Today, Mongolia is a sparsely inhabited, highly mystical setting. Buddhist monasteries, stupas, monuments, and prayer flags punctuate the landscape, known as ‘The Land of Blue Skies’ . To the south, the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert sweep across the border with China, a terrain best suited to hardy camels. To the north and west, across the border with Russia, the land rises to steppe, hills, and rugged valleys, eventually climbing to mountain ranges and glacial lakes, highly inhospitable country in winter.
Shamanism is alive and well among Mongolia’s nomads, who regard the natural world around them – the sky, peaks, rivers, lakes, clouds, rain, and snow – to be alive and communicable. The river Tuul, one of the longest rivers in the country, is particularly revered by them, as is Hovsgol Nuur, one of the highest freshwater lakes in Asia. Rituals, songs, chanting, and herbs continue to play a role in traditional medicine, whilst horse-riding and equestrian skills – including spirited horse-races that thunder for miles across the open countryside - are the foundation of Mongolian cultural identity. Wrestling and archery, too, are particularly celebrated as ‘manly sports’, especially during the festival of Naadam in Summer.Â
Mongolia became independent in 1924 and allied itself with the USSR to avoid falling under Chinese control. In 1990, following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, democratic elections were held for the first time in its history. Recently, since an ideological shift to free market economics, Mongolia has begun to exploit its prodigious mineral resources. It remains an impoverished place, rapidly polarising, some 20% of its population living on less than US$1.25 / day.