In the Mongolian steppe, the first thing you notice is the silence.
It’s as all-encompassing as the landscape—an open stretch of green and brown plains set beneath seemingly endless blue skies.
Next, you feel as though you’ve entered another planet. Until you realize what’s really in front of you: one of the last true wildernesses on Earth.
It’s this intensity—the stillness of the land and its unspoiled nature—that initially inspired French photographer Frédéric Lagrange to visit western Mongolia in 2001.
Landlocked between Russia and China, Mongolia is considered the most sparsely populated country in the world. Its 605,000 square miles are shared by some 3 million people, nearly half of whom live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
The country’s vast terrains have served as roaming grounds for nomadic populations since the rule of the Mongol Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, Mongolia’s nomadic people make up approximately 30 percent of the country’s population. But as the world continues to modernize with the spread of technology to even its most remote corners, Mongolia’s remaining nomads have become some of the world’s last living practitioners of this lifestyle.
“Mongolian people had been very closed off to the rest of the world under Soviet rule, which was very evident during my visit,” he says. “There was very little technology and the country’s herding traditions were still widespread.”
Lagrange spent his first month-long trip to Mongolia mainly photographing the green, brown, and blue hues that decorated the landscapes in the western part of the country and, of course, the Mongolian people he crossed paths with along the way. But when he returned from the trip and looked at a map of Mongolia, he grasped just how little he’d actually seen of the country and felt compelled to explore more.
What struck Lagrange about Mongolia’s nomadic people was not just their intense connection with nature—it was their comradarie toward one another as well.
In Mongolia, the key to successful nomadic existence seems to be that everybody’s contribution is considered crucial.
“You can travel for miles sometimes and not see any villages or communities,” Lagrange says. “But when you do, you’re immediately invited into the ger [a traditional Mongolian yurt] for warmth and food.”
The harsh realities of a nomadic life in Mongolia—extreme sandstorms during spring and -35°F temperatures during winter—mean that community and teamwork are central to survival. Within Mongolia’s nomadic communities, men, women, and able children are commonly expected to partake in responsibilities such as setting up camp, herding cattle, and preparing meals equally—gender roles aren’t rigid or clearly designated.
“In a country that’s so vast but with so few people, there’s a very big element of relying on others to survive,” Lagrange says. In Mongolia, the key to successful nomadic existence seems to be that everybody’s contribution is considered crucial.
“Part of this country’s distinct history might soon be gone for good,” Lagrange says. “I wanted to create a body of work that leaves a trace of this way of life before it goes away forever.”
“One of the things I found most interesting, which I’ve never found in any other place I’ve traveled to, is that you don’t see fences anywhere in Mongolia,” Lagrange says. “The country is fairly flat, except for the Altai mountain range in the west, which means you can practically cross the entire landscape without running into one fence that will stop you.
“There was an incredible sense of freedom traveling in Mongolia. You could look any way, in any direction, and say: Let’s go there.” He pauses.
“So, that’s what we did.”
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