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Notes From an Expedition: A New Mongolia Rises on the Steppes

by David A. Andelman

TSOGTTSETSII, SOUTH GOBI, Mongolia—Rising here, on the eastern fringe of the Gobi—at more than 500,000 square miles the world’s third largest non-polar desert—is the face of the New Mongolia. Tsogttsetsii is a gold rush town. Well, to be perfectly accurate, it’s a coal rush town—coking coal to be exact. More of it, at least five billion tons, lie in the adjacent Tavan Tolgoi deposit than in any other spot on the planet. So rich, so thick this resource, it can just be scraped off the ground by giant earth-movers that are already busily at work.

We’re barely 125 miles from Mongolia’s frontier with China—the prime market for the bonanza of coal fueling the development of this tiny village. But the community has none of the sense of the desert or China, or the Mongolian steppes for that matter, where nomads still shelter in gers—flat round felt tents—as they tend their herds of sheep, cattle, goats (cashmere), or giant two-humped Bactrian camels. Instead, we have here the beginnings of what the Mongolian government, if not all the locals, hope will be the shape of this nation in the coming years.

A half mile from the mine entrance a modern apartment building is rising from the flat, sandy soil. Already half is completed and on the ground floor, more than 100 young students—from kindergarten through fifth grade—have been happily installed for the first week of school in ultra-modern classrooms reciting their ABCs. Indeed, one class of first-graders leaps to their feet to serenade, proudly, visitors from America with the A-B-C song, winding up resoundingly, “I can sing my A-B-Cs… lots of fun for you and me.” These are the children of the mine workers, some from the community of Tsogttsetsii, others from far away, attracted by the modern housing and good pay, not to mention the sparkling dormitories that house single miners on the complex itself.

Narantuya (Mongolians often use simply one name) has arrived from Ulaanbaatar to make sure the school is well launched. Her regular job is international program director of the Orchlon School in the nation’s capital, an elite private institution that boasts close ties with Cambridge University in England and delights in the success of its students who sit for the British A-level college entry exams. Narantuya is proud of the fact that she learned her English in Mongolia. It is indeed quite impeccable, which she is delighted to show off as we tour the classrooms, even the new computer lab with three rows of Mongolian-made Mogul computers. (Mogul’s website boasts that its “national brand computers of world class quality are sold at competitive prices and should contribute to import substitution efforts.”)

The mine has been producing, in a desultory fashion, since the Soviet Union controlled the Mongolian Peoples’ Republic, the first of the satellites the Bolsheviks claimed in 1921 as part of their expanding empire. It remains perhaps one of the world’s most inhospitable environments to year-round mining. Two mining engineers from South Africa and Australia, relaxing at the comfortable miners’ café in the dormitory complex point out that winter temperatures plunge routinely to 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero and have been clocked in as low as 94 below. So it was only after the Mongolian government, and its Energy Resources Corp., took over operations three years ago did the mine and this community suddenly spring to life. Two Mongolian engineers shrug that they simply never turn off the engines of their mining equipment, so it can’t freeze in the winter.

“In the Soviet period there was no real sense of how much resources were here,” Narantuya explains over a first-rate hot lunch of steak, rice, soup, and salad in the company commissary. “There was no real realization of the potential yield of these mines. Now we are going to have a lot of money to invest and will do it better. It benefits us, a policy to speed up development. We need good hospitals, schools, social services. It will all come if we do it properly.”

She is especially bitter about the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine being developed east of here by Ivanhoe Mines, a Canadian-Australian joint venture with the Mongolian government which, she says, has done nothing, at least so far, for Mongolia or those who are working the mine project.

Not everyone, of course, has managed to cash in on this project. A half block from the governor’s residence, on a parched stretch of earth just shy of the rutted dirt track that still links Tsogttsetsii with the outside world, Ottoo sits in a Toyota land cruiser with her five-year-old son Ganerden and nine-month-old Badraagui. In front of the car is a pile of skins—horse hide, goatskins, and sheepskins. When she has collected 1,000 of them, she’ll haul them up to Ulaanbaatar where she can sell them for a profit of $11 or more apiece. Agents, who scour herders and trappers out in the far countryside bring them to her—the second step in a multi-stage chain that is a living for thousands like Ottoo, who was laid off a decade ago as an elementary school teacher and sees no way back.

“The mine hasn’t changed my situation,” she says. “But since there is mining, many people come to Tavan Tolgoi, and bring animals they’ve killed, so I’m happy about that.”

Indeed, there is considerable fallout from the mining boom that is sweeping Mongolia. Just off the road back west to the ger camp where we spend the nights, a lone drilling rig is clanking on the pancake flat plain of the Gobi desert. The Gobi itself is a strange structure—towering sand dunes soaring as high as 2,500 feet alternating with vast stretches of flat steppes, believed to conceal a host of minerals, even oil. At the same time, it is expanding at an alarming rate, especially on its southern stretches into northern China—some 1,400 square miles of new desert being created each year in the process of desertification yielding massive and debilitating sand storms in the process.

The two Mongolians manning the rig out on the steppes are the only living creatures—man or beast—in sight, stretching off to the far horizon where the land meets the crystal blue sky. They aren’t drilling for water, as we’d first thought. Nor for oil. They are drilling for coal, or any other ore that might accompany it—copper, iron, even gold, which is scattered across virtually this entire, impossibly rich nation of largely impoverished people. On the ground lie long, apparently rather unpromising, core samples from his borings down to 1,200 feet. He’ll spend another day or so here, then move on. It’s a lottery and the winners stand to win very big. Find a promising site, file for mineral rights, and you can still strike it rich here.

“One in 4,000 shot,” smiles an aging American geologist-wildcatter from northeastern Colorado with a swooping handle-bar mustache who’s having breakfast in Ulaanbaatar’s Ramada hotel a couple of days later. “And there are thousands of us out there. Still, I’ll take those odds.” They can be shortened, he says, with the right partners—especially individuals with access to the vast trove of geological surveys, seismic and core sampling done over the course of decades by the Soviets who mapped every corner of this country. The documents languish in government offices, open to those with the right kind of access.

Which leaves the ultimate question of who does get rich in the end. Vice President Biden came through here two weeks ago, quietly lobbying for America’s Peabody Coal, anxious to win a stake in the rich, still undeveloped western sectors of the Tolgut Tolgoi. It seemed like a deal had been done, until last Friday when Mongolia’s National Security Council vetoed the bid and sent all the parties back to the drawing board.

Mongolia, it seems, is determined not to get taken for a ride. 


David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, is winding up the sixth leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. Friday evening he heads to Hohhut, capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, Gers in the Big City, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.


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