Wild Country: Frédéric Lagrange’s Photographs Capture 17 Years of Mongolia’s Rugged, Unparalleled Freedom

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Üüreg Lake, Uvs Aimag, Mongolia, 2001 and 2018 (from left): Seventeen years separate these portraits of a man named Altai, and represent the amount of time it took photographer Frédéric Lagrange to create this book. A ranger most of his life, Altai is in charge of protecting the lake area from Russian smugglers. His years spent on horseback in harsh weather and a love of Mongol vodka have left their mark. Frédéric Lagrange

There are few places left on Earth where you can travel 600 miles without hitting a McDonald’s. One of those is Mongolia, a country twice the size of Texas where nomadic herders continue to live as they have for centuries. “There are no fences, no boundaries,” says Frédéric Lagrange, a French photographer who spent 17 years chronicling the seasonal movements of Mongolian cattle and reindeer herders. “You can walk from one end of the country to the other without being stopped," Lagrange tells Newsweek. "It’s complete freedom.”

The exception is Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, housing roughly 45 percent of the country’s 3 million people. The country regained its autonomy in 1990, transitioning to a democratic nation after 70 years of Soviet rule, and capitalism has exploded in the city. Here you can find shopping malls, internet cafes and traffic jams. Ulaanbaatar is currently the most polluted capital city in the world.

But just 10 miles away, time stands still.

Mongols move fluidly between the two worlds, maintaining their deep attachments to a past that extends back to Chinggis Khaan (often transliterated as “Genghis Khan”), the 13th-century warrior who founded the largest contiguous empire the world has ever known. Like Khaan, "they are fierce people,” says Lagrange, whose book, Mongolia, is out in November and available for preorder online on the photographer’s website. “Whenever there is an economic crisis, people leave the city and go back to the herds. It’s quite interesting; modern-day businessmen can herd cattle and ride horses extremely well.”

You’d have to be fierce to withstand the vicious sandstorms of the Gobi Desert or the subfreezing winters. “No fruits will grow, no vegetables, chickens or eggs—it’s way too cold," says Lagrange. "The only animals that survive are camels, yaks, reindeer, goats and sheep. That leaves fats, meats, breads, noodles and, of course, Mongol vodka.”  

And yet, wherever Lagrange went he was welcomed. “In every ger—or Mongol yurt [a portable tent]—there’s a spare bed and a spare meal,” he says. “It’s a way for locals to meet people and get news from the other side of the country. It’s almost mandatory to take others in and help them.” The long, vodka-fueled nights are spent swapping stories and singing songs, many of them extolling the glories of Khaan.

For all its harshness, Lagrange has come to love the Mongolian landscape—the rocky, rolling hills and flat planes as far as the eye can see. Such undisturbed vistas produce “a meditative state,” one he has found nowhere else.

“You feel this intense presence in time,” he says. “It makes every emotion, every moment, much more powerful.”

FE_Mongolia_01 Üüreg Lake, Uvs Aimag, Mongolia, 2015: Every May, tens of thousands of cattle and sheep are herded through this narrow pass to summer camp. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_02 Üüreg Lake, Uvs Aimag, Mongolia, 2001: A hunter holds a freshly caught marmot, a large squirrel—a prized delicacy throughout Mongolia. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_05 Bayan-Ölgii Aimag, Mongolia, 2004: The Tsengel village is at the base of the Altai Mountains, where Lagrange and his team would often stop to refuel and rest before venturing further west. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_08 Üüreg Lake, Uvs Aimag, Mongolia, 2001: A few years after shooting this mother and child, Lagrange returned with a print for the family. The mother became distraught. The husband explained the baby had died from a virus soon after the photo was taken. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_15 Khövsgöl Lake, Khövsgöl Aimag, Mongolia, 2006: In winter, when lakes freeze solid, people drive across to save time. Here, a warmer wind had come through and weakened the ice. The driver attempted to return to save some personal belongings, but as he climbed in, there was a deafening crack and he ran again. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_19 Üüreg Lake, Uvs Aimag, Mongolia, 2001: Modern life is creeping in. Some hunters and herders now prefer motorbikes to horses, government-funded paved roads are appearing and the once-rare TV antenna is becoming more common. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_21 Tsengel village, Bayan-Ölgii Aimag, Mongolia, 2004: A spread of snacks, sweets and Mongol tea are laid to welcome any guests, who are often the only way to get news from other parts of the country. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_16 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 2006: The Gandan Monastery is one of the few Buddhist monasteries to survive under the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Frédéric Lagrange

FE_Mongolia_22 Altai village, Bayan Olgii Aimag, western Mongolia, 2015: A hunter named Dalaikhan wears fox skins from prey caught by his eagle. Eagle hunting is an old Mongolian sport, these days more of a hobby than a way to gather food. Frédéric Lagrange

Lagrange's book can be preordered at www.fredericlagrange-mongolia.com.

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