relocated their yurts (gers) up to four times a year in search of new pastures.

Mongolia's vast and sparsely populated landscape is difficult to navigate as a tourist. Most of the steppe desert land lacks proper roads, and very few nomads speak English. The temperatures on the steppe are harsh and can fall to minus 40 degrees C in winter, make it a hostile environment to foreign travellers. Keen to avoid the usual tourist trail, Nathalie was invited by New Milestone, a community-based tourism company, to stay in the homes of a series of nomads unused to hosting foreigners. From her many conversations with the herders, Nathalie soon discovered that their lifestyle is under threat from the rampant effects of globalisation and climate change.

Welcoming her into their homes, the families offered her an insight into a lifestyle entirely distinct from urban dwelling - sleeping in a shared ger, drinking water from nearby rivers, and having no access to toilets or showers. Nathalie was struck by the nomads' ability to lead a sustainable lifestyle, which fails to generate a carbon footprint. Their ability to repurpose almost all used materials highlighted her own wasteful habits; any additional litter she brought into the community, like the wrapping of a granola bar, required a separate disposal area organized especially for her.

Despite the nomad's traditional lifestyle in the remote countryside, Nathalie witnessed the extent to which nomads are incorporating modern technologies into their lives: replacing horses with motorcycles, lanterns with solar panels, and using freezers to store their meat. Photographing their homes on the steppe, Nathalie captured traditionally-decorated gers punctuated with modern paraphernalia including televisions, smartphones and even Adidas{R} trainers. To her surprise, Nathalie found that almost all of the nomads she met with were using Facebook -- she was even teased for her outdated Nokia phone.

Yet the ripple effect of globalisation on the nomad community has extremely negative consequences when it encompasses the worsening effects of climate change. Beginning with the first family she stayed with, Nathalie was told a story that was to be repeated dozens of times throughout her trip: how climate change is making life increasingly hard for herders.

Mongolia is susceptible to a unique phenomenon called dzuds -- severe winters in which huge numbers of livestock perish. These hazardous weather conditions are becoming harder to survive as temperatures well above the global average is leading to desertification, making it more difficult for grass to grow in the summer. This means that animals do not receive enough sustenance to survive the winter, which has disastrous consequences for nomads that are wholly reliant on their herds for subsistence.

These changes are taking place against a fragile political and economic backdrop, where Mongolia's transition from a Soviet satellite state to a market-based economy in the 1990's had significant ramifications for herders, including the introduction of uncontrolled mining and the dissipation of state provisions.

Having lost their herds, many nomads are migrating in masse to the country's capital, Ulaanbaatar, joining almost half of the country's entire population. Here, nearly half of the capital's residents live in the outskirts of the city, in an area called the Ger district, essentially a slum area comprising hundreds of nomadic yurts (called gers).

Life in the ger district is worlds apart from the grassy steppe. Contrasting the low emission lifestyle of the herders that Nathalie experienced, city dwellers suffer from dangerously high levels of pollution. This is because the residents who live in tents have no access to electricity or running water, and are forced to burn large amounts of coal to keep warm. Biological fuels, like cow dropping are historically used by the nomads to heat their yurts in winter. Nowadays, many in the Ger district burn raw coal instead since it is the cheapest way to keep warm. This contributes to 80% of Ulaanbaatar's winter emissions, generating some of the worst air pollution on Earth, exceeding 60 times the World Health Organization's safe limit during the 2018 harsh winter. In a recent broadcast, the BBC reported that breathing the air in Ulaanbaatar on the worst days is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

Almost all of the nomads that Nathalie met on the steppe spoke of their apprehensions regarding the transition from rural to urban life. Following her conversations with the herders living on the steppe, Nathalie decided to spend a further two months in the Ger District of Ulaanbaatar where she photographed over 180 families that welcomed her into their homes.

The scale and speed of change within the nomadic way of life is unprecedented and effectively guarantee that the ancient migrant culture of Mongolia will be seriously reduced within a generation's time. If Mongolia is on the list of countries that you would like to visit, I would recommend travelling there sooner rather than later.

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For the past 25 years, Canadian photographer Nathalie Daoust has been concerned with socio-cultural and political issues surrounding her subjects. She travelled extensively around the world Nathalie's current project Tent City has brought her to Mongolia and taps into topics of displacement and cultural transition resulting from severe climate change.

Polly Bindman is a freelance journalist based in London, with an MA in investigative journalism from City University.

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