Thom Brown sets out to meet the nomadic herders of Mongolia and finds a country straining to redefine itself and embrace a tech-driven future. In a thorough investigation, he speaks with locals, researches the statistics, and reports back from a land where progress and tradition are learning to co-exist.
Most come to find peace. There’s nothing quite as serene, nor as solitary, as the endless expanse of the Mongolian steppe. It’s a place to find space, peace, and quiet – something the modern world is undoubtedly lacking. Mongolia is famed for its nomadic herders, who have been roaming these lands since long before the unification brought by Genghis Khan.
But nomad numbers are on a rapid decline and, in the space of just a couple of generations, the population has become less horseback wanderer and more IT manager. As modern Mongolia emerges, what does this mean for a national identity that is so deeply rooted in tradition?
Mongolia’s not a country well-known in Europe, nor is Europe well-known over there. Instead, Mongolian culture looks east to South Korea and Japan. Karaoke bars and sushi joints line the streets. Young people watch K-dramas before hitting nightclubs and dancing to K-pop. This is unsurprising as Korea and Mongolia are connected by over 800 years of history when the Ming Dynasty united the two nations under one Chinese Empire.
Those in the West who do know a bit about Mongolia picture it as a vast, sparsely-populated landscape. It’s portrayed as the Wild West without the violence, in which men and women with hardened skin travel freely through the steppe on horseback, unobstructed by agents of the state.
A place with few permanent buildings and even fewer paved roads, it’s viewed as a bastion of unspoilt nature in an otherwise overly urbanised world. It’s considered the final frontier of peace, freedom, and enduring connection to Mother Earth.
Having recently visited the country, I’ve realised that modern Mongolia is far from this romanticised idyllic image. No, it’s an emerging technological powerhouse in the process of transforming into the Silicon Steppe, Mongolia’s answer to Silicon Valley.
What does this mean for the quality of local lives? Well, it means rapid economic growth and the opportunity for young people to achieve a life of luxury. But it may also mark the beginning of the end for Mongolia’s famous nomadic way of life and a move towards a culture that many view as bland, uninspiring, and lacking in heritage.
Mongolia: The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky
Like many Brits, Mongolia wasn’t a country that appeared on my radar growing up. Home to just 3.3 million people, it’s easy to overlook this East Asian nation. Encircled by Russia to the north and China to the South, it’s certainly overshadowed by the global powers that surround it. Yet it’s a country that deserves more attention. Unlike its neighbours, Mongolia is a land that values peace and democracy.
Mongolia declared its independence from China in 1911 and sought to adopt a radically liberal alternative. Along with 8.6 million square miles of the planet, though, it soon fell under USSR control.
Ulaanbaatar, the capital city which literally translates to Red Hero, is a reference to its long communist past. But like other parts of the former USSR, Mongolia fought for its national identity and control over its own territory.
In January 1990, a peaceful revolution erupted across the country. The youth of Mongolia took to Sükhbaatar Square and demanded a transformation to a multi-party political system with a market economy. This system remains in place today, mirroring the capitalist democracies of Europe, along with all the freedoms and hardships that this offers.
One beneficiary of this freedom is Zoloo, a Mongolian woman who helps coordinate volunteer trips to nomad communities. Having lived under both Russian occupation and now in a free independent Mongolia, I asked Zoloo how life had changed since the switch to capitalist democracy.
Zoloo hesitated for a moment. “I think it’s a good thing,” she said, eventually, “We have more choice now. But there is so much inequality, poverty, even while some are getting rich.”
It’s a sentiment familiar across capitalist countries, especially since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Despite the apparent social problems, I never felt in danger as a foreigner walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar. There were no beggars, pickpockets, or tourist traps. Instead, local people kept their heads down and got on with their day.
