Two-year-old Jugderdem Myagmarsuren opens the door of his tent to play with his plastic scooter in the backyard. He is accompanied by sheep and cows. This is not an ordinary backyard. It’s the Mongolian steppe, and his closest friends might live more than two kms (1.2 miles) away.
While the world’s population reached 7 billion on October 31st, 2011, Mongolia remains the least densely populated country on the planet, with 2.7 million people spread across an area three times the size of France. Two-fifths of Mongolians live in rural areas spread over wind swept steppes.
According to the National Population Center census of 2010, Mongolia’s population density increased by only 0.2 percentage points– to 1.7 persons per square kilometer—from the last census in 2000.
In Shivert, 200 kms (124 miles) northeast of the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, Javzansuren Choijiljav, 72, and his wife Javzanpagma Adiya, 70, shepherd their animals out of a coral ahead of a long day on the steppe. As a nomad family, they are accustomed to packing up and moving their tent four times a year, but as they grow older they spend less time herding their cows and sheep, and more time working around their tent. They have contracted another younger couple to help them with their animals as the winter approaches.
Javzanpagma heats fresh cow milk on the stove. She says it’s harder and harder to find young people interested in working in the countryside because so many have moved to the city.
Every year between 30,000 and 40,000 Mongolians migrate from the far steppes to the fast growing capital Ulan Bator— the country’s most dense city.
Bordering Russia to the north and China to the south, this former satellite state of the former Soviet Union relies on its natural resources as an engine for economic growth. Its gold, copper and coal have attracted foreign investment.
Today more than half of all Mongolians live in the capital, including eight of Javzanpagma’s children, drawn by the promise of a better life. However, unemployment stands at more than 15 percent.
As Javzansuren continues his work (building shelters for his animals and storing potatoes underground where the freezing earth will preserve them) the horizon darkens under gathering clouds, which announce the coming winter. They hope the spring will come quickly so their animals will survive, and they can pack up and move again, continuing the cycle of their nomadic life, even as more and more of their fellow nomads move away for good.