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Mongolia's nomad president

By Stan Grant, CNN
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Mongolia's nomad president
  • President Elbegdorj grew up in nomad tradition in western Mongolia
  • Tells CNN that it is important traditional way of life not lost in face of modernization
  • Warns of threat of corruption as poverty remains prevalent in the country

(CNN) -- President Elbegdorj has walked in the steps of his country's history.

Born into a nomad family, he spent his young years on horseback as a herdsman. It was a life he loved with his parents and brothers. He could have stayed but change was sweeping across Mongolia.

After a stint in the army and university in Ukraine to study journalism he was swept up in his country's revolution over throwing decades of communist rule.

Now years later as President, the 48-year-old Elbegdorj is retracing his steps.

With our CNN crew he followed his heart to the mountains of western Mongolia and the memories of a boy raised a herdsman.

As we fly over the place of his birth the President points excitedly below. Nomads have come for miles around to greet him.

There is a risk of corruption, of money falling into the hands of a few.
--Mongolia's President Elbegdorj
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"Can you believe you came from here to President?" I ask. "No, I can't believe it. So many memories. I was like these boys just a herdsman boy riding horses," he says.

To the people here he's less a president than a nephew or a brother or a long remembered classmate. Here the President sleeps in a nomad's "ger" or tent.

He can enjoy the food of his childhood. He carves open the insides of a sheep to share with us. To President Elbegdorj this not a way of life, this is his country's soul.

"Many people call this primitive," he says, "but this is not primitive it is close to nature it is a good life."

But this is also a way of life increasingly under threat. Change is sweeping Mongolia. Big mining companies have struck mega-rich deals to tap the vast reserves of copper, gold and coal.

To many it's a blessing bringing great wealth and development; to others a curse. There are fears of corruption and exploitation. Warnings of the so-called "Dutch disease" where mining dominates the economy, forcing up the currency, choking off exports and stifling efforts to diversify the country.

Once the Prime Minister, now the President, Elbegdorj says his country needs to get it right to share the wealth of this land.

"There is a risk of corruption, of money falling into the hands of a few. We must make sure the money doesn't end up with those who have power who already have wealth," he says.

Watching the President's homecoming are people like Zoiloi. She is 70 years old and has lived through Soviet rule, the democracy revolution and now the so-called mining boom. She's heard the promise of great riches, but for now, she says, so many nomads are trapped in a cycle of poverty.

"Prices are going up if you have a paid job you can be ok perhaps," she says.

"For example the price of gasoline is rising, the price of sugar. That's why people without cash on hand like these herders are falling into poverty."

Sitting around her family ger, surrounded by three generations of her family she leads a song dedicated to the mothers who have born generations of nomads. It could just as easily be a song of defiance; a reminder that they will not easily give up the traditions of thousands of years.

President Elbegdorj tells me it is his duty to oversee changes, to make sure his people -- the nomads -- are not lost or that he doesn't lose that bit of himself either.