What’s more, corruption in Mongolia has reached a historic low in recent years, in part thanks to a law that protects human rights activists. This was the first law of its kind in Asia, proving Mongolia’s ability to buck the trend and blaze a trail towards a truly free, peaceful, and democratic society. There are also ongoing campaigns to strengthen protections for whistleblowers and investigative journalists.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Mongolia is best known for its hero and founding father, Genghis Khan. Estimated to have killed 40 million people, he certainly wasn’t a man of peace. Except that, when you ask local people, he absolutely was.
Accompanying me on my exploration of Mongolia was IT and customer service worker, Akbota. She was keen to show me one of her homeland’s top attractions, the monumental and iconic statue of Genghis Khan in Tsonjin Boldog, 33 miles east of Ulaanbaatar.
As we strolled towards the imposing statue, I asked her opinion of the violent warlord.
“Is he good or bad?” I asked.
Growing up, we in the UK were taught to believe that Genghis Khan was among the most evil, twisted men in history. His soldiers were known to brutally murder anyone who stood in their path, slitting their throats with relentless and blood-thirsty ease.
But Akbota stopped and stood silently for a while, her jaw hitting the stone steps that led to the enormous statue.
With more than a hint of exasperation and disbelief, she finally replied, “Good, of course!”
“Before Genghis Khan, our country was nomadic tribes all fighting each other. There was violence all the time because we weren’t united. Genghis Khan came and created an empire where all the tribes could live peacefully together. So actually he stopped many many deaths.”
And that’s why he’s their hero. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongolia. And Mongolians love their country.
The statue we visited, depicting the famous image of Genghis Khan perched proudly on his horse, is the largest equestrian statue on Earth. For a tiny population to build something so big – 40 metres tall, in fact – shows the unyielding veneration they have for the historical figure.
The statue sits atop a visitor centre, where you can learn more about the life and influence of Genghis Khan. Once inside, you can take the lift up the interior of the statue and walk outside onto the head of the horse. Trying my best to set aside my acrophobia, I ventured out into the horse’s head and soaked in the sublime sweeping surroundings.
This. This is what really draws people to Mongolia. The history, culture, and traditions are fascinating, but nothing is quite as awe-inspiring as the landscape.
Remember how Mongolia is home to just 3.3 million people? That’s in a country that spans 603,909 square miles. That makes it the most sparsely populated independent country on the planet. From the moment you leave the capital city, you’re met with vast, endless, and mostly empty countryside.
It’s a gentle, peace-inducing landscape that soothes the mind. It’s not dramatic like the Swiss Alps, nor flat like the tulip fields of Holland. It has soft rolling hills – pure white in winter, dusty brown in spring, and dazzling green in summer – that ebb and flow across the horizon, inviting you to peek over their peaks and see what’s on the other side.
And above your head is a crisp, clear blue sky. Of course, rainy downpours occur every now and then, but for two-thirds of the year, the country is largely cloudless. That’s how Mongolia got its nickname ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’.
I arrived in May, an interesting time weather-wise. Some mornings it would snow, before becoming a comfortably warm 20°C in the afternoon.
It’s a beautiful time of year, when cool nights encourage restful sleep and warm days with gentle breezes mandate hikes in this spectacular natural environment.
Meet the Nomads
If you know anything about Mongolia, then you know about its nomads. For thousands of years, nomadic herders have roamed this open and unspoilt landscape. For the vast majority of Mongolia’s history, they have comprised the bulk of the population.
Moving every few months to find fresh pastures for their cattle, they have everything they need. Herds of goats, sheep, yaks, and cows provide plenty of meat, milk, and fur, keeping families warm and fed.
Long before the USSR moved in with their warped version of communism, Mongolians were living in a kind of Anarcho-Syndicalist utopia, living off the land and causing minimal damage to the planet.
Keen to learn more about this lifestyle, I ventured into the steppe to meet a nomadic family. They had just moved to their summer camp, around 60 miles southwest of Ulaanbaatar.
Travelling with Zoloo, her husband, and a German volunteer called Stefan in a beat-up 4×4 truck, we first took paved roads to the village of Altanbulag, but this was only the start of the journey.
