On July 30th, 2005, I boarded a train in Moscow and began my journey with six days on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Three months later, I left in the same fashion, traveling south slowly by train to Beijing. In between, I used my time in Mongolia to wander from the desert to the mountains, from the grasslands of the central plains to the forests and lakes in the north.
My progress across the Mongolian landscape by horse, bicycle, truck, forgon and on foot, was a movement from family to family, a landscape filled with warm stoves and food, welcoming smiles, conversation and unimaginable hospitality.
1. Arrival: Ulaan Baatar
Mongolia is one of the few nations in which pastoral nomadism is the dominant culture and occupation. The following passages will follow my travels primarily through the countryside, but they will also begin to explain a broader picture of nomadic life, one in which markets, truck stops, villages and even the distant capital are just as important as the countryside, in which a truck is just as vital to holding tradition as a horse or a camel. In Mongolia, I found a place of very fluid boundaries, where even the most stable of object seem to gently peter out around the edges. It is hard to identify the point in which the countryside begins, lest there be some natural or geological fixed, but socially arbitrary boundary such as the rim of a valley or the bank of a river. Even though the point of separation, physically or mentally can be hard to define, I found that for most of the Mongolians I met, the binary categories of nomadic and settled, or "countryside people" and “city people” were useful categories to which people readily self described, even as they saw and were eager to speak about the gradient between those two poles.
Movement, nomadism, security, housing, weather and the land are constant topics of conversation in Mongolia. People were very eager to talk to me about what it means to be a herder, why they stay in the countryside (or have finally left) and what they see as the fundamental differences between nomadic and settled communities.
“Countryside people” live off the land by raising camels, yaks, horses, goats and sheep in every part of the country from the deserts of the Gobi to the Altai Mountains. Mongolians living in the countryside may move anywhere from four to ten times a year depending on climate, availability of water and fodder for their animals, and personal preference. When they move, they bring their homes with them, as well as all of their belongings. These graceful structures, called ghers (Mongolian), keegeezoui (Kazakh) or yurts (Russian) are constructed from wood, felt, fabric and rope, are incredibly durable, can be set up and taken down with great ease, protect their inhabitants from wind, rain and severe cold. They form the foundation of nomadic communities and countryside life.
While in Mongolia, I looked to these structures, as well as the patterns of the camp, migration and settlement in order to better understand the context of contemporary nomadism in Mongolia and how these ideas are materially expressed through architecture and material culture.
Still, no matter how independent, most nomadic families have some connection to more settled structures. Nomads sell animal products and craft work on the open market, either in person (by traveling to a soum or aimag) or by trading with some businessman, often a family member. They move with ease between capitalist and barter systems. Depending on their wealth, they might trade animal skin, mare’s milk or cheese products for anything from flour for their daily bread to satellite dishes. They send their children to schools in villages and sometimes to university in the capitol. They use rented trucks to move their camps and take out loans from banks to invest in more animals or equipment.
So, while the city and countryside may be seen as opposite or antagonist structures, in the Mongolian example, they are also merely elements of a larger system of trade, economics, infrastructure, family and culture that encompasses the entire Mongolian landscape and extends to a larger global marketplace. In this system, we find the real strength of Mongolian mobility and the complex nature of a much larger system that supports and is in turn supported by nomadic communities.
While nomadism is central to Mongolian cultural identity, and many Mongolians are still working their herds, each year more and more families leave the countryside and move to the cities. In the last ten years, the population in Ulaanbaatar has more than doubled. It is now estimated that around one third of the population, just over one million people live primarily in the capital - mostly in the ever-growing gher suburbs/slums that form the periphery of an already polluted and strained city. I began my project with an interest, not in some idea of a pure nomadic countryside, but in the negotiation of what it means to be a Mongolian in the city.
During my stay in Ulaan Baatar, I was able to view the city in light of the question, what does it mean to build the capital city of a nomadic nation? If nomadism is the dominant paradigm, a norm to which settlement is compared as opposed to the other way around, and if city folk are altogether deemed suspicious in some way; after what image can the city be fashioned?
I traveled to Ulaan Baatar overland from Moscow on the Trans-Siberian railroad. I wanted to arrive slowly, passing over the ground before stopping and sitting with a far different pace of travel than I would have experienced if I had flown in from Beijing or South Korea. I also wanted to understand, in a tiny way, the connection between Ulaan Baatar, Moscow and Beijing. For six days, I lived within this mobile marketplace in which everything from socks to potatoes to small electronics are sold out the train window, the marketplace of the cabin overflowing into the marketplace of the platform. I met families of salesmen who make their living off this jouney and the many marketplaces it connects. The train stringing together a necklace of small villages, outposts and cities in which one may heard a dozen dialects, but is not required to speak any of them.
The spirit of these train cars, the constant drinking, sharing of food and stories, the generosity of companionship, curiosity and quick friendships would not end when I disembarked in UB. It continued in the stationary markets of the capital, the fabled black market and the smaller vegetable stalls and meat markets across town. It continued in every shared jeep and in every small village outpost. Thinking about these sites of trade and exchange helped me see the dynamism in a city at first so overwhelmingly static, so artificially grand in scale and shabby in effect.
