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Through his Vanishing Cultures Project photographer Taylor Weidman documents threatened ways of life. Regular readers of The Big Picture will recognize his distinctive work from his previous entry here on the Mustang region of Nepal. Weidman writes of the threatened nomadic culture in Mongolia: "Mongolian pastoral herders make up one of the world's largest remaining nomadic cultures. For millennia they have lived on the steppes, grazing their livestock on the lush grasslands. But today, their traditional way of life is at risk on multiple fronts. Alongside a rapidly changing economic landscape, climate change and desertification are also threatening nomadic life, killing both herds and grazing land. Due to severe winters and poor pasture, many thousands of herders have traded in their centuries-old way of life for employment in mining towns and urban areas. The ger (yurt) camps that ring the capital city Ulaanbaatar house a permanent population of displaced nomads. There, they live without running water or a tangible use for the skills and crafts that were practiced on the steppes. The younger generation is no longer learning these essential aspects of their nomadic heritage." -- Lane Turner (29 photos total)
A young nomad herds his animals by motorcycle after an early spring snowstorm. Mongolian herders adopt technology quickly and it is not uncommon to see trucks and motorcycles replacing work animals. (Taylor Weidman/The Vanishing Cultures Project)

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Photographer Davide Monteleone and I may have had one of the only drivers in the Gobi—that forbidding expanse of gravel and sand in southern Mongolia—who had no sense of direction. Granted, the instructions we received were pretty vague: at the second (or was it the third?) livestock path, we should take a left. What counted as an animal thoroughfare, we wondered? Was it that little indentation in the gravel? Or the line of hoof prints heading east?

After much bumping along, we finally reached our destination, a traditional Mongolian circular tent called a ger, surrounded by a crowd of camels, goats and other livestock. I wanted to talk to the herders, who were unhappy with the compensation they had received from Oyu Tolgoi, the copper and gold mine that is Mongolia’s biggest foreign investment project to date and which may add one-third of future value to the country’s GDP. Davide was photographing the forbidding panorama and the hardy nomads who live there. And then, just as he was trying to compose a picture that would convey the aridness of the landscape, it began to rain. Fat drops fell, landing on the camels’ eyelashes. Here we were in one of the driest places on earth, in the middle of a freak rainstorm.

Mongolia is a land of improbable contrasts. It is the most sparsely populated country on the planet, with fewer than 3 million people. Yet it is also, by some estimates, the world’s fastest growing economy, powered by at least $1.3 trillion in untapped minerals. The natural-resource boom is remaking the capital, Ulan Bator, which now boasts shiny new skyscrapers and luxury malls that contrast with the city’s decrepit Soviet architecture. Yet one-third of the country remains impoverished. Democracy, which the country’s citizens embraced after a peaceful revolution in 1990 that displaced the long-ruling socialists, gives people a voice through regular elections. But corruption has eroded the life-changing potential of the rush of foreign investment—valued at $5 billion last year in a country with a $10 billion GDP. Mongolia, today, is increasingly a land of haves and have-nots, a land of both wind-chapped nomads and mining executives who power Hummers, not horses. For anyone in Mongolia, our off-course driver included, it’s hard not to feel disoriented.

Hannah Beech is TIME’s China bureau chief and East Asia correspondent.

Davide Monteleone is a Moscow-based photographer represented by VII. See more of his work here.

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The growing population of the world, now estimated to be over 7 billion, marks a global milestone and presents obvious challenges for the planet.  There are extremely densely populated cities and sparsely populated countries.  China is the most populous country with India following closely behind. This post brings together some disparate illustrations of our world as it grows, including scenes from Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, which has the highest population density in the world, with 130,000 per one square kilometer. In Mongolia, the world's least densely populated country,  2.7 million people are spread across an area three times the size of France.  Then there's Out Skerries, a tiny outcropping of rocks off the east coast of Scotland where the population is just 65.  And doing what he can to contribute to that 7 billion global milestone is Ziona, the head of a religious sect called "Chana."  He has 39 wives, 94 children, and 33 grandchildren. The world is an interesting place. -- Paula Nelson  (41 photos total)
Motorists pack a junction during rush hour in Taipei in 2009. Taiwan's capital is notorious for its traffic jams, even though many motorists choose motorcycles and scooters over cars. United Nations analysts warn that population growth increases pollution, deforestation, and climate change. (Nicky Loh/Reuters)

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One of the FotoPres grants went to Basque photographer Mikel Aristregi for his mesmerizing reportage entitled "-40ºC/96º" on alcoholic tramps in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

Ulan Bator is the coldest national capital in the world. It has an average annual temperature of −2.4 °C (27.7 °F). The second coldest capital is Moscow which boast 4,1º C continue

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