Inner Mongolia, China – Traditional music floated across the freezing grasslands that stretched far into the distance. Inner Mongolia is China’s strategic frontier and home to its Mongolian ethnic minority.
They are the descendants of the Mongol warrior, Genghis Khan, who on horseback eight centuries ago swept across much of Asia, creating one of the world’s greatest empires. Today, the Mongolians still celebrate their traditions at nadaams – or traditional games.
Hundreds watched as a train of camels swept into a small stadium on the grasslands, their hooves kicking up the snow. Some of the animals pulled wooden sleighs with children sitting in them.
They were ridden by Mongolian herdsmen wearing traditional blue, green and red lambskin outfits to protect them from the bitter winter cold. Throughout the day, the crowd watched camel racing, archery on horseback, and traditional wrestling. But most of this was for show. The nomadic way of life is fast disappearing.
Many of the Mongolians arrived at the event in fancy four-wheel drive vehicles. Looming in the background, smoke from chimney stacks curled up into the blue sky – there is no escaping the modern world here.
A resource boom is bringing sweeping change to the region.
“Mining is destroying our environment,” Tsogjavkhlan, a university student, told me.
“Maybe in the future we won’t have a place to live like traditional Mongolians. Our nation will vanish – the Mongolians will vanish.”
Occupying 12% of the country’s land mass, Inner Mongolia is rich in resources – coal, gas, rare earth metals – which are being mined to fuel China’s breakneck economic growth.
The region now accounts for a quarter of domestic coal production.
But the huge mining projects have scarred the landscape and brought pollution to a once pristine region. Mongols say that mining, along with desertification, is ruining their grasslands.
The unprecedented mining boom has also brought a wave of Han Chinese migration to the region.
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