In 2014, a group skaters travelled to Mongolia to explore the local skate scene and experience the possibilities the terrain offered. A movie titled Out Of Steppe was filmed during their journey.
Among the riders was Joseph Biais, a seasoned 29-year-old skater who jumped at the opportunity to make the trip. That's no surprise: this is a guy who has already taken his board to Canada, the United States, Australia, Morocco, Vietnam, Israel, Japan and the Philippines. We asked Joseph a few questions about the genesis of the project, getting to know Mongolia, and meeting the locals.
The idea originally came from Bertrand Trichet, the guy in charge of the skateboard section at Carhartt WIP. In 2004, Bertrand went on his first skate trip to Mongolia as a photographer. The starting point of this was when he came across a photograph of a giant iron skate park in Ulaanbaatar; he wanted to learn more about its origin, ride it, and get to know Mongolia and its potential skate scene, so several skaters and a skate photographer [Bertrand] made the journey. There wasn't any other information about skating in Mongolia other than this picture. So 10 years later, Bertrand organised a similar trip where skaters would ride in Ulaanbaatar and spend time in the steppes, which in principle aren't really suitable for skateboarding. Also, the aim was to compare today's Mongolia with how it was 10 years ago, including the way the skate scene has evolved.
I didn't really feel any culture shock at first. We arrived in the capital and stayed for two or three days, then went on to explore the steppes. I found that Ulaanbaatar looked like a European capital, with big shops everywhere, loads of traffic and many people dressed pretty much like Europeans. What struck me the most was the mix between architectural zones: on the one hand, you have these old decrepit buildings, damaged roads and pavements; and on the other, neat new buildings. It's alright there in the middle of the city.
I think you need to separate Ulaanbaatar from the rest of Mongolia. There are roads and concrete pavement there. There are also big skateable places – some of which are brand new – though skateboarding isn't really popular in Ulaanbaatar. People aren't sick of the damage or the noise caused by skateboarders because there aren't many people who ride there. Skaters in Ulaanbaatar represent a small proportion of the population. Unlike in big cities, where skateboarding is forbidden and made impossible in numerous places – by putting up anti-skates, signs or hiring security guards – Ulaanbaatar is not familiar with skateboarding and I would say that generally, people are rather curious and amused when they see skateboards. As a result, they tend to be passive about it; they don't try to stop people from riding, which of course, makes things easier.
As for the Mongolian steppes and the rest of the country, as far as I could see, of course, it is covered with massive stretches of uncultivated land with all sorts of cattle. There are tiny towns, villages with concrete or rough roads, and villages built by nomad families, who set up their gers (a kind of yurt, their traditional accommodation). Of course this environment isn't suitable for riding, but the contrast was very interesting; seeing what was achievable despite all this. Essentially, skateboarding is possible in Mongolia, but in terms of skate culture (riders, magazines, history, infrastructures) there is nothing much to compel you to ride.
Again, you need to separate the capital from the rest of Mongolia. As far as Ulaanbaatar is concerned, obstacles in the development of this community are not, I think, linked with freedom or tradition. The first problem is the gear, which is essential to riding. There is no skate shop in Ulaanbaatar and I remember that a few locals told us that their friends would bring them back some boards when they travelled to China or the US; they took everyone's order and brought back skateboarding stuff. For example, it is quite difficult to replace broken bearings or to find a grip. It clearly slows down the development of the community.
The cultural environment does not necessarily entice them to join the community. Skateboarding is new and marginalised in Mongolia. The country's culture is not linked to this practice. There's still a lot to do in terms of development and creation. Even though the local scene can have access to all the skateboarding media through the internet, I think it is still secluded in a way.