The rest of the ride was a bumpy one. Less of a road and more of a thin indentation – carved by the seasonal movements of nomads – took us deeper into the vast void of the wild Mongolian steppe. We passed countless cows, yaks, and horses, but no more than three or four humans.
After an hour or so, a small – by which I mean tiny – community emerged on the horizon: the famous white ger, a couple of brick buildings, a solar panel, a few planks of wood to conceal the toilet (a mere hole in the ground), and a horse tied to a line of rope that connected two poles. It was the iconic scene – everything needed to survive and nothing more.
The ger – known in English as a yurt (although this is a Russian word out of favour with locals) – is the fundamental building block of nomadic societies in Mongolia. It’s a portable, circular dwelling made from wooden beams wrapped in felt and thick rugs to contain the warmth.
And they really are warm. They have to be, in a country that regularly drops below -30°C in the winter.
Today, an estimated 65% of Mongolians live in gers, although many are seeing the benefit of rehousing themselves in brick-and-mortar homes.
Gers tend to face south in order to block the harsh winds that travel quickly in these empty and open plains. The ger is rarely attached to a road but rather sits alone on a field. Inside is just one room, laid out in a circular arrangement, moving clockwise around a centrally-located coal-powered stove. The stove sits between the two support beams and is a crucial source of cooked food and heat.
The left side of the ger is where the men sleep and store their riding equipment. The right is where women sleep and prepare food. The back wall is a sacred spot for family photos and religious icons. Traditionally, the men build the structure and the women sew the materials.
Most Mongolian families will live in the same ger for their entire lives. It’s like another member of the tribe, a travel companion keeping spirits high as herders traverse the steppe.
We were dropping Stefan off and leaving him for two weeks to offer a helping hand. The family he’d stay with consisted of Narantsagt, the father and head of the household, Tsetsgee, his wife, and Dambaa, their son. They’re reserved but smiley people with limited English.
Although they don’t see themselves as particularly needy, the nomads enjoy the support of foreign visitors.
“A lot of it is about cultural exchange,” Zoloo explained, “Nomadic people love travellers and want to learn more about them. But they’re also proud of their own traditions and want to show them off to foreigners.”
This feeling of pride for their national identity was something I came across often. From the city centre to the wilderness of the steppe, everyone understood what Mongolian culture was and wanted to share it with me. There’s a very clear set of customs and traditions; an unmistakably Mongolian way of life.
This trip to the countryside wasn’t only about cultural awareness, though.
“The volunteers do a lot to help out. It’s hard work on the farm and the nomads appreciate an extra pair of hands,” Zoloo explained.
We parked next to the ger and entered the home of the nomads. I was keen to remember the etiquette – take your hat off, turn left, and walk clockwise. You can leave your shoes on in the countryside, but definitely don’t walk through the structural poles supporting the middle of the tent.
It’s customary for the nomads to welcome guests with a bowl of fermented horse milk.
We were lucky enough to enjoy an entire meal of goat meat and rice soaked in milk. The food is heavy and densely packed with energy. It’s what’s needed out in this rugged terrain.
Stefan wanted a photo with his host family, but Dambaa, the son, was too shy to be involved. Instead, he sat in the corner, in his riding boots watching YouTube videos on his phone.
Even out here, technology is prevalent. There’s no WiFi or national grid to plug into, but the 5G signal is strong. Despite their traditional way of life, most nomadic people feel connected to the rest of the world, able to observe and learn about it through their smartphones.
It also provides a great way for foreigners and locals to connect, with Google Translate being used to communicate in spite of the language barriers.
An intense but humorous man, Stefan was quickly able to transcend cultural and linguistic difficulties with jokes, silly faces, and laughter. Once the ice was broken, Zoloo presented Stefan with a beautiful dress she’d bought from a market in Ulaanbaatar.
Called a deel, this traditional dress continues to be worn both in the countryside and the city. Usually, it’s for special occassions, but some older people wear it on an almost daily basis.
