Old Ways Disappearing In The New Mongolia With desertification, drought and a booming mining industry, Mongolians are leaving the traditional life of herding. Herdsman Bat-Erdene Badam says he will be the last in his family to tend livestock. His children are trading in their nomadic lives for more stable, often urban jobs.
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Old Ways Disappearing In The New Mongolia

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Old Ways Disappearing In The New Mongolia

Old Ways Disappearing In The New Mongolia

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All this week, we've been traveling through Mongolia. It's a country of great contrast, with vast, open spaces and natural beauty, but with a mining sector that is now booming. Mongolia seems to be racing from a nomadic culture to an industrial one practically overnight. To find out what all this means for Mongolia's many traditional herders, NPR's Frank Langfitt began his final story in this series outside the tent of one family in the Gobi region.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Spring's the time to comb cashmere from goats in Mongolia. One lies stretched out on its side in Bat-Erdene Badam's ger, or yurt. Animals' horns are tethered to the ground. A fellow herder rakes tufts of white cashmere with what looks like a gardening tool.


LANGFITT: The goat hates this.


LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene sells the cashmere for about $20 a pound. Combings from his 300 goats should bring in more than $6,000 this year. That's decent money in the middle of the Gobi, a mix of moonscape, mountain and increasingly arid grassland in southern Mongolia. But Bat-Erdene's three children have no interest in the family business.

BAT-ERDENE BADAM: (Through translator) Young people have stopped herding animals. There's lots of employment opportunities for them in the mining business, and a lot of other stuff. Therefore, I could probably say that the generation of herders is ending with me.

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene's daily life is a mix of old world and modern. He heats his felt tent with an iron stove. Rugs cover the dirt floor, and the walls of his corral are constructed of bricks made from goat and sheep droppings.


LANGFITT: But he also rides a motorcycle, uses a cell phone and watches limited satellite TV on a small black-and-white set powered by solar panels. When I visited, the romantic comedy "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" played silently in the background. Bat-Erdene lives with his wife and a high-school-aged son. Their daughter attends college in Mongolia's capital. His other son, Uuganbaatar, drives a dump truck at a coal mine.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) Two or three years ago, my elder son used to help us out. Now he's really tired of being a herder, because we depend too much on the weather and climatic conditions.

LANGFITT: Rising temperatures are drying out Mongolia's grasslands. Severe weather takes a toll, as well. In recent years, heavy snow and drought killed more than 400 head of the family's livestock. Bat-Erdene says for a new generation, herding seems too unstable.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) When someone has a regular job, it doesn't matter if there's severe weather or not. He can do his work, no matter what.

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene's son Uuganbaatar began working at the coal mine about a year ago. One afternoon, I met him outside of the gates of the mine. He's 22 and, like many young Mongolians, painfully shy. As we talked, he studied a water bottle he was holding, kicked the ground with his black Air Jordans. The mine is completely isolated in the desert, but Uuganbaatar says he has more friends here, and there's more to do.

UUGANBAATAR: (Through translator) I watch TV. There's a recreation room with ping-pong and pool, and there's a computer room.

LANGFITT: The camp TV is a big flat-screen. Uuganbaatar follows sports on the Internet.

What sports do you follow?


LANGFITT: Really? Who's your favorite team?


LANGFITT: He likes is the Orlando Magic and its star center, Dwight Howard. Mining's been good for Uuganbaatar. He makes $500 a month. Mongolia's mineral reserves are so vast, Uuganbaatar could spend the next several decades working them. But for his dad, mining is a threat. Mines need water to process minerals, and the mine that employs his son plans to get it from an aquifer beneath the family's grazing land. The local government had designated the area as protected, but Mongolia's central government has an ownership stake in the mine, and last year, it decided otherwise. Bat-Erdene is bracing himself.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) It was a very hard hit for us, because it's only going to speed up desertification, and we can see how that's already moving at a very high speed.

LANGFITT: The mine says it will draw from a deep aquifer, and won't affect herders' wells. Bat-Erdene doesn't believe it.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) Animals will be thirsty. People will be thirsty. It will be very hard.

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene supports his son's new career in what is becoming Mongolia's national industry. As to the dispute over the water, he doesn't bring it up. It wouldn't change anything, Bat-Erdene says, so we don't talk too much about it. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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