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Mongolia

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Original author: 
Phil Bicker

From riots in Brazil and the Miami Heat’s NBA triumph to 213 bear paws smuggled across the Chinese border and a cat that’s running for mayor, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

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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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Ulaan Baator, Mongolia 2011

Alessandro Grassani (b. 1977, Italy) graduated in photography from the Riccardo Bauer Institute in Milano. His work has been published in Time Magazine and The Sunday Times and exhibited in personal and collect shows including at the Photography Festival of Arles. In 2010 he began a long-term project called, “Environmental Migrants: The last illusion” documenting  life of people worldwide forced to migrate because of climate change. He was awarded at Premio Internacional de Fotografia Humanitaria Luis Valtuena (First prize, 2011) IPA, International Photography Awards (Third prize, 2011),the  SOFA Global World Photo Award (special mention, 2011), and the Memorial Mario Giacomelli (special mention, 2010). Alessandro is represented by Luz Photo.

About the Photograph:

“This photograph is part of the Environmental Migrants project. It was shot under the staircase where the Jigjjav family live. Jargalsaikhan a former shepherd, sits with his family: his wife, two daughters (one of them, Dyun Erdene, 26 year old, is beside him in the picture) and his four year old nephew playing on the stairs. His wife is an apartment guard and so they  live in a space under the staircase in the building where my wife works. The family  moved to the city after the Dzud -the more extreme Mongolian winter – killed their 150 sheep. Now, they live off the meager earnings brought in by his wife, who works as an apartment guard in the building. She is the only one with a job.”

“Mongolia is an extremely poor country. Twenty percent of its three million inhabitants live on little more then a dollar a day and thirty percent suffer from malnutrition. The herdsmen from the countryside are forced to abandon the rural and isolated areas where they used to live. They arrive in the city after a lifetime spent in the pastures and are untrained to take on any kind of work and end up living a life of hardship in the slum of the city which, in the past twenty years has rapidly grown without any urban planning, running water or electricity.”

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