National Geographic : 2003 Oct
AN OX-BACK RIDE is sometimes dangerous and always rough, but there's no other way to go: The adults are too busy herding to babysit. With tourism and development on the horizon, the next generation may find a new path. husband's face, lights him a cigarette and then one for herself, and they smoke with tears still in their eyes. "Virtuous people came to our house today," she says as we get up to leave. Cliff him self is crying as soon as we're out the door. It seems like such a simple equation. "I was thinking of purchases I made to come on this trip-I bought a vest for $130," Cliff says later. "I couldn't just walk away." But the irony of what Cliff has done is not lost on any of us. We came here to document this migration while it still exists-it's much of what makes life in the Dar had special, and it may be just a matter of time before herders start migrating by truck instead of oxen. And here we are, making it possible for a family to travel by truck. BEFORE I CAME TO MONGOLIA, I was enamored with the notion that you can get on a horse at one end of the country and ride all the way to the other side-roughly the distance between Denver and my home in Washington, D.C.-without hitting a fence or a paved road. When I read about Prime Minister Nambaryn 108 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2003 Enkhbayar's plan to build a highway across the country, and his dream of having 90 percent of the population settled in cities by 2030 ("In order to survive we have to stop being nomads," he told one reporter), I cringed. From his seat in Mon golia's capital city, Ulaanbaatar, he saw a back ward country that needed to step into the modern age. From my seat in the traffic-choked streets of Washington, I saw the last unruined place. But how do you judge salvation or ruination? Cultural change is a tricky phenomenon, bring ing with it a bundle of trade-offs that aren't nec essarily obvious at first glance. Consider the impact of the Soviet era. Until 1990 the Soviet Union had Mongolia in a tight lock for more than six decades. Under direction from Moscow, Mongolia's socialist government obliterated the country's Buddhist establishment, killing lamas by the thousands and destroying the temples and monasteries that were the strongest institutions that most villages had. The government pres sured herders to relinquish their animals to col lectives and imposed bureaucratic strictures on a people who had rarely lived by clock or ledger.