While the systemic metaphor of Mongolian towns and its single city is the marketplace, the architectural signifier of Ulaan Baatar is the Soviet style square. I often felt inexplicably in between time as I walked the streets of the city. Shops and restaurants had a strange way of looking closed, even when they were not. There was a certain solemn quiet to the place I have never seen in larger western cities. Ulaanbaatar has that rare Mongolian talent or being over crowded while feeling deserted. The vastness of the over-scaled squares, museums and monuments do more to hide the population and the small moves of daily life than exalt them. Just as in the countryside, the only truly crowded places that I encountered were the markets and shared vans that make up the city’s public transport system.
The center of the city is marked by Sükhbaatar Square, a large open plaza which lies before the enormous parliament building and is flanked on all sides by banks, museums, hotels and other governmental buildings. The square is entirely empty other than a statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, an important independence leader on horseback. The site was chosen because it is where Sükhbaatar’s horse peed (an auspicious symbol for herders) during a red army gathering. To the south of the square is a loose congregation of the city’s cultural institutions, including not only the bright pink national theater and opera house, but also countless pubs, karaoke bars, sports clubs, discos and expensive or foreign restaurants filled with Korean businessmen and a light sprinkling of tourists. To the north and east is the education district with its dozen or so universities, international schools, music centers and a single tech park. To the west lies Choijin Lama Monastery, one of the only monasteries to escape the widespread destruction and persecution of the soviet occupation.
The monastery reminds us that while UB may today be a symbol of settlement in the harshest of climates and fluid social conditions, the city itself was once nomadic and has undergone much transformation during its long history. The history of the city can be traced back to its founding in 1639 as a “mobile” gher monastery ( called Orgoo, meaning palace yurt in Mongolian) which moved along the Selenge, Orkon and Tuul rivers. The city itself settled permanently in 1778, but nearly all of the large, soviet style buildings that many associate with the city were built only during the socialist period following WWII. With the completion of the Trans-Siberian railroad in 1956, city underwent the long transition from a monastic marketplace in in which spiritual study and ritual performance was concentrated and exchanged along with more worldly goods, to a modern and indeed globalized center of exchange.
What is not so commonly seen or spoken of is the real destination for the thousands of migrants to the city. The new urban population is not principally living within the concrete apartment towers springing up all over the capital. Most people I met who were new to the city scoffed that the government would have to pay them large sums of money and surely vodka as well to live in “those concrete boxes”.
The new urban population, a mixture of students coming for higher education (and often staying for work), "upwardly mobile" families looking for industry jobs and nomads who have lost their herds to the zuds (extremely harsh winter storms) or simply sold them off wind up adding to the ever sprawling gher suburbs. These large settlements composed of thousands of ghers and houses crammed together with neither the infrastructure or space I would see later in the orderly, though ultimately sterile aimags. They had the appearance that they were quite temporary, that families were not quite sure they were staying, not quite sure they could handle being in the city at all.
In UB, I could not even get a straight answer out of anyone about where the land could be bought or sold and while the settlements crammed closely together over the gentle hills, families, even those who had been there for years, never built “permanent structures” out of concrete or metal as their main dwelling and I never saw any structure taller than a single story.
After a week in the capital, I received an email from Bolatbek, my primary contact in Western Mongolia asking if I have arrived and urging me to come out to Bayan Olgii before it gets too cold. Winter was coming a little early that year and soon the lakes would begin freezing near the Altai Mountains, a signal for families to move to their autumn camps.
Still, I had just begun to settle into the city and too many questions remained about the situation of housing in both the looming concrete towers going up across the city, and in the sprawling gher shantytowns. Who lives here? Who is this all being built for? Who owns the dozens of enormous banks that fill the entire city center? Where does the money come from in a country that doesn’t produce anything?
Despite the absence of satisfactory answers to any of these questions, I took Bolatbek’s urgings to heart and set myself on the task of finding transportation west and through this process, I began to understand the distance (socially and spatially) between Ulaan Baatar and Bayan Olgii. It is transportation that proves to be the main obstacle for any trip in Mongolia, especially for travelers looking to leave the plains immediately surrounding UB. Nearly everyone that I met in UB was headed south to the Gobi or north to Lake Khovskol on group trips. I searched for anyone willing to hire a jeep or jump in a public truck 3,000 km to the mountains and found no takers.
Eventually, I met a group of three women who have put together a horse trek through the Namarjin Valley in Khovd (the state just to the south of Bayan Olgii) and decided to join their trip. The women had hired a lovely guide in her early thirties named Aamga, who made arrangements for our flight to Khovd, the rental of a truck and driver who would help us find horses to rent from a local herder.
I left most of my belongings in storage and packed a small bag assuming I will be back in just a few weeks. The next day, we flew directly to Khovd Aimag in a tiny jet filled with German game hunters headed west for a slightly more aggressive interaction with the locals.