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Mongolia
  Horsemen

PROFILE:

Hooya has always lived on the grasslands. She and her husband Sah-Hem, are from a long line of herders. It's the only life they and their 22-year-old daughter Shuju know. Though their lifestyle may seem modest, until recently, the family was doing quite well. They own 250 sheep, worth about $15,000.

In a nearby pasture their son is rounding up half the family's flock. They will be sold at the local market. Because of a recent drought, there won't be enough hay to last the winter. Though the family will lose money on the transaction, in a sense it could be a blessing in disguise. By reducing the number of sheep, their over-grazed pastures may have a chance to regenerate.

But today, Sah-Hem is coping with a more personal problem. He is preparing a special farewell dinner to honor his daughter. She has recently decided to seek work in a distant city.

This is the first time a member of their family will leave the grasslands. It's a decision Shuju's parents find hard to accept. Hooya fears that her children are losing many of the traditions passed down from generation to generation. For Shuju, it's a chance to enjoy some of the luxuries of China's expanding economy.

Her destination is Hailar: a city of over 200,000. Once a quiet agricultural village, it has become a modern industrial center in Inner Mongolia.

Employment and educational opportunities are luring millions away from the countryside, and it's rapidly changing the face of the grasslands. In the evening cultural change becomes more obvious — even older generations are embracing a more contemporary, though slower paced, existence.

But for those still living on the grasslands, the struggle between old and new has never been greater. Though most will agree that economic prosperity will make the lives of future generations easier — clearly over-grazing and the loss of culture.


There are few places on Earth as remote and isolated as the wind-swept prairies of northeastern China — in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. Yet the treeless steppes of Asia have sustained nomadic herders and horsemen for thousands of years. These are the proud descendents of Genghis Khan — and his tribe of celebrated warriors. Eight hundred years ago they ruled a vast empire stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean.

Horseman in Inner Mongolia

Horseman in Inner Mongolia


Inner Mongolia was also part of the legendary Silk Road — once the only link between Asia and Europe. Considered one of the world's most dangerous trade routes, desert caravans also brought new cultures, and nearly half a dozen major religions.

Less rain on the steppes of Mongolia and there would be desert — more and there would be forest.

Today the Silk Road traders and the Mongol warriors are long gone, but their spiritual and cultural legacies remain. Ancient Buddhist Temples are still sanctuaries for the faithful, and 400-year-old Mosques still beckon the devout.

Here on the steppes of Asia, the summers are hot and often without rain; the winters are long and cold. These are the ideal conditions for sustaining one of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world. Less rain and there would be desert — more and there would be forest.

In the summer months herders move from their winter settlements onto the grasslands, living in gers — small mobile tents made of felt and canvass stretched over wooden frames.

Children learn to ride at an early age

Children learn to ride at an early age


The herders will stay in a location as long as there is enough grass and water. When the pastures and ponds have been exhausted, families will move on — about four or five times during the summer. There are no fences out here — the grasslands are a shared commons — and like pastoralists all over the world they depend on the grazing patterns of their neighbor's animals to keep the ecosystem healthy. It has always been this way. But recently, a cherished way of life is in jeopardy — and the threat is coming from places far from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Though the abundance of food is a testimonial to China's economic boom, it has also contributed to severe environmental pressures.

Food markets throughout modern cities in China overflow with fresh produce and once unimaginable luxuries like milk, eggs, and meat. Not very long ago these food stalls were empty, but today the nightmare of extreme hunger is long gone. In fact, China accounts for a quarter of the world's consumption of meat. Though the abundance of food is a testimonial to China's economic boom, it has also contributed to severe environmental pressures.

To exploit the growing demand for meat, herders have increased their cattle, sheep and goats from 100 million head to over 400 million. However, there's not nearly enough pasture to support the increase in livestock, and extreme over-grazing has created a crisis.

Meat stall in Chinese market

Meat stall in Chinese market

Cattle are suffering, and without the protective cover of grass, nearly 73 million acres are in danger of turning into wasteland. In the spring, seasonal winds often spawn massive sandstorms.

Three hundred miles to the east, these storms often paint China's capital a haunting yellow. For days thick dust covers Beijing's horizon, traffic becomes a nightmare, and the stifling air causes respiratory problems and severe discomfort. Though controlling grassland degradation is difficult, there are ways to ease the problem.

But for those still living on the grasslands, the struggle between old and new has never been greater. Though most will agree that economic prosperity will make the lives of future generations easier — clearly over-grazing and the loss of culture are taking a toll. It's a problem challenging people all over the world.


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