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Yann Le Bechec and Erik Bataille
"Sugarmaa : A Mongolian lady in a century of history"

The following Visual Essay is part of a project produced by Yann Le Bechec and Journalist Erik Bataille, a French journalist with a particular interest in Mongolia. This true story cetres around Sugarmaa, a middle-aged woman who lives in the region.

Sugarmaa looks a little shy and her complexion is so pale that you doubt she lives in a country known for it’s harsh light and winds, homeland of terrifying Mongolian tribes who created the worlds largest widest ever land empire under Genghis Khan.

She walks quietly across sand dunes dressed in her bright red silk deel, under the shadow of a golden umbrella. She is like a mirage floating over ground that ends with the Gurvan Saikan mountain range - a tough place with leopards, eagles and wolves.

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Sugarmaa is strolling around Khoongoriin Els, the largest sand dune in the Gobi desert. She keeps an eye on the crests and checks black sand areas where it is easier to walk, noticing everything in order to find a new route through the moving dunes that are the last frontier before the Chinese border, a hundred miles to the south.

She is trekking around the toughest desert in the world but looks like she is enjoying an afternoon shopping trip on the Champs Elysées. She wears long silk gloves up to her shoulders, and a scarf made of cashmere hides her dark hair.

Sugarmaa lives in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, she is only 50 but has been exploring the Gobi desert for many years…operating adventure tours for tourism, and catering for all kinds of companies: mining, drilling, goat breeders, and scientific teams looking for dinosaur bones.

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In 1900, the 'Largest Empire', had become a barren country between the Gobi desert in the south and the mountain range of Bouriatie in the north. Half a million nomadic cattle breeders were living in some of the harshest conditions imaginable between two slowly stirring, future political giants : The People's Republic of China and the USSR.

The country had been decimated by foreign invasions, hunger and disease. Starving, and with no government help due to the theocracy in charge of a state which was both corrupt and yet abundant, they asked for urgent help from Russia, which was at this point becoming a communist society. The Soviets came and saved the people of Mongolia but settled and remained until 1991. As a result, Mongolia became the second communist country in history.

'My family was a powerful clan, breeding all kinds of cattle, camels, horses, cows and sheep. They had settled near Karakorum, the ancient famous capital. They were rich enough to send their children to school in Moron then later, Urga, the state capital. They were wealthy people, except when dzud occurred, (a Mongolian term for an extremely snowy winter in which livestock are unable to find fodder through the snow cover), a climatic disaster bringing enough snow, ice or sand to kill millions of heads of cattle.

My grandpa Lhamkhuu Darizav, became the head commander of the cavalry, the most prestigious regiment in the mongolian army, the same one that once gained control over all Eurasia, from the China sea to the suburbs of Vienna. Later, he was promoted through the Ministry of Defence and became the first Mongolian Ambassador in Moscow’.

As a fervent activist, he fought to get rid of the white Russians and encroching Chinese and Japanese imperialism. When the Mongolian Revolution started in 1921, he was promoted to Commander in Chief.

In Moscow, he became friends with Mikael Ivanovitch, President of the Supreme Soviet. But Stalin was now resolutely in place, being paranoid and sceptical of those he saw as 'soft' revolutionaries. Mikael sacrificed his wife but saved his own head while Sugaremaa's grandfather was convicted of treason and spying for the Japanese government of Mandchoukouo. He was hanged. His wife, Sharav Dashdondog, who was a very popular and fashionable figure in Moscow, was deported with her children to the Mongolian Steppes where they struggled to survive. They succeeded thanks to their family. All this occurred during the purges of 1937 and 1938. Nobody ever found them!'

She wasn’t given authorization to work until 1961, then, the infamous spy was found not guilty and became a new state hero. Her daughter Gambasuran then became the main editor of national radio, her husband Chuluun Jamsran, the Chief officer of the police...

1991 brought Perestroika. 'Most of my brothers and sisters became ambassadors all over the world. France, USA, Belgium...Some nephews and nieces moved to foreign countries, like a new nomadic people'.

There are still some official days that attract thousands of people to the big square in Ulaanbaatar. Chatting, playing music, having pictures taken in front of Genghis Khan's statue, the absolute hero for all Mongolians.You find his picture on stamps, statues, bottles of vodka, banknotes, everywhere - as soon as you land in Genghis Khan airport!

Nowadays, Sugarmaa feels more religious and travels to India, Nepal or Korea on pilgrimages and appreciates both of the most important religious places in Mongolia. Amabayarsgalant monastery in the north and Cosmical circles by Khamaryn, in the deep south of the Gobi.

(edited for Reportager)
Erik Bataille

Sri Lanka project
Yann Le Bechec and Journalist Erik Bataille are also involved in developing a visual essay about Sri Lanka and how the lack of investment in Sandalwood has effected the economy.