Mongolia

-- A horse rider makes his journey into the Mongolian countryside after the Nadaam Festival.

These pictures are about the strange and sometimes ethereal beauty I saw during a short trip to Mongolia during 2002, nearly a decade after the fall of Communism. Someone I knew had arranged the trip with the government of the country. He asked if I’d like to come along provided I could pay my own way.

A couple of months later we landed. We’d been stuck in South Korea for a couple of days but we arrived in the middle of a windy night on a plane packed with Mongols. The foreign minister met us in the airport. We had lunch with famous singers, tea with the Prime Minister. We were regaled with stories from a herder about his champion horses a mile outside the capital sitting in a dwelling called a ger drinking fermented mare’s milk and vodka. They cooked our dinner on rocks. We visited a holy site called the Mother Rock and learned of the demise of the people who attempted to destroy it for the Soviets. We also visited a secret wrestling training camp. We met the most powerful Buddhist leader in the country, learned about shamans, and went to see a 50-foot tall religious shrine. And then we met a man who said he wanted to open a McDonald’s in a country that doesn’t have one yet.

What I learned during my week there is that Mongolia is a nation caught between the past and the future. For nearly 80 years the country was under indirect rule by its neighboring Soviet Union. During this time institutions, hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old, were altered and often destroyed. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, during the early 90s, the once feudal nation has experienced a resurgence of Mongolian Buddhism and nearly lost traditions.

Meanwhile, Mongolian society is coping with a sudden shift from an agrarian and industrialized Soviet economy of closed borders to the modern world of globalization. Hopefully these pictures provide a snapshot of what is an extremely beautiful country with a long history and rich culture.