Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sweeping change across China's Inner Mongolia

Traditional music floated across the freezing grasslands that stretched far into the distance.

Inner Mongolia is China's strategic frontier and home to its Mongolian ethnic minority.

They are the descendants of the Mongol warrior, Genghis Khan, who on horseback eight centuries ago swept across much of Asia, creating one of the world's greatest empires.

Today, the Mongolians still celebrate their traditions at nadaams - or traditional games.

Hundreds watched as a train of camels swept into a small stadium on the grasslands, their hooves kicking up the snow. Some of the animals pulled wooden sleighs with children sitting in them.

They were ridden by Mongolian herdsmen wearing traditional blue, green and red lambskin outfits to protect them from the bitter winter cold.
Mongolians are descendants of the Mongol warrior, Genghis Khan, who created an empire
The nomadic way of life is fast disappearing in Mongolia 'Nation will vanish'

Throughout the day, the crowd watched camel racing, archery on horseback, and traditional wrestling.

But most of this was for show. The nomadic way of life is fast disappearing.

Many of the Mongolians arrived at the event in fancy four-wheel drive vehicles.

Looming in the background, smoke from chimney stacks curled up into the blue sky - there is no escaping the modern world here.

A resource boom is bringing sweeping change to the region.

"Mining is destroying our environment," Tsogjavkhlan, a university student, told me.

"Maybe in the future we won't have a place to live like traditional Mongolians. Our nation will vanish - the Mongolians will vanish."

Occupying 12% of the country's land mass, Inner Mongolia is rich in resources - coal, gas, rare earth metals - which are being mined to fuel China's breakneck economic growth.

The region now accounts for a quarter of domestic coal production.

But the huge mining projects have scarred the landscape and brought pollution to a once pristine region. Mongols say that mining, along with desertification, is ruining their grasslands.

'They're lost'

The unprecedented mining boom has also brought a wave of Han Chinese migration to the region.

Mongolians who have populated the region for centuries are now just 20% of the population. Some Mongolians say they are missing out on the lucrative boom.

They also worry that the constant migration is diluting their culture, language and traditions.

There were rare protests in several cities across the region in 2011. They were triggered by the death of a herdsman who was protesting against a mining project.

Human rights groups say the demonstrations highlighted the discord in the region and the failure of China's policies towards national minorities.

Beijing stresses that economic development in the region has improved the lives of millions.

And many Mongols welcome the opportunities that come with development. Life is now far easier in the towns and the cities than the harsh realities of the grasslands and life in traditional tents.

One female student at the games said she was studying Food Science and Technology at university.

"Not many ethnic Mongolians study this subject," she told me. "I'm living my dream."

An hour's drive away from the winter games, we met a herdsman. Naranmandura tends his 400 sheep, 10 cows and four horses on the vast grasslands.

It is the only life he has known. But technology is now replacing tradition. The 45-year-old uses a motorbike - and not a horse - to herd his sheep.

His two sons are successful Mongolian wrestlers - both of them now live in the city.

"When I was growing up here it wasn't easy," Naranmandura said.

"We only had one set clothes for all the seasons. Now children have a good life. But they don't know their culture - they're lost like a tiny boat on the sea."

Almost crying, Naranmandura said that when he died, he wanted his ashes to be scattered on his beloved grasslands.

Like many of his generation he has a deep respect for Mongol traditions. But he is torn by the demands of a different age that are bringing sweeping change to this region.

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