Photo Essay – Scenes from Mongolia
Ready for some virtual travel?
Come with us for a visit to Mongolia to meet Mongolian and Kazakh nomads! Learn about their way of life and ask yourself what it would be like to live among the nomads. The gospel has spread among both Kazakhs and Mongolians in recent decades, but more in the cities than among the nomads. What would it take to see more of them follow Jesus? What aspects of their culture might enrich the global church? Think about how the body of Christ could build relationships with Kazakhs and Mongolians. And what about you? What would be your points of curiosity or connection?
Life of the Nomad
You may know them as yurts, but in Mongolia, they call these felt tent-like structures gers. About half the Mongolian population lives in one at least part of the year when temperatures drop below freezing. Thanks to the double layer of thick, felted wool, gers are warmer than houses. A small wood-burning furnace keeps them toasty warm—as long as someone gets up several times a night to stoke or relight the fire. Photo: Elizabeth Benn
A family of Mongolian Kazakh nomads may load their entire household onto camels. This family’s young son perches on top of the load to save his little legs. Two-humped Bactrian camels are abundant in Mongolia, particularly in the Gobi desert region and the western provinces. They are raised for meat and wool as well as transportation. These camels can carry enormous loads. Photo: Ella Benn
This woman milks yaks while their calves wait in a nearby stockyard. Yak milk, a staple of the local diet, will be made into yogurt, dried curd and a wide variety of other foods. Though each animal produces much less than a western dairy cow the milk is very rich and creamy. Nomad wives and daughters spend a significant part of the day milking the yaks and processing the milk. Photo: Jasmin Benn
Making a Living
A Mongolian’s horses are his wealth. During the coldest months of winter, this Mongolian herdsman and others trust their horses to a group of young men who lead the combined herd of some 2,000 animals from pasture to pasture. They may be gone for months and range over many miles to find grazing and stay safe from wolves. By March first, winter is over. It is only -25 degrees Celsius (-12 Fahrenheit). This photo was taken on the day the horses are returned to their owner. He counts the horses and confirms they are in good condition. Photo: Elizabeth Benn
This man, ethnically Kazakh, is a nomadic herdsman. He makes his living raising horses, yaks, sheep and goats. He keeps the ancient, traditional sport of eagle hunting alive. At the same time, he makes use of new technology like the smartphone. Even for these herders, the smartphone has become fundamental to life. Photo: Ella Benn
This man supplements his income as a herder by hosting tourists who want to stay in a ger. He heats the home with wood or dung, letting the fire go out to preserve fuel when the warmth is not needed. Here, he stokes the fire before boiling a bowl of salty milk tea for his guests. Photo: Jasmin Benn
This boy spends the school year with relatives in town, but during the summer he returns home to his nomadic family in the countryside and lives entirely “off the grid.” They have just hosted a visiting tourist who stayed with them overnight during a horse trek. The tourist brought a Polaroid camera so he could instantly give photos to the local people as he took them. The boy proudly shows off his photo print to the tourist, who also took this image.
Celebrations and Events
These nomadic herdsmen are dressed for a wedding ceremony. They are relatives of the bride. Note that cigarette smoking is very common in their culture, though the Christian community will often declare a believer to be a “sinner” if they smoke or drink. Photo: Murray Benn
This Kazakh Mongol woman is playing a traditional stringed instrument called the dombra. Music is central to Mongolian and Kazakh cultures, and songs are integral to all celebrations and events. But these days, some people lament the fact that almost every home, even a ger way out in the countryside, has a television. Photo: Jasmin Benn
Keeping the Old Ways Alive
This Kazakh Mongol woman is embroidering a felt rug. Her scarf and wall hangings throughout her ger are also ornate with Kazakh embroidery. Kazakhs are at least nominally Muslim, so their embroidery does not include the overtly Buddhist symbols you may see in the crafts of the Mongolians. Photo: Jasmin Benn
A Kazakh Mongol champion horseman carries the Mongolian flag at the opening ceremony of the Eagle Festival.
Horses play a key role in Kazakh and Mongolian cultures. It is said that a Mongol without his horse is only half a Mongol, but with his horse, he is as good as two men. A nomad’s wealth is measured by the number of horses he has, even if he makes more money from his other livestock. Horses are bred for bloodlines, raced in festivals, eaten for meat and used as primary transport. A traditional drink is made from fermented mares milk.
Eagle hunting is an ancient traditional Kazakh sport, largely lost in present-day Kazakhstan but preserved by the Kazakhs in Western Mongolia. Some say they are the last true Kazakhs. (Photo: Jasmin Benn)
- Explore other photo essays from Pioneers.
- Read Snapshot of the Unreached: Nomadic Peoples.
- This is only a small selection of the Mongolia photos this group of photographers shared with us. Some of them have portfolios online. See work from Jasmin Benn and Keegan Benn. Make sure you look at Keegan’s collection of work focused on Western Mongolia.
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