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    On the Road With the Nomads of Inner Mongolia

    Photographer Li Wei has spent over a decade documenting life on China’s fast-changing northern frontier.

    For the past 13 years, I have been traveling the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as an independent photographer. My aim is to document the lives of herders living in this remote region, so that their unique culture isn’t lost to history.

    Inner Mongolia has always been special to me. I was born in Hohhot, the provincial capital, in 1976, and spent the first 20 years of my life here. When I left to attend university in Beijing, it was the first time I’d set foot in a big city and I felt serious culture shock.

    After finishing my engineering degree in 2001, I got a job at a software company in the Chinese capital. But I couldn’t see myself working a nine-to-five job forever, and I kept practicing photography in my spare time. In 2008, I took the leap and became a full-time freelance photographer.

    Since then, I’ve spent much of my time among Mongolian herders, shooting my “The Good Earth” series. The herders often ask me what I’m doing on the grasslands. In their eyes, I’m strange for choosing to endure such loneliness and extreme cold — in the winter, the temperature often drops to below 40 degrees Celsius. I console myself with an old saying among photographers: The best photos often come during bad weather.

    At first, I was drawn to Inner Mongolia as a subject because I felt the land had shaped so much of who I am — my personality, values, and cultural preferences. But over the years, I also developed a deep love and respect for the herders’ culture. Though I am Han Chinese, I consider Inner Mongolia to be my homeland.

    Unlike most of China, which is an agricultural civilization, the Mongolians have a nomadic culture. The herders raise the so-called “five domestic animals,” namely cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and camels. They traditionally live in yurts, which can be easily assembled and dismantled as they travel along the plains, grazing their animals.

    The herders respect nature, believing that people and the natural environment exist in a symbiotic relationship. Their livelihoods depend entirely on the climate. In some areas, people practice Shamanism and visit shamans to pray for good weather and good health. Genghis Khan is said to have consulted a fortune-telling shaman before setting off for war.

    In 2011, I spent time with several shamans in Prairie Chabarhu Banner — in the far north of Inner Mongolia. Narenqiqige, a Mongolian woman in her 40s, told me her grandmother and uncle had both been shamans. In 1998, Narenqiqige fell seriously ill and suffered from a fever for months. But one night she dreamed her ancestors cured her with a shamanic ceremony, and started to recover shortly after. This experience inspired her to study to become a shaman too, she said.

    As I learned more, I also began to believe in Shamanism. I don’t think that when people die, there’s nothing left of them. I choose to believe there is something beyond the body — some kind of soul.

    Over the past decade, life in these remote areas has changed rapidly. Today, herders rarely live in yurts; most have moved into brick houses. They wear fashionable clothes, such as jeans and T-shirts, only donning Mongolian robes for the Naadam festival — a traditional sports event where locals compete in archery, horse racing, and wrestling — each summer.

    China’s infrastructure drive has also connected the region with the outside world. Highways and railways crisscross the province. Most herders now have access to electricity and a TV signal. They chat using WeChat and other social media platforms. Rather than riding horses, they now herd sheep across the grasslands on motorcycles. In many ways, their lives aren’t that different from people in the city. 

    While these changes feel inevitable, it means that many aspects of traditional Mongolian culture may be hard to find in the future. That’s why I’m determined to document as much as I can before it’s too late. Perhaps in the future, my photos can become a useful resource for researchers.

    Editors: Shi Yangkun and Dominic Morgan.