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TSETSERLEG, Mongolia—As the crow flies, Gaaj, one of Mongolia’s 800,000 fully nomadic citizens, doesn’t live too far from Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital and only metropolis. His yak-felt-and-wood tent, or ger, stands in a valley 360 miles away, just outside of Tsetserleg, the administrative and commercial nexus of the Arkhangai province.
But crows and maps are deceptive in Mongolia—they hide how rapidly Ulaanbaatar’s urban sprawl gives way to endless open plains and isolation. At 603,910 square miles, Mongolia is the 19th largest nation in the world, but 1.2 of its 2.8 million citizens live in the capital with the rest in far-flung villages or living nomadically like Gaaj. It has the lowest population density of any sovereign nation. Underlining this fact, the trip out to Gaaj’s ger from the Dragon Bus Station on the eastern fringe of Ulaanbaatar is eight hours of an unending procession of yak dung and skulls dotting the plains.
These remains bear testament to the comings and goings of nomadic herds. Although elsewhere in the nation you’re apt to wander into valleys choking with goats or sheep, yaks predominate in this region, where herders rely on them for almost every necessity. Yak fur socks and yak felt walls keep them warm. Yak meat jerky so hard it has to be broken up with an axe and boiled like shoe leather, served with hot and salty yak milk-and-butter tea, fills their bellies. Tiny balls of rock-hard cheese, tucked against the cheek and sucked over long rides, keep them occupied as they navigate the unpaved hills on tiny, plodding, sturdy ponies.
Although motorcycles and a smattering of cars help a nomad get to town on short notice, these steeds (or camels in the Gobi Desert) are the best way to move tiny herds in slow, regular annual orbits around the towns and markets the herders frequent to sell their excess meat and crafts, moving forward as the grazing gets scarce. It’s not an easy life, but the connection to land and livestock is what they’ve grown up with. And the city, smoggy with coal fire, often more expensive, and lacking in easy, secure work for those with few skills or experience that don’t involve milking or shearing, doesn’t hold much appeal unless your herd is shrinking or dying, or you’re desperate for cash.
Even Tsetserleg is only a blip, quickly swallowed up by the smooth slopes of the central steppe’s Khangai Mountains. Cresting a pass in the hills, we see the two gers where Gaaj’s family lives in a valley, but nothing else. No power lines, no hum of traffic, not even another family’s camp breaks the isolation of the valley as far as the eye can see. Yet somehow when we duck through the tent’s tiny wooden door we find Gaaj’s family sprawled around a color TV watching a screening of 3:10 to Yuma (the more recent Russell Crowe version) broadcast with Mongol subtitles from a station back in Ulaanbaatar.
For all their isolation, Gaaj’s family lives on the grid, connected to broadcast waves and cell signals by the trusty solar panel tilted up on a post between the gers. Gaaj, a thirtysomething man with a hoof-shaped indentation on his face (almost certainly from a horse, but misplaced politeness keeps me from asking outright) and skin so weathered he looks closer to 50, is an entrepreneurial nomad. He has a car that he uses to run a rural taxi service for other nomads, and he’s the go-to host for foreigners passing through Arkhangai. Though hardly rich, even by Mongolian standards, he makes a bit more than the $3,780 average annual salary reported by goat, sheep, and yak herders in a 2010 study of nomad incomes in eastern Mongolia.
But his modest wealth didn’t buy him his solar panel, nor is he unique in having one. Gaaj is one of the beneficiaries of the Mongolian government’s “National 100,000 Solar Ger Electrification Program.”
Before I left Ulaanbaatar, I overheard a guide named Bold tell two older tourists, “You can charge your phone in the gers,” adding, “The gers all have these panels now.”
The project began in 2000, just as Mongolia’s boom years were kicking off following the discovery of some of the world’s largest untapped coal, copper, gold, and uranium deposits. These new resources revolutionized the economy of a nation that had until then survived mainly on cashmere and dairy. The wealth generated by mining developments—the Gobi Desert’s Oyu Tolgoi mine alone, built in 2010, is set to boost the national economy by one-third within a decade—created an inexorable nomadic moth-to-the-light process of mass urbanization. (In 2000, Ulaanbaatar was just 61 percent of its current size.)
While Ulaanbaatar’s skyline is dominated by construction cranes and newly minted skyscrapers, its fringes are made of nomadic gers fixed in place. Drawn in by a sense of missing out on wealth and development (nomadic salaries are still only 65 percent of the national average, and far lower than those of the rising Ulaanbaatar middle class), nomads feel compelled to abandon their lives to become a part of the nation’s development. Most end up living in slums, working as menial laborers.
“The government of Mongolia was keenly aware of its rural residents’ predicament,” write World Bank energy specialist Peter Johansen and consultants Ivy Cheng and Roberto La Rocca in a 2014 review of the project, “and was committed to bring about development … while preserving the herders’ traditional lifestyle.”
The government decided that the best way to do this would be to get solar panels in as many homes as possible. In the early years, the program looked like a failure. Limited in its capacity over such a massive area, the central government could only distribute and repair systems out of the capital. Plus, even with subsidies, the smallest wattage setup still cost about a year’s salary for an average nomad while the largest capacity cost two years’ wages. In 2006, six years into the project, they’d only managed to unevenly distribute 33,000 systems. Then, in 2008, international donors stepped in, led by the World Bank, and for once actually delivered as promised.
The project was flooded with $12 million in grants from the World Bank, the International Development Agency, and the Dutch government, a surprisingly proactive ally of the Mongols who also helped to reintroduce a population of wild Przewalski (Takhi in Mongol) horses to the country. The cash boosted the subsidies, slicing prices in half, and helped with the logistics of trucking panels out to the most remote corners of the country.