The Endangered Sacred Lands of Mongolia

People who live a nomadic life learn how to respect the land that supports them. They learn to become a part of the environment that supports them, and they find it easiest to live harmoniously with their surroundings. Today, very few nomadic cultures still exist.  In a few short years, we will have lost the opportunity to learn about them and from them.

It has been suggested that agriculture was the downfall of mankind. Across the globe, the effect of stationary lifestyles is taking its toll on the planet. Perhaps the greedy human condition, the idea of ownership, is a product of no longer having to be able to carry all of ones belongings on your back. Or perhaps it is simply a desire for the conveniences that most of us take for granted. Cell phones, cars and markets really do change the way that we interact with our world. The energy it takes to run the conveniences has an obvious negative impact on the planet. Less obvious is the effect of how people earn these belongings.

At some point in the development of the modern world, we stopped living harmoniously with the planet, and started to see it as a disposable resource. We took from it what we wanted, and in the process turned what we wanted into what we needed. If we were to end all of our destructive practices today, society would crumble, and I believe we would be forced to return to the lives of nomads that most of us abandoned long ago.

There are few places in the world where people still live a truly nomadic life. These people, who still live their lives in motion, are slowly being absorbed into the “modern” stationary lifestyle that has proven harmful to the planet.  Mongolia is a country where people strive to keep up the freedom of motion that they had hundreds of years ago and where nomads still move their lives with their livestock to greener pastures.

Genghis Khan, the man who unified and established Mongolia on an international scale, was himself a nomad who valued the land that he lived on more than the comforts of his belongings. As a testament to this he built very little to be remembered by, other than his terrific reputation. He died in a tent that was much the same as the one he was born in, even after conquering much of the world.  Upon his death, his body was carried for over a thousand kilometers so that he could be buried in an as of yet undiscovered site, deep in the sacred lands. It was only in these sacred places that he believed his body would be able to remain unmolested forever.  At the time, no one dared disturb this land. These sacred lands have endured and most are now protected as national parks.

Borders do not come naturally to nomads, and people who have traveled freely their whole lives are not only having to deal with the modern world as it steadily creeps in on them, they are faced with the rapid expansion of the Gobi desert.  It has been calculated that the Gobi will completely overtake Mongolia in only 25 years.  China and Mongolia are fighting the rapid expansion of the desert by planting trees at its margin.  They hope the trees will slow the desertification which at the moment is racing along at 3,600 square kilometers a year.  Mongolia is shrinking even though it’s borders aren’t.  To adapt to this world, some of the nomads have changed their entire existence, and to survive have abandoned their nomadic lives and have struck out to find their fortune in the sacred lands by mining for gold.

Some of the mines are exactly as we would imagine them, with hundreds of workers and gigantic machines chewing into the earth. They even have offices occupied by wealthy businessmen who drive around Ulaanbaatar in fancy cars. Others have earned the designation of “ninja mines.” These mines are worked by smaller groups, who descending on a promising dig in a fury, work without permits, and make haste so as to go undetected. Many of these mines are in the sacred lands so they must work quickly. They take what they can in a short burst, and then they disappear, leaving behind only scarred landscapes to show that they where there.  In the race to get rich, no place remains sacred.  Meanwhile, the nomads move their sheep to richer pastures.

The effects that these mines have had on the land is not just cosmetic. Rivers used for washing away the dirt that hides the precious gold run thick with silt and heavy metals unearthed by miners. These contaminated rivers were a vital ecosystem that have nurtured a rare and impressive fish.  The taimen is the worlds largest relative of the salmon. These fish are known to reach upwards of 50 pounds and have attracted the attention of anglers from around the world who seeking a novel challenge. Most of the anglers practice catch and release with barbless hooks so as to minimize their impact on the already dwindling population of the taimen, but their conservation efforts may do little to save the fish.  The amount of silt that enters into the water buries fish eggs, hides the fishes prey, and ultimately destroys an ecosystem that has developed in these rivers for millennia.

It is a classic story that is all too common in the story of man dominating nature. We take what we want, and ignore or find some reason to justify the consequences. As is the case in many remote regions of the world, the animals and people whose lives are at stake are barely known to outsiders, and without a public voice, will disappear forever.

My journey, like the lives of the nomads, begins without borders. I will be starting out in the far north of China, where it is said that Genghis Kahn was killed either during or shortly after a battle with the Tangut people. This region on the edge of the Gobi Desert is a harsh, inhospitable place, and when Genghis died, his army marched across it carrying his body, heading to the sacred lands far off in Mongolia. What was it that made these men so determined to carry him so far? I can only know by taking the journey myself.  I will be traveling at first by camel, and then switching to horses once I cross the Gobi desert.  I do not see the advantage of seeing how far I can travel in how short a time.  Stories like these do not reveal themselves fully until the adventurer has paid their dues.  I will travel at the speed that the experience requires.  My journey will only differ from that of the warriors of Genghis Khan in that the Gobi is now far larger than it was in their time.

By traveling in this way, I will be able to take my time and really learn about the land and the people that inhabit it. Along the way I aim to meet nomadic people living far from the cities, the mines, and the modern world. I will travel with them when I can, and experience their way of life. It is only by living with them and learning about their lives that I can understand what makes the land sacred to these people.  I will see first hand how the nomads grazing their livestock is aiding the expansion of the Gobi, and I’ll see how their lives are being affected in return.

Perhaps most importantly, I will also be searching for evidence of and documenting the “Ninja Mines.” In the process I hope to understand why it is that the miners no longer see this land as sacred, or if they do why it is that they feel they can desecrate the land. I will also be incorporating some of the larger mining operations into the story so that I can juxtapose the effects of major verses minor mining operations.

I will be working along side local collaborators for much of the time, and have contacts in government (the Ambassador to Mongolia for Kuwait) that can help me along the way with connections, shipping in equipment, and lodging while I’m in the city. I’m sure that for part of the time I will be traveling by car, and will be working out of Ulaanbaatar, so the value of a local collaborator will be paramount.

Many of the places that I will be will also offer the chance to document the rare animals of Mongolia that, though they are not directly affected by mining, are subject to poaching for the same reasons as some people turn to mining.  I’ll be in the same regions as the taimen, bactrian camel,the snow leopard, and the saiga

Saiga horns for sale in the background

.  The saiga is a rare antelope poached for its horns which I’ve seen for sale in Hong Kong markets.  Sadly, the snow leopards greatest enemy in Mongolia is the nomads themselves who see the animal as a threat to their livestock.  Although my focus is the mining, I believe the opportunity to document these rare animals may present itself and add depth to this story.  I will be using underwater cameras to photograph the taimen, and camera traps for the saiga and bactrian camels.  The chances of me capturing a snow leopard is next to nothing, but when I’m in their territory I will employ a camera trap in an effort to photograph them.

In summary, this expedition will focus on how the shrinking of usable land in Mongolia is forcing people to change their view of the sacred lands in Mongolia and the many threats that face them.  Primarily mining for gold, and secondarily poaching. My medium will be photography and experience gleaned from true exposure to the culture and to the land itself.  This is an ethnographic story that can only be told properly by spending time fully immersed in it.  In living this story I will document the lives of those people who see these places from opposite perspectives: As a resource and as sacred.


About Ben Horton
Highly influenced by his love of travel and adventure and his constant search for something new, his imagery is vibrant with fresh and creative energy. Raised in Bermuda, Ben Horton has spent the majority of his life traveling and seeking out new adventure. Ben is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Young Explorer award for research on Cocos Island involving shark poaching. This led to becoming a photographer for National Geographic, and has allowed Ben to continue his passion for adventure. Follow Ben on Instagram

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