Monday, May 26, 2014

Celebrating Mongolia’s Beautiful, Brutal Winter Cold

Mongolia is in the midst of rapid change driven by a booming mining industry. People are moving out of poverty, and the country’s cities are encroaching in places on a vast wilderness where nomadic life continues.

The shifting ways of life on the Mongolian steppe have captured the imagination of photographer Chiara Goia, who first went there in 2008. She felt immediately familiar with the region, reminded of the mountains of Italy she visited as a child. Goia returned to Mongolia last year to experience its intensely cold winter and visit the Lake Khuvsgul Ice Festival, held each year on its frozen waters.

“I wanted to see what changed and how,” she says. “And I wanted to see and experience the frigid winter everyone was talking about with such awe. I’ve never ever felt this way anywhere else in the world. You really understand how small you are, and you really understand the power of nature.”

The festival, first held 15 years ago, is held each March, when nighttime temperatures can reach below -20 Fahrenheit. Among the many activities staged on the meter-thick ice covering Mongolia’s largest lake (by volume) are tug-of-war matches and horse-drawn sleigh races, and spectators marvel at elaborate ice sculptures.

A major goal of the festival is to draw people to the region in the off months. This can be difficult, given that Lake Khuvsgul is about 400 miles from the capital city of Ulaanbataar. It’s a long way from anywhere, even by air—which is expensive. As a result, most of the people at the festival come from communities around the lake and across the border in Russia. Although Goira found the games and ice sculptures interesting, it was these people she photographed most.

“The most interesting thing is seeing them gathering there,” she says. “I didn’t really photograph the activities going on as much because to me it was more interesting what was going on around it, almost like being backstage.”

Getting there was no easy feat. Last winter, she spent 32 hours riding the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ulaanbataar, where she rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle to make the four-day drive to the lake. Driving made clear to her just how much the city had grown since her last visit. “The cities are undergoing a rapid expansion,” she says. “I remember seeing an area in 2008, at the edge of the capital, where people were living in yurts and that looked like a completely rural area. I visited again the same spot in 2013 and that place is now a highly developed area, with condos and roads.”

Mongolia is positioned to play a greater role on the world stage. The World Bank predicts the nation’s economy will grow at double-digit rates through 2017. The country’s rapid economic growth is changing the way of life for many of its people. Poverty levels are falling sharply, but it remains to be seen what these changes will mean to the country’s rural communities, which see less direct benefit from profits brought by the mining industry.

Goia returned again in summer of last year, and began photographing various mining efforts taking place around Ulaanbataar. The plan is to continue visiting Mongolia to document the changing cultural, urban, and natural landscapes in a book. She now sees herself as documenting a place and time in Mongolian culture as it faces the prospect of immense change.

“In my work, I am always interested in the relation of humans to their environment. And I am also interested in observing places in transition. To grasp the last moments of a culture in rapid change,” she says. “I see all this in Mongolia. At first I went cause I wanted to see and experience the nomadic life and understand how nature can impact human lives. Then policies on mining changed towards an exploitation of the country’s rich mineral resources and the process of transformation of the land and within the society began to speed up even faster. But that’s another story. I think this particular winter series is about adaptation, as well as a cultural record.”

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