Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Scenes From Mongolia’s Changing Steppe

National Geographic Grantee Hannah Reyes is a photojournalist curious about cultures in transition—how old traditions are surviving, what remains under broader social pressure, and the new forms emerging through the fusion, interaction and conflict of cultures.

Mongolia is the most sparsely populated nation in the world, and it is home to one of the last surviving nomadic cultures. Their way of life has been largely unchanged for generations, with some herding customs pre-dating the era of Genghis Khan. But the steppe’s landscape is changing today. A large part of the nomadic population is moving to urban areas to seek employment, education, and modern conveniences, but the appeal of modernity draws not only those who have moved, but also those who have chosen to stay in the steppe.

Today those Mongolians who remain on the steppe merge old traditions with new means. They continue their lifestyle as pastoral herders, but many of them use motorbikes to herd cattle and horses. Gas stations dot the vast landscape. Ox carts for moving their homes are beginning to be substituted by trucks, as the availability of transportation and gas increases. A number of nomads have been able to acquire solar panels, a useful way for them to gain access to electricity without settling. They use solar energy to power television sets and to charge mobile phones. Their television sets are their main source of information and entertainment, and their mobile phones a way to contact their children attending boarding schools in the cities. Many Mongolians from nomadic families now study in the cities, but, during the summer, they come back to help their families maintain the herds, and a number go back to their nomadic lifestyle after having finished their education.

In a rapidly changing country, a change in people’s way of life is almost inevitable. But these changes are also keeping old ways alive. Rather than leaving their life on the steppes, Mongolia’s nomads are beginning to adapt in their own manner, and are able to reap the conveniences of modern society while still keeping an ancient and fascinating way of life alive.

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