April 19th, 2012
11:10 AM GMT
Inner Mongolia, China (CNN) - The Mongols once dominated China, just part of their vast empire stretching from Moscow to Guangzhou. Eventually, the Chinese chased out their conquerers and claimed Mongol land - an area now known as Inner Mongolia.
Today, only one in five of the autonomous region's near 20-million people are ethnic Mongolian, leading to fears their culture could disappear.
Anda Union, a traditional Mogolian folk singer, told CNN’s Eunice Yoon: "It is very difficult for us to preserve our Mongolian culture in this big cultural environment because there are so many different cultures all competing with each other.”
In the regional capital Hohhot, it appears the Han Chinese are winning that competition. Many Chinese have been moving here, attracted by government policies to modernize Inner Mongolia.
Baocheng - who like many Mongolians goes by one name - has seen his street, once a trading area for livestock, transformed over the past five decades.
"It used to be a bustling area, it was like a festival," he said. "Back then we were all wearing traditional Mongolian clothing."
To preserve his culture, Baocheng collects saddles - 400 of them so far - worn and weathered over centuries on the steppe. They are now cultural relics.
"Mongolians are now reluctant to sell their saddles," Baocheng said. "We all want to preserve the treasures that our ancestors left us."
The government is encouraging herdsmen to hang up their saddles by providing subsidies to relocate to the cities - a move authorities say will help protect the grasslands from overgrazing and environmental degradation.
But the decade-long effort has fueled anti-government sentiment among an ethnic minority frustrated as mining and development continue to encroach on grazing land, and who, despite massive government investment in the economy, feel left behind.
Last year, that anger erupted into protests. Demonstrations swept a number of cities here after a Chinese truck driver for a coal mine struck and killed a Mongolian herder.
In response to the protests - and in an effort to create a peaceful mixed community - the government vowed to shut illegal mines and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in education and programs to promote Mongolian culture.
The two peoples do manage to live side by side, even as more Chinese flock to the plains.
Mongolian herder Erden says he understands the government's predicament. He says life is more comfortable for him now, though he's nostalgic for the nomadic traditions of his childhood.
"We Mongolians used to have a big population here, but now our numbers are getting smaller and smaller," he said.
He added: "There are things I miss about that way of life, but there is nothing I can do about it now."
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