Stefan’s deel was blood red and held together with a sunny yellow silk sash. We watched his posture shift as he put it on, transforming into someone who felt confident, powerful, and important.
“I am Dschinghis Khan!” Stefan proclaimed, “Dschinghis Khan!” His host parents giggled loudly.
Stefan was taking a year-long sabbatical from his work as a psychotherapist. He told me that he was seeking his own therapy by exploring new and fascinating cultures.
He leaned in close to me, whispering so as not to offend anyone, and said “I was in Korea. It was shit.”
“I would get the train, see a forest for five seconds, then it would be gone. It was just big busy cities. I hated it.”
It’s obvious why someone with this mindset would find themselves in Mongolia, which represents the polar opposite of densely-packed cities.
As I got back into the truck with Zoloo, we left Stefan in the wilderness, more than 30 miles from the nearest shop.
He’d spend the next fortnight with three strangers who barely spoke a word of English, herding cattle, and defecating directly into a hole in the ground. And judging by the grin on his face, he couldn’t be more excited.
The Struggles of Nomads
There’s a certain romanticism that comes with nomadic life, but it’s important to be honest about its harsh realities. I visited in the springtime after the snow had melted and the famous blue sky was ever-present. This is a time of optimism for the herders, which covers up the hardship that arrives each winter.
The winter of 2022/23 was no different and was, in fact, perhaps the most difficult for many years.
It was reported at the end of May 2023 that snow and dust storms had wreaked havoc in the eastern provinces of Sükhbaatar and Khentii. At least 290,000 livestock animals were killed in these areas.
As the fundamental source of food, clothing, and income for nomadic herders, the loss of livestock can spell disaster. Animal herds enable this ancient lifestyle, but every year, their numbers are tragically cut by the blistering wind.
A landlocked continental country with vast open plains and a limited supply of tall mountains, dust storms travel freely and fiercely across the land. This dust inevitably ends up in the eyes of animals, leaving them blind, which, in very bad cases, can cause them to panic and run recklessly in circles.
Even more worryingly, the dust is inhaled by animals until their lungs are caked with mud. This leads to thirst and starvation that herders don’t have the resources to remedy.
Of course, snow and dust storms are also dangerous for humans. In the same period that led to the deaths of over 290,000 livestock animals, 127 nomadic herders were reported as missing. Two herders were tragically killed in the dramatic storms while the other 125 were eventually found.
Then there’s the dzuds, a weather phenomenon in which a dry period of drought is immediately followed by heavy snow.
In the first half of 2023, 13 out of 21 provinces in Mongolia experienced a dzud. During this time, an estimated 213,000 people required aid as a result.
Dzuds are unique to Mongolia and their frequency is increasing. Experts believe that this is partly due to climate change; a claim that is backed up by the fact that temperatures in Mongolia are increasing twice as fast as the global average.
Mongolia already experiences some of the most dramatic changes in weather. It certainly doesn’t need more uncertainty.
Ulaanbaatar is also billed as the most polluted capital city in the world, due to the frequent use of coal-powered stoves for cooking and heating. Out in the wilderness of the steppe, this is less of a problem.
But as increasing numbers of nomadic herders migrate to ger districts in Ulaanbaatar, air pollution is becoming the number one threat to life in Mongolia.
Halfway Haven: The Ger Districts
It’s no secret in Mongolia that the nomadic lifestyle is in decline. In ancient times, nomads made up nearly the entire population. As recently as 1960, roughly two-thirds of Mongolia’s inhabitants were nomadic. Today, the figure is estimated at around 20%. Meanwhile, 60% of Mongolia’s population lives in its capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
However, they don’t all work in offices and live in luxury apartments. Many have simply packed up their ger and driven to a patch of grass on the outskirts of the capital.
There’s a certain logic in doing this, the main benefit being that it means you don’t have to pay rent or land tax. You get to continue living the lifestyle you’ve become accustomed to while still having access to the city where you can secure a comfy well-compensated white-collar career.
