Nomads in the City


Mongolia. Once an empire which stretched from Europe to the Far East, now, a sparsely populated nation state. 

Of Mongolia’s 3 million inhabitants, 1.5 million have moved to the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

A physical manifestation of a country in transition, the ger districts on the edges of the city show the coexistence of the past and the present.

As a local friend proudly told me as he surveyed the landscape: 

“this is proof Mongolians are real nomads, they can live anywhere they have to, with anything they have.”

Gers, known more commonly as 'yurts' are traditional Mongolian homes. 

They are circular, with a furnace and chimney in the centre. Lattice wooden fences support the shape, and are wrapped in multiple layers of wool to insulate against harsh temperatures. 

Inside one of these gers, lives a family of eight who recently gave up nomadic life and emigrated to the city. 

The main breadwinner is the mother, who stitches winter boots to sell in the markets.

Widowed long ago, the mother fought against the odds to maintain nomadic life, but severe winters, known as the 'dzud', destroyed their livestock, leaving no choice but migration. 

Most of all, she misses the silence of the desert.

The dzud is becoming more frequent with climate change, destabilising traditional lifestyles and causing forced migration. 

With temperatures dropping lower than negative forty degrees celsius, Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital.

Rapid immigration, poor transport infrastructure and resource limitations have choked the city with air pollution. 

Gers use coal to power their internal furnaces. A necessary evil, the inhabitants of the city are suffocating on toxic air to survive through the winters.

Industrialisation has changed the world's atmosphere, threatening the sustainability of nomadic farming. 

But it has also decimated local traditions.

Son of the widowed nomad, this young adult gets nostalgic about his most precious belongings- a collection of ankle bones from goats. He shows me how they have been used for generations, to play games, and even read the future.

He laments that his nephew of three has no interest in such games, and claws only for plastic toys and smart phones.

Traditional life, however, still vibrates through the capital’s ‘Black Market’.

Despite the market teeming with cheap western style clothing made in Chinese factories, these men wear traditional clothing with pride.

They are deliberating over purchasing new snuff boxes.

Even today, it is tradition to present your snuff box to every visitor that comes to your home.

In order to avoid pilgrims and tourists from destroying the natural landscape, the environmental guardian of the Khamriin Khiid Monastery in the Gobi Desert, works to keep the area clean.

Upon invitation into his home, he offered me a taster of snuff, which I instantly sneezed into my suutei tsai (milk tea).

This monastery was burned to the ground in 1937, during the communist purges, and afterwards rebuilt. The ruling USSR declared communist philosophy as incompatible with religion, leading to severe repression of Buddhism, Mongolia's most prominent faith. 

Buddhism has been making a resurgence. 

Gandan Monastery hosts the world’s tallest indoor statue, originally built in 1913, of Avalokiteśvara. 

Today, over half of the country identify as Buddhist, showing their religious history has not been erased.

In the Gobi desert, life beats to a different rhythm. 

Onlooking the ceremonial fire pit and the stupas from Wish Mountain, indigenous shamanism and Buddhism reveal their harmony, miles from the smog of the city.

Life in the desert for nomads is fast changing too, as explained to me by this great grand mother who lived near the Inner Mongolian border.

In her day, she reminisced, the nomads worked hard and knew the value of what they reaped. Today, replacing horses with Harley’s, she worries the technology they have become reliant on will spell their very own demise.

Her daughter in law worries for the next generation. 

Will they choose to continue the nomadic life she and her husband have struggled to upkeep, or will they join the other half of their country’s people, and be nomads in the city?

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