This month I traveled to Mongolia and was completely blown away by the beauty and grace of the land and the people. I have never been anywhere like it, in fact, I do not believe there is anywhere like it.
The strongest emotion I felt when leaving was one of concern, that the rich nomadic culture would soon be engulfed by Western modernisation. But then I checked myself, is it even my place to consider modernisation a negative influence on Mongolians and their lifestyle? Modernisation does not always mean of Western origins after all.
As the above picture of a traditional family ger shows, the nomads are adapting beautifully to technical advancements that, instead of taking away from their nomadic way of living, enhances it. Here you see the solar panel, charging the battery during the day for their lighting at night and provides sufficient energy for a refrigerator. Likewise, we will all recognise the satellite dish for their television, a welcome addition to the family home during the cold winter months: the vast landscape and sparse population meaning a family may not see another nomad for days at a time.
Or perhaps is my concern coming from some misplaced Western sense of nostalgia for anything “other”? Just as people talk of Cuba, an island stuck in history, here I am wanting to maintain the “Mongolian way of life” as it was. But what about what it could be, or should be.
If you look at a map of the country, all roads lead to Ulaanbaatar the capital city. However not all roads go everywhere. Having lived in cities for the past decade, it was a fascinating lesson to really understand what it meant to be aware of the weather and its impact on us mere mortals. We stopped for lunch by a creek one day and watched as a cloud system lazily crawled towards us, the fuzz of drizzle shrouding the distant hills. It was very far away.
Our driver felt differently. He rushed pack up and soon we were racing away from the front, skirting the sides of the valley rather than driving in the center as had been the norm all week. Suddenly confronted with thick pine trees either side of the valley he aimed at the basin and we soon found ourselves stuck in deep sloshy marshland that had not been there minutes before. This was the impact of the rain, which had not even passed overhead yet.
A criticism of modernisation in the Western sense has been that it alienates individuals from their communities. The rich tapestry of their ancestral existence, their traditions and beliefs, that sense of belonging can be stripped away. Aside from Ulaanbaatar, each province has its own central “village”, which these days tend to be the size of large towns. Although still considered nomadic, each family administratively belongs to a provincial centre and they only move within one province throughout the four seasons.
The above is a picture of Arkhangai Provincial Centre. One consideration for maintaining the nomad’s existence could be for the government to invest more in these provincial centers. With stronger infrastructure they could potentially stem the growth of the capital, which houses one-third of the population.
With more opportunities outside of the capital, young people might be less inclined to leave their families and communities behind, chasing their dreams to Ulaanbaatar. We met a young guide on our last day and when asked about tradition he responded “it is very important to young Mongolians that we preserve our nomadic culture” but he has lived in Ulaanbaatar his whole life and admitted he would not know how to erect a ger.
What do you think of when you think of developing a community? Would it occur to you to consider nomadic peoples or is it always a sedentary system you imagine? How should Mongolian development agencies consider the integration, but without destruction, of nomadism to the country’s future economic growth models? And as an outsider, is it right for us to step in and focus on what we know, what we are familiar with when it is so different to the locals lived experience?