It’s a compromise between the traditional way of life and the emerging modern economy.
The districts surrounding Ulaanbaatar’s city centre have become known as ger districts. These metropolises of tents are unique to Mongolia, forming self-created communities that often lack access to the infrastructure of the city.
Wanting to understand what life is like in the ger district, I found a local family that was willing to host me in my very own ger, located in Ulaanbaatar’s 24th district (known in Mongolian as a khoroo), more than an hour’s drive from the city centre.
It’s neither quick nor easy to get to the home of my hosts, Delgermaa and her mother, Chimid. Their battered lime green car coped well with the smooth paved roads of the city centre, but eventually it turned off into a grassy, muddy field where it bounced around like a wayward table tennis ball. We arrived at a heavy blue metal gate, which Chimid hauled open. Inside was a small patch of land containing two pristine white gers: one for them, one for me.
At around 5 am, the sky would lighten, bringing a panorama of rolling hills into view. Peering over the fence, I saw the endless sprawl of gers dotting the landscape, each one contained by a self-built fence. Cattle shuffled through the fields and a small stream trickled gently. Beyond that, though, the district was silent.
Not long after sunrise, Delgermaa would set off again and begin the drive back into the city centre. Like almost every other Ulaanbaatar resident I met, Delgermaa works in IT, which meant a long commute to the city centre. For those without a car, it’s hard to see how you could live in the 24th khoroo and hold down a job in the city.
It’s thought that 800,000 Mongolians – roughly 25% of the country’s population – live in these ger districts. For residents of Ulaanbaatar, this number rises to around 45%.
This migration away from the countryside to the ger communities began in the 1990s, with rapid growth occurring over the next couple of decades. From 1990 to 2013, there was a 588% increase in informal ger settlements. They went from covering just 32.15 km2 of land to 221.15 km2.
This was largely driven by a booming mining industry in the early 2000s. A country where 85% of households use wood or coal to heat their homes, mining has long been a huge part of the Mongolian economy.
In 2003, Mongolians were also officially granted freedom of movement within their own country, as well as the right to travel abroad. This meant that anyone who wanted to could pack up their ger and relocate to the city.
The khoroo where I stayed was typical of ger districts more generally. There were no paved roads (although the nearest one was a short walk away), no streetlights, no plumbing, no waste removal services, and water must be bought from government kiosks.
It was like having all the inconveniences of the countryside, but none of the benefits of city life.
I felt safe in the ger district, but a lack of police and streetlights means that petty crime after dark is inevitable, especially among those who are unable to find a job or commute into the city.
At the centre of my ger was a coal-powered stove. In winter, these get used around the clock and the air pollution becomes unbearable. The local people don’t like it, but they don’t have affordable alternatives.
The ger district is a difficult place to live and often doesn’t provide the economic opportunities that it promises.
Despite its name, there are plenty of brick-and-mortar homes in the ger districts. I asked Delgermaa why she continued to live in a ger.
“I look after my mother,” Delgermaa replied, “She refuses to leave. So I am stuck. When I get married, I will still stay and look after my mother.”
Delgermaa’s father had passed away and her siblings had relocated for work, so she was left alone to care for her elderly mother. Nonetheless, she approached each day with a sense of pride and joy for a simple, if difficult, way of life.
A Life of Luxury: Mongolia’s Yuppie Class
Those who make it past the ger districts and into Ulaanbaatar city centre enjoy a life full of modern comforts.
At the centre of it all is Sükhbaatar Square, known since 2013 as Chinggis Square after Genghis Khan. On the north side of the square is the impressive Government Palace, fronted by a monument to Khan himself.
At the square’s centre, there’s a statue of communist revolutionary figure, Damdin Sükhbaatar, straddling a horse, of course, his palm raised proudly to the eternal blue sky.
Glass skyscrapers tower in all directions, symbols of an emerging financial powerhouse that some are calling the Asian wolf (the successor to the Asian tigers of Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). While economies stagnate in the West, Mongolia is on a mission to catch up.
