The Nalaikh (Налайх) mining field is the first industrial site in Mongolia, long before Boroo and Gatsuurt gold mines, Oyu Tolgoi copper mines and the vast Khotgor coal mine. As the city of Ulaanbaatar was steadily developing and attracting newcomers, the mines of Nalaikh absorbed many former herders since its opening in 1922, just after the Mongolian Revolution of 1921. In these revolutionary years, families left their nomadic lives to join the industrial mouvement that would open the way from the sixties to the mining industry that now dominates Mongolia’s economy. With the development of new industrial centres appears, Nalaikh officially closed, letting the site to its lunar aspect with its ruined Russian buildings. But harsh winters in the first years of the XXIst century – an extreme climatic cycle known as « dzud » whose recurrence increases due to climate change- resulted in a massive loss in livestock. Without animals to provide for their living, many herders were forced to leave the countryside. Some went to illegal mining on properties abandoned by larger mining companies or by history like in Nalaikh.
The site counts about 100 interconnected tunnels with some going down to 200 meters below the surface, where 4 miners extract 30 trays of coal on 2 shifts of 12 hours, only during the winter season at great risk to their lives. This cheap and unrefined charcoal is then sold to the thousands of families in the Ger districts who can only afford it for heating and cooking in the coldest capital in the world. As coal is ubiquitous in Mongolia, it produces 95% of its electricity but contributes to 60% of Ulaanbaatar deadly air pollution. It’s a complex issue and the largest single challenge in Mongolia that links incomes, access to energy, air pollution, work opportunities, urban migration and the fate of nomadic life.
Within a few years, the sparse shoring timbers creak, the lungs darken, mine fires break out, miners die. Whether a father or a 16