In 2008, photographer Simon Way was invited to capture the Beijing Paralympics. He set out on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow, crossing almost the entire length of the Eurasian landmass. Stopping off in Mongolia, he found himself confronting a landscape both beautiful and barren.
The more you travel, the more you realise people everywhere are the same
“I stayed there for three or four weeks, in the middle of nowhere," he says. "As soon as you leave the city limits, there’s nothing for miles and miles.” The landscapes that Way shot in the country show vast empty terrains. Even in scenes that include settlements – such as one featuring a cycling boy – distances seem to stretch out and expand.
Not that they all expand in the same way. The Mongolian wastes are nothing if not varied, especially the Gobi desert. “At one point you feel like you’re on Mars, with these red, clay-like mountains. Then you travel a little further and it’s all golden sands, like in the Sahara,” says Way, whose photography encompasses these shifts, which can occur without warning. Grassy plains give way to dunes give way to hills.
Way did not only photograph the landscape. Outside of the Mongolia project, much of his work has focused on people, often those with unusual passions – bog snorkelers, chess boxers, Korean jeje couples. In Mongolia, he found a people who have less time for such eccentricities.
“People live off the Earth, and everyone does everything. It’s more about survival than doing a job,” he says. A vegetarian, Way says that Mongolia was the only place where he felt he had to eat meat – although he demurred when it came to raw sheep intestine: “I told them I’d had enough rice.”
One portrait depicts a man in traditional dress, with the sort of sagacious smile that suggests a long life and hard-won wisdom. “I don’t have his name. He was in his forties, but because people live outside they age quicker, weathered by the elements.”
Another shows a youth standing atop a horse, his face registering a mixture of pride and concentration. Behind a marketplace shoe stall, two boys fight. “Kids will always be kids, and always squabble. The more you travel, the more you realise people everywhere are the same.”
To a photographer who has worked all around the world, what about Mongolia stood out as unique? Nestled between Russia and China, Mongolia serves as a spiritual border between east and west. Perhaps due to this tactical situation, the US has funded technological schemes in the country, even as its infrastructure remains underdeveloped: “you have full phone signal but no tarmac roads,” notes Way
Despite their traditional ways of life, the people Way met often seemed attuned to contemporary advances – a striking difference to his visits to Africa, where his camera lens gave children the first glimpse of their own reflections. And journeying through the desert’s enormous expanses at night, Way caught sight of another world – “I’ve never seen anywhere where the stars are so bright.”