Postcards from a low-energy future: now

Barrens of Bayan Ulgii

The Barrens of Bayan Ulgii where our senior Mongolia correspondent Matthew Lynch is doing his work. Photo:

Upon entering Bayan Ulgii province we saw no trees until we finally arrived in Ulgii City. Locals can remember that only two generations ago, the river flats of Ulgii City, and much of the rest of the province, were covered in trees.

Just like the Lorax in Dr. Suess’ fable, all were cut down for winter fuel and building materials.

No carbon offset here

Coal Truck

A coal truck brings in table sized slabs of greenhouse gas emitting fuel. Photo:

The next thing to greet us is the coal-fired powerplant which powers this remote urban-rural settlement, providing central heating for maybe one-third of the city’s officially 28,000 inhabitants (but more like 40,000, according to local sources).

Lumbering roadtrains loaded with chunks of coal the size of kitchen tables and trailing coal dust provide the heating fuel for the rest of the city. Much of it is trucked in from the so-called ‘Ninja Mines’ dotting the countryside. They’re squalid hell-holes of heavy drinking, prostitution, and almost daily deaths from cave-ins, discernible by the piles of rubble strewn across the landscape surrounding the encampments, a modern-day gold-rush for the black stuff we’re so addicted to.

Past meets present

Then there are throwbacks to the 17th and 18th-centuries.

Stray dogs, cattle, the odd horseman, and even the occasional camel share the streets with people and cars, in almost equal numbers.

Street Cows

Street cows in Mongolia. Photo:

Families live in walled adobe compounds.

The soil is rocky, dusty, and bare, and outside of the city center trees are again a rarity. The heaviest traffic—human, animal, and vehicle—centers around the neighborhood well, where the spillage has frozen into a slippery platform a half-meter high: these people survive minus 50C winters.

Walking around Bayan Ulgii, the last Kazakh stronghold in Outer Mongolia, is like walking around a Cyberpunk novel.

Heavy-booted, leather-coated, fur-hatted men and women walk briskly about their business. Above them wolfskins dry in apartment windows. On the street, vendors hawk entire sheep skins and carcasses, alive and dead. Internet cafes dot the same block. Meanwhile the cold Mongolian sun beats down relentlessly, giving everyone their characteristic squint.

The whole scenario could be right out of a Future Scenarios handbook, with an expanding population competing for ever more scarce resources to survive. At first glance, the situation appears as bleak as the landscape, but a closer look at both reveals there’s much more than meets the eye.

Surprises abound

What appears to be a rocky, barren, and vacant landscape is actually teeming with wildlife.

Kazakh family compound

A Kazakh family compound. Photo:

Rabbits and marmots successfully forage the extremely hardy grasses and shrubs, and in turn support the animals which eat them, foxes, wolves, and various birds of prey. These glacial valleys have supported the Mongolians’ cousins, the nomadic Kazakhs’ way of life for thousands of years. It’s a delicate balance between humans, the herds they watch over, and the herd’s droppings which cycle nutrient back into the system to feed the soil. Those dropping are also collected for winter fuel.

There are vast nutrient banks in these ancient valleys. One telltale clue is how vigorously trees will grow when given the slightest chance. The valleys are filled with silts, clays and minerals from the grinding actions of ice, wind, and water over millennia. Some of the rocky hilltops look as though they’re crumbling and melting away in slow motion right before your eyes.

One local tree species proves that growth here is possible. A school project proposed by Dr. Beket, a local scholar studying trees and the local impacts of climate change, has planted 100 trees near the school grounds’ entrance. But his methods surprised the locals.

The local school superintendent organized workers to accept delivery of what he thought would be a caravan carting trees by the truckload for transplanting. Instead he was met by Dr. Beket holding two small bags full of sticks. The next school day, bewildered grownups walked past 100 oversized pencils sticking out of the ground as they dropped their children off to school. One parent declared the old man crazy, promising to cut off his own nose if any of those sticks actually grew any taller than his child.

Fast forward three years later, and the results speak for themselves, although I’m pretty sure the parent’s nose remains intact.

A tree grows in Mongolia

Dr Beket's tree project

Dr. Beket's tree project. Photo:

Meet Populus Laurifolia, the Siberian Populus, a tree that strikes easily from cuttings, can grow at a rate of about four feet each year in a 90-day growing season, and can withstand -50C winters in an area which receives only scant rainfall, most of which falls over 3 months.

Trees are making a comeback as locals are recognizing, or perhaps more accurately, remembering, the importance of our Guardians of the Earth.

Most fenced public spaces which keep the grazing animals at bay have been planted with trees to beautify the city center streets here. When selected and placed strategically within a regenerative permacultural system, trees can also provide fuel, animal fodder, and organic matter to rebuild soils and unlock the ancient nutrient bank the city is built upon.

Through Dr. Beket, we’ve already successfully located and identified local tree species which could potentially be used for coppiced woodlot plantations, and nitrogen-fixing species to feed the system.

Local resilience

People too, are adapting to changing and increasingly harsh weather patterns and living conditions, proving how resilient and adaptive human beings can be to change, especially when there’s real need.

After only four-and-a-half days of instruction in permaculture principles and regenerative design, students from the province presented some truly amazing and resourceful designs to conserve energy, optimize resources, and create their own locally-based solutions to the challenges facing their communities:

  • Summer shower attached to a greenhouse to direct gray water for plant irrigation.
  • Intensive animal shelter design w/ stove that can heat 2 animal shelters, winter cold frames and greenhouses on extreme cold days.
  • Root cellar located under goat shed for security, insulation, and biological heating from the animals’ body heat and hot manure compost piles.
  • Stones from root cellar excavation re-used on-site to create attractive and functional pathways throughout family compound.
  • Greenhouse attached to house, plumbed with the house’s hot water to provide heat for year-round vegetable production.
  • Water well system backed up with multiple tanks centrally located to distribute water via drip-irrigation systems to growbeds.
  • Multifunctional concrete summer ger-pad / winter ice-skating rink surrounded by beautiful (and beneficial-insect-attracting) flowerbeds (my personal favourite).
Student design

A Student design for local solutions. Photo:

Individually, each solution may not sound earth-shattering, but that’s exactly the point. As Bill Mollison says, “Though the problems facing our world are increasingly complex, the answers remain embarrassingly simple.”

Collectively, these small and simple solutions add up to massive shifts in behavior that deliver results. The dozen or so students we’re working with now will in turn work with almost 600 families to design and install their own passive solar greenhouses within a permacultural system in each family’s compound. These 600 families, in turn, will positively impact their neighbors by beautifying their area with a few more trees. They’re living examples to inspire like-minded change.

Dr. Beket successfully invited the governor and other government officials to the opening and closing ceremonies of the course. This helps in making connections to work on a civic level as well. He’s expressed interest in converting a plot he runs in the countryside to a broad scale permaculture demonstration site, with an emphasis on trees and tree-cropping for the region.

A student has expressed interest in converting her broad scale family plot into another broad scale permaculture design for commercial vegetable production. Change is already moving at all levels, all because one person, my boss on this project, took action to be the change he wanted to see in the world.

Maybe all the world’s problems really can be solved in a garden. Welcome, to the quiet revolution.

–Matthew Lynch, Transition Voice

Editor’s note: For more information and access to the daily logs for the Bayan Ulgii Sustainable Economic and Agricultural Learning Project,  visit

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