It was in this square that I remember first meeting Akbota, a self-proclaimed member of Mongolia’s Generation Z. She wore a white t-shirt and baggy blue jeans, the go-to fashion choice for many in their early 20s.
Around us, city workers wore suits and ties, moving quickly through the streets with tired eyes. It reminded me of many soulless cities around the world, where the aspirational middle class gather to climb the corporate ladder.
At the edge of the square, there was a stage with a large sign across the top that read “City of Nomads”. But it was clear that Ulaanbaatar is far from that. Sure, many people are descended from nomads, but that way of life simply doesn’t exist anymore. Not here. Not in the city centre.
This was a city as we know it in Europe, a city of settled people, just trying to get by and going to bars – usually karaoke bars – when life gets tough.
Akbota took me to her favourite coffee shop. It was a modern place stuffed with houseplants on a quaint street, tucked away a few steps from Sükhbaatar Square.
“I work at Autocom Japan as customer service manager. I love it there,” Akbota told me.
A student of International Relations, she’s found a career with plenty of room for growth.
Many young professionals in Mongolia work for Korean, Japanese, or Chinese companies. It gives them a chance to travel to other parts of Asia to learn new skills. They’ll return with the knowledge to maintain Mongolia’s economic growth, which is expected to hit 5.2% in 2023.
Another local woman, Enkhzaya, joined us in the coffee shop. Dressed all in black with large sunglasses masking half of her face, she presented a more creative, mysterious look. But where did she work?
“I work in IT.” I should have known.
“Do many people work in IT?” I asked her.
“Yes, many many people,” Enkhzaya replied with a wry smile.
She’s not wrong. Mongolia’s ICT industry is worth £31 billion, with over 300 companies employing 2000 engineers. This shift to a digital future is being heavily pushed by the government.
Until the 1990s, Mongolia’s economy depended heavily on agriculture and mining. However, these industries suffer in the winter and it has been crucial for the country to invest in an industry that could bring in money year-round.
Naturally, they’ve taken inspiration from countries like China and Japan, but the Mongolian government is also increasingly looking west, to Europe, in search of technological solutions.
For instance, a new government programme called Mindgolia takes inspiration from the UK’s very own Crown Commercial Service, which hosts a Digital Marketplace to help startups find tech specialists to get their projects off the ground.
Mindgolia uses the same model to keep the costs of software down and help new companies launch digital solutions to the country’s problems.
While technology might seem antithetical to Mongolia’s rural persona, it’s actually key to helping the country function. When the nearest government building is a seven-hour drive away, being able to access services online ensures equal access to support, even for the most nomadic residents.
That’s why the government of Mongolia is aiming to ensure that 90% of the population has access to the internet by 2025. My experience showed that they weren’t far off this goal, finding a 4G or 5G signal no matter how far I strayed from big towns and cities.
15th May 2023 was Europe Day in Mongolia. It’s designed to give Ulaanbaatar residents a chance to learn about European countries and discover new economic opportunities
However, the UK’s noticeable absence suggested that it should have been called European Union Day.
Pop-up gazebos – one for each EU member – and a jovial atmosphere filled the city centre. The job of each tent was to showcase the diversity of the European continent and open up friendly relationships between Mongolians and Europeans.
It was a perfect display of the soft power that comes with being part of a union.
Czechia was a particularly popular tent, offering free baseball caps and flags to visitors. However, it was its neighbour, Estonia, that drew my attention. Like Mongolia, Estonia has an incredibly small population, being among the most sparsely-populated countries in Europe.
This gives it a strong connection to its nature, the protection of which is ingrained in the country’s identity. Despite this, Estonia is one of the most modern nations on Earth and has developed a fully online government, known as e-Estonia.
It was in this tent that I glimpsed the ambitious plans of the Mongolian government. Its sixth and current president is Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh, the outward-looking leader of the Mongolian People’s Party.
