“Mongolia is four times the size of Germany but has fewer than three million inhabitants. Despite this, almost half the country’s population is crammed into Ulan Bator, the world’s coldest capital – and its second most polluted. In recent years, Mongolia has been going through a major boom fuelled by natural resources, particularly coal and copper, with almost all of its exports going straight to China. Extraordinary rates of economic growth – which peaked at 17.5 percent in 2011 – have seen Ulan Bator’s skyline filled with bold new skyscrapers. Meanwhile a threefold increase in cars in just a few years has left the city’s streets chaotic and choked with traffic.”
“The boom also led to the creation of a new class of super-rich Mongolians. The capital’s oligarchs like to relax in nightspots like the Velvet Club, whose wine list includes $18,000 bottles of champagne, and at events such as Ulan Bator Fashion Week (see top photo). There are interesting local status symbols, including having a mobile phone number with the prefix 9911. These numbers are so coveted that you have to pay about $10,000 to get one.”
“Ulan Bator is a very unequal city, and just down the road from the sparkling new skyscrapers and the trappings of extreme wealth, some of its homeless residents have started living in the sewers – and some children have even been born in them. It’s warm down there, which means there’s a better chance of surviving the winter temperatures, which can drop as low as minus 40 degrees. When I visited a group living down there, including Battulag, the 33-year-old man in the photo below, they were really friendly. They said ‘We are so sorry. We didn’t know that you were coming here. We have nothing to offer to you.’ I was in a sewer and they were apologising for their lack of hospitality.”
The Ger district
“The modern centre of Ulan Bator is encircled by the Ger district, a massive belt of yurts and low-quality housing with no running water and limited electricity that is home to two thirds of the population. Much of the city’s pollution is created by the open stoves in this district which are often fuelled by illegally mined coal, and which represent a huge health hazard to inhabitants.”
“A shortage of water caused by widespread mining combined with a series of bad winters have driven many nomads to leave the countryside and move to the Ger district. There were projects to build affordable apartments there, but things like that require a lot of money and many of them have stopped because of the end of the boom.”
“This is a meat market where people in the Ger district buy their food. The supermarkets in Ulan Bator are really expensive – the prices are comparable to what you’d find in Europe, so most people could never buy meat there.
The division between rich and poor is very stark.”
“This photo [first below] was taken at an illegal mine in the Gobi desert, close to the Chinese border in the far south of the country. Each of these little holes in the ground is a mine shaft. The nomadic people who dig there don’t have the equipment to go through solid rock so they just dig in the dried-out riverbed, which is much easier but also dangerous as the ceilings can collapse at any time.
Family members often dig together, next to one another.”
“This [below] is the abandoned Nalaikh colliery, which is now used by illegal miners and is said to be the deadliest mine in the world. At one time, around 100,000 people were digging illegally for gold in Mongolia, but now it’s fewer as it’s harder to make money. China’s slowdown may bring this way of life to an end before long.”
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