» UNDER THE ETERNAL SKY: Mining Boom Gains Momentum in Mongolia

Khan Kentee Protected Area, Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

by Brian Awehali

Nomadic herder in Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

After spending several months in the epic clamor of industrializing China, I went to Mongolia looking for open spaces and unspoiled nature, for clean air, for hiking and horseback riding, and for nights still dark enough to terrify. In the countryside (and most of it remains countryside) the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert. It stretches above yak, goat, reindeer, camel, wolf, bear, marmot, squirrel, hawk, falcon, eagle and crane, and above some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on Earth.

The seemingly infinite Mongolian sky also hangs over the largest mining boom on the planet.

Candlelit Ger/Yurt in Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

On my flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a miner named Tim. Tim had a wife and two children back in Nova Scotia, with another on the way. He was trying to convince his wife to relocate to Mongolia, but she wasn’t going for it yet. So his mining career kept him away from his family as he traveled to Colorado, Nevada, Australia, and now Mongolia. Tim kept his taupe outdoorsman’s hat on for the entire flight, but I forgave him for that because he shared his Lonely Planet Mongolia and enthusiastically told me about his work at a new copper mine in the Gobi Desert.

“It’s just a camp now, but we’re investing $40 million this year alone, and when it really gets up and running, it’ll probably become the second largest city in Mongolia,” Tim told me. “It’s going to be huge.

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by Brian Awehali

During an extended trip to East Asia, my partner and I took a two-week trip to Mongolia, partially because our Chinese visas required it, and also because of Mongolia’s wild, largely undeveloped openness. For nature. After the extreme urban clamor of China, this sounded perfect.

Ger in Gorkhi Terelj, Mongolia, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Roofward perspective from inside a ger in Gorkhi Terelj, Mongolia, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

We flew into Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capitol, from Beijing, and spent two days there before heading to the countryside. I was told by some long-timers that UB used to be attractive when the country was still under Soviet “administration,” but it’s hard to believe. Today, it’s a dusty and vegetation-free city made of large Soviet-style concrete block architecture with paint peeling off from the extreme cold of UB’s winters. Tourist-focused shops, of which there are many, hawk camel, yak or wool knick-knacks and sweaters alongside various products, from vodka to war helmets, commemorating Chingiss Khaan.

Traffic in UB is congested, and the roads, attacked as they are by extreme conditions, are in various states of decay. Air quality is exceedingly poor, owing to two main factors: the widespread use of coal as fuel for heating, and the unplanned growth of a city built for 300,000 swelling to over a million in too short a time. Mongolia only has about 2.5 million people, and over a million live in UB.

We were happy to head for the countryside. Our host and guide, Bogi, drove us several hours to the northeast, and found a “nomadic” herding family for us to stay with for two weeks. They had a ger (yurt) and agreed to prepare two meals a day for us. Perfect.

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by Brian Awehali

We arrived at Peking airport for our flight to Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, several hours before our flight. We visited the cosmetics and perfume shop to smell the fragrances and to take advantage of the free samples of high-end lotions. F. was overzealous in her application of scented face lotions and was afflicted with burning red eyes for most of our flight because of it. There is no good reason I can think of for face lotion to be scented. I mean, if your face stinks the solution is probably more medical than cosmetic.

When we eventually moved into line for our flight, I realized my passport wan’t on me, or in my bag. Had I left it at the restaurant where we’d eaten? Had someone stolen it? (U.S. passports are worth a small fortune to people in China who know how to alter and use them.) I couldn’t imagine that I’d taken it out of my pocket, and as the last passenger before us boarded, I felt sick. Forgetting that my ankle was still mending from a bad break and still had three-quarters of a troublesome surgical pin embedded in it, I sprinted for the restaurant. No one there had seen my passport.

As my feet and heart pounded the length of the airport, I thought I’d ruined our trip. I’d carelessly let it all slip away by losing track of my passport and Chinese visa, costing us the considerable expense of the flight, not to mention that we’d now be stuck in the Beijing airport for probably a very long time, until an expensive expedited replacement passport and visa could be arranged for. I would not be able to re-enter China without these.

I sprinted back to the gate, panting heavily. When I got there, a smartly dressed flight attendant told me that my passport and visa had been found at the security check. The flight had now been held at least fifteen minutes beyond it’s scheduled departure time she said, and informed me that they would hold the flight for only ten more minutes. Flights from Beijing to Mongolia only happen twice a week, and they are generally fully booked.

We got back to the gate in about ten minutes, and they were still holding the flight.

During our flight, we chatted with our seat mate, a guy named Tim, from Nova Scotia, who was wearing a hat like Crocodile Dundee and that a-hole, Steve “The Animal Guy” Irwin used to wear before they both died. Tim told us he worked for a mining company that was setting up a work camp somewhere in the Gobi Desert. I’d heard that a huge mining boom was kicking off in Mongolia, and that the Russians, Chinese and international mining interests from many other countries were salivating over the country’s relatively untapped reserves of copper, gold, silver, and coal. So I was curious to chat with Tim, and he was eager to talk about his work.

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