Despite beginning with Marxist-Leninist revolutionary roots, the People’s Party transformed into a centrist, social-democratic group after the arrival of multi-party politics.
Khürelsükh has forged strong friendships with countries like the USA, but perhaps his partnership with Estonia is most interesting. Following in the Baltic state’s footsteps, there’s an emerging platform known as e-Mongolia that will connect the entire country to government services.
Estonia claims to have the only fully online government, which is estimated to have saved its citizens 820 years’ worth of time and resources. Will Mongolia become the second?
After exploring Europe Day together, Akbota suggested a trip to her favourite downtown cocktail bar.
On the ground floor of a swish hotel, it housed a noisy mix of locals and European visitors, winding down after a day of networking.
I wanted to use this time to learn more about Akbota and her family history.
“My ancestors arrived from Kazakhstan in 1911,” Akbota told me, “They were nomadic herders.”
But it all changed when her grandfather left the countryside and relocated close to the capital. Like almost everyone else who chose to settle in one spot, he was seeking a better life for his family, something that his son, Akbota’s father, was able to achieve.
“My dad became a doctor. He’s the best doctor in the city.” That city is Nalaikh, now a district of Ulaanbaatar, nestled between the centre and Terelj National Park. And so the nomadic herder cycle was broken.
Now, Akbota feels completely disconnected from that lifestyle.
“When I visit my relatives in the countryside, I feel like a foreigner. I don’t know what to do there, I don’t understand the customs,” Akbota explained, “I get told off for standing on the threshold, but I don’t know why it’s a problem.”
According to ger etiquette, you must carefully step through the door without touching the wooden threshold. No one quite knows why, other than “It’s tradition!”
Tradition. If I could sum up the Mongolian psyche in one word, that would be it.
But are traditions in danger of dying out if Mongolia embraces technology and allows the steady decline of nomadism?
What Next for Mongolian National Identity?
Mongolia’s future success is built on the rapid adoption and expansion of technology. Yet ask anyone what they know about Mongolia and they’ll speak of slow-moving nomads, rearing cattle and living in gers surrounded by nothing but wilderness.
This isn’t merely a stereotype, but a true reflection of the way that one in five Mongolians continue to live today. But even this nomadic population is embracing the benefits of technology.
The nomad family I met – Narantsagt, Tsetsgee, and Dambaa – survive off a single solar panel to charge their phones and power their television. They may not have WiFi, but the 4G signals keep them online.
These basic technologies have become a part of everyday life for most people, just as it is for 5.18 billion internet users around the world. This undoubtedly provides many benefits, but it also conflicts with the image we have of Mongolians as strong roaming warriors.
Akbota already feels estranged from her nomadic heritage that still existed just two generations ago.
“Yes, I worry that the nomads will die out. It’s what we’re known for, but those traditions are disappearing,” she told me.
The traditional lifestyle is turning into something of a tourist attraction, rather than a way of life for real people.
For the likes of Zoloo, Delgermaa, Akbota, and Enkhzaya, the decline of the nomadic way of life marks the end of Mongolian identity as they – and the world – understand it.
But they’re not willing to return to that life when the future holds so many exciting opportunities, especially for women, who make up more than 60% of university graduates.
For example, Asyel is a Mongolian woman who moved to Shanghai to pursue work as an account manager. She told me it’s a far cry from what she’s used to in Mongolia, explaining how “There’s nothing in the sky, no stars, no nature.”
At the same time, though, she remarked that “It’s not that I got to go to the big city for work. I could work there in Mongolia, but I don’t like the culture of Western Mongolia.”
“I am Kazakh. Most of the population in the west are Kazakh. Kazakhs get married really early. Pursuing a career and being a feminist is like an alien existing among them. And so I escape that. I get a lot of looks from uncles and aunties. Those looks…”
Those looks are the social pressure to continue in the tradition of your ancestors. But many young people aren’t interested in that. They see a brighter future, built on technology, freedom, and liberal values. Despite leaving the country to work, Asyel comes back to Mongolia just to “hug the soil” and feel connected to her motherland.
Some countries, like Japan or Estonia, have managed to cultivate a new national identity that remembers ancient traditions while embracing a technological, future-focused way of life.
Estonians continue to dance around bonfires during Midsummer while the Japanese host huge martial arts contests.
Mongolia achieves this via the Naadam festival, held each summer to celebrate traditional sports like wrestling, horse racing, and archery. It’s a powerful, unifying event that captures the national spirit.
But at what point does it leave the realm of practical living and enter the hollowness of ceremony?
The Silicon Steppe is Here to Stay
Ultimately, we can’t deny the inevitability of technology. In a population as sparse and widely distributed as Mongolia, the internet can help bind a community together and provide the services they need. Through the government’s willing embrace of the future, Mongolia is set to be transformed in the coming years.
Outside of the government’s investment in online services, businesses, charities, and NGOs are grasping the opportunities that technology offers.
Flashback to Europe Day, I remember finding a ger that had been set up near the centre of Sükhbaatar Square. Inside were representatives of People in Need, a Czech non-profit organisation that helps disadvantaged communities in more than 40 countries.
Charity workers stood inside the ger, circled around a seemingly simple-looking electric heater. This, they claimed, was going to save countless lives.
People in Need have calculated that 342,409 families continue to live in traditional ger setups. The coal heating and cooking systems at the centre of nearly every ger have been blamed for causing over 2,000 pneumonia-related deaths in Mongolia each year.
Furthermore, respiratory diseases are the leading cause of death among under-fives, accounting for around 27% of mortalities in this age group.
While the rest of the world may be investing in self-driving cars and AI chatbots, the technologies that can best help Mongolians are cooking, heating, and insulation products (known as CHIP).
An energy-efficient solution, these systems have been specially design for gers. They circulate clean air throughout the home and come with windproof and waterproof insulation.
Each year, this would help a family reduce their coal usage by an average of four tons, saving them around 56,000 Mongolian tugriks (roughly £12) a month. For workers on a minimum wage, this represents 10% of their income.
Beyond the health and financial benefits, CHIP also saves up to two hours a day compared to coal-powered stoves. This is time that can be redirected towards work, rest, or play, greatly improving life quality.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been created to bring CHIP to more and more families. To date, 137 workers have been employed in Ulaanbaatar to help spread CHIP throughout the city.
The Greentech industry is ready to breathe new life into Mongolian society, improving day-to-day living while helping slow the rate of climate change.
Mongolia is now ranked as the fifth-best country for startups in Asia, earning it the title of the Silicon Steppe. Its startup ecosystem is valued at 452 billion tugriks (roughly £100 million).
Around two-thirds of startups began operations in the last three years, showing this to be a brand-new phenomenon with room for rapid growth.
The biggest sector of Mongolia’s technology industry is education tech (36%) followed by artificial intelligence (26%) and marketing (25%). It’s no wonder that when you walk the streets of Ulaanbaatar and meet local people, they all seem to work in IT.
The rise of technology in Mongolia is supported by both government and business. Combined, this is a powerful trend that only looks set to speed up. The Silicon Steppe is here to stay and with it, a new generation of technologically literate, well-educated workers is emerging.
But what of the iconic image of the shepherd with wrinkled, leathery skin, who rides her horse into the wilderness, before returning after a long day to shovel coal into a dusty black stove until it’s hot enough to fry ribbons of goat meat?
Is this romantic picture fading away, only to be replaced by crowds of pale skinny geeks, tapping away at their laptops all day, before returning home to throw a ready meal into a shiny white microwave?
Of course, life isn’t that black and white. The culture, traditions, and heritage of Mongolia will remain. Perhaps the time has come for Mongolia to lead Asia’s tech revolution and bring prosperity to its citizens. The steppe is still out there, vast and magnificent, waiting to be explored.
And there’s no reason why tradition and progress cannot co-exist in harmony.