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» 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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» FOOLISHNESS AND GENEROSITY IN GORKHI TERELJ, MONGOLIA

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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