Hesitant Steppes

Mongolia has discovered elections and minerals. But the young democracy must tread warily if it is to chart an independent future

Davide Monteleone for TIME

Nomads still live in traditional gers around Mongolia's biggest economic undertaking: the Oyu Tolgoi mine.

The Gobi is one of nature's most inhospitable creations. Traveling this vast expanse of gravel and sand in southern Mongolia, my eyes crave anything to ease the monotony of the parched panorama--a thorny scrub or pile of bleached camel bones. In summer the temperatures soar to 122F (50C); in winter they plummet below -40F (-40C). Somehow humans inhabit this desolate region: nomads with wind-chapped faces who hunker down in circular felt tents and raise herds of bony livestock. It is here, deep in the Gobi, that locals noticed earth of an incandescent blue. They named the area Oyu Tolgoi: Turquoise Hill.

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