Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

The Eastern Aimags


Outside of Chingis
Living in Ulaanbaatar it is easy to ignore what it's like to live in Mongolia. In this city of nearly two million, we have an apartment with hot and cold water, plenty of heat in the winter, and with only a short walk, we have been able to get fresh green vegetables straight through the winter. If I could read the Russian, Chinese, and Korean labels, I'm pretty sure I could find practically anything I want here. As it is, we are not wanting for much.

A three-day trip to the eastern aimags (states, in the US, or provinces in other places) of Khentei and Sukhbaatar with Judy and several other English Language Fellows to conduct teaching workshops was a quick visual reminder of some of Mongolia's vital statistics. Fleshed out in wide open space and small collections of gritty, weatherbeaten dwellings huddled together against the brutal Mongolian winter is the evidence that this country, even including Ulaanbaatar, has a similar population density as the land that is now the United States did in 1491.

We crossed kilometer after kilometer of hills and valleys covered with pale yellow stubble, with north-facing cuts that shelter naked larch and small clumps of stunted aspens, tortured by hot dry summers and winters that drop to -40°C. Occasionally there were groups of animals—sheep, goats, cattle, horses—dotting the landscape or bringing us to a sudden stop as they crossed the road. In this bumper year, there are nearly twenty of them for every human in Mongolia. In the countryside, where the animals are and the people aren't, the ratio is almost sixty to one. From the road as we lumbered along in our Russian Furgones, the ratio may as well have been a thousand to one. Perhaps the statistics could be explained if there were several hundred herders drinking milk tea in a ger that sits on the other side of the valley we have been following for the past half hour. Probably not though.

A closer look at the herds peppering the hills as we drive by and we can sometimes see a small shape that is different than the rest, with two legs instead of four, either walking or squatting casually as it keeps a herd of fifty, a hundred, or several hundred animals moving at a pace that allows each animal to feed adequately without killing off next year's grass. At night this herder will return to a ger that we have not noticed from the road, over a hill, in a south-facing draw, protected from wind and the view of what little traffic passes by.

Baruun Urt
In this land, at half past winter and a quarter till spring, most of the people are still living in towns, but they are much smaller towns here—Erdene, Bayandelger, Baganuur, Tsenkhermandal, Jargaltkhaan, Morun—all can be found on our Mongolian map but are unmarked or visible only at high magnification on Google Earth. We passed through Ondorkhaan, whose name has recently been changed to Chingis and is the capital city of Khentei Aimag. (Locals still call it Ondorkhaan.) Then, after dark, over mountains and past Munkhkhaan to Baruun Urt, the capital and largest city in Sukhbaatar Aimag, where we spent one night and a day of workshops before heading back to Chingis for the next two nights. Scheduled to leave in late afternoon, an uplanned truck repair delayed us until after dark. It is not a good way for a photographer to travel.

As is the case throughout Mongolia, people here are doing a lot with a little. The teachers we met were friendly and receptive and, on their Saturday off, eager to hear what the English Language Fellows had to offer. After documenting the workshops I had time to walk around both towns. There's a little money being spent on new roofs, fences, or additions to houses, but the big projects, such as the sixteen-floor tower next to Baruun Urt's central square, seem to be on hold. On a barren piece of land near the school, a soccer field is planned, steel pieces for bleachers stacked under tarps. Next to it a crumbling bank or school building from the Soviet era is being rennovated into a Christian church. Everywhere oil drums are flattened into sheet metal for fences and roofs, and tires worn beyond repair are fluted at the edges, then turned inside out and decoratively painted, transforming them into flower pots.

In Chingas I came across the first recycling center I have seen outside of Ulaanbaatar. Although it was closed on Saturday, rows of clear glass bottles were lined up outside, along with a small stack of car batteries. A man who was curious about me photographing them explained that they will be taken back to Ulaanbaatar to be crushed or melted down. For all the re-use of materials here, a second use for the many empty vodka bottles still waits to be discovered.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

The Eastern Aimags

Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.

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Road to Chingis

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Frozen River, Near Jargaltkhaan

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New Gateway

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Duragmaa, Judy, Chingis City

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Gas Stop, Greater Chingis

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Guard Dogs

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Muybridge Was Here

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Keynote, Baruun Urt

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Judy, Organizing

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Banana-grams

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Workshop

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Edge of Town, Baruun Urt

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Billboard, Stalled Construction

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Soccer Park

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New Church

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Re-Used Metal Fence

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Grocery Store, Chingis

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Leaning Tower, Chingis

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Recycling Center, Chingis

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Used Tires/Planters

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Moving Van, Rest Stop

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Travelers

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Herding Horses

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Open Range


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