NALAIKH, Mongolia: Monkhsaikhan comes from a family of miners. The 55-year-old, who used to work at a legitimate mining company, retired amidst Mongolia's latest commodity bust.
Monkhsaikhan has since been toiling at illegal mines at Nalaikh to earn a living.
Nalaikh, which is on the outskirts of Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar, is where various unlicensed groups have been digging up coal from abandoned mines in the area.
Miners without safety equipment use primitive methods to mine low-grade coal, often more than 100 metres underground.
Monkhsaikhan earns about US$21 to US$42 a week for risking his life doing his job, but he needs the money to supplement his family's meagre income.
12 MINERS DIE EVERY YEAR
"It's hard to tell when the soil and ground will collapse, but unfortunately that's the Mongolian life and why I'm working here," he told Channel NewsAsia.
Like most inhabitants in Nalaikh, Monkhsaikhan and his family of seven still live in traditional herder dwellings called "gers", amidst the bleak landscape filled with slag heaps and dozens of rudimentary mine shafts. The area around Nalaikh is also mostly devoid of trees and vegetation.
According to official figures, every year about a dozen miners die at the Nalaikh mines - which existence has been tolerated by authorities despite their illegal status.
There are no safety standards and no air quality testers, and the mines are prone to regular collapse.
When Channel NewsAsia visited the area, we saw shafts disappearing into the ground at seemingly impossible angles.
And the tunnels appeared to have few timber supports – a minimum safety standard for any coal mine.
Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia scholar at the University of British Columbia, said: “It’s awful. Makes you want to cry. You just walk around and (see) such a scene of devastation - human devastation and garbage and death - animal deaths. And it's dangerous to people. It’s horrible.”
However, the miners have little choice but to continue their work using antiquated tools.
IN CONTROL OF FEAR
And despite recognising the possibility of accidents, the miners have to keep their fear in check.
“When I go down, I cannot think of anything else but myself. I never go in thinking that it’ll be my last time seeing my family,” said Monkhsaikhan.
Bayasuren, another illegal miner, said: “You have to control yourself. There's not a lot to fear, you just have to be in control.”
Nalaikh is Mongolia’s first mining town, and the Nakaikh State Mine, which opened in 1922, was the nation’s first industrial mining operation.
But since the former state-owned mine went bust in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet-backed state economy dried up its subsidies, only the coal underground remained, along with the devastated landscape.
The mines are located about 35 kilometres, or about an hour’s drive away from the centre of Ulaanbaatar.
And they supply the heating fuel for the rapidly growing slum districts that are home to two-thirds of the city’s population.
Small trucks arrive at Nalaikh every day to haul the coal to the capital, and the owners pay the miners for each truckload in cash.
It’s estimated that there are about 2,000 illegal mining pits in the district.
They’re part of a booming complex of illegal mining in Mongolia which has seen an expansion of legal mining over the past few years.
TACKLING HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT
In May, the landlocked country bordering China and Russia decided to open more than one-fifth of its territory for mining exploration, hoping to shore up its finances.
But even though the country recently secured a US$5.5 billion International Monetary Fund-led bailout to stem its financial crisis, unemployment remains an issue, and about one in five Mongolians continue to live in poverty.
Otgochuluu Chuluunstseren, an adviser at the Economic Policy and Competitiveness Research Centre said the job situation is a "big problem" because of the country's poverty rate.
"If (the) state, or our businesses cannot offer jobs, they have to survive and create money and feed their families,” he said.
There have been calls for the government to restart industrial mining operations at Nalaikh so that the miners will be taken care of by companies.
After all, coal remains one of Mongolia’s biggest exports and the country’s massive coal deposits are seen as one way to revive its flagging economy.
Mongolia's coal export earnings surged nearly five-fold in the first five months of 2017, according to official data, with the country taking advantage of sanctions on North Korea to boost deliveries to China, its major customer. And the country’s statistics office said the rise in exports contributed to a 69.5 per cent increase in Mongolia's foreign trade surplus, which hit US$1 billion.
However, efforts by mining company Tsagaan Shokhoor to restart industrial mining operations at Nalaikh have met with fierce opposition from the miners, who are suspicious of the company's alleged Chinese ownership.
And since then, the government's attention has been focused on the larger multinational mining companies in other parts of the country. So even though Mongolia's mining sector is booming, coal extraction in Nalaikh remains a clandestine operation.
But for Monkhasaikhan, his biggest hope is that his children do not follow in his footsteps into the treacherous mines, regardless of whether the mining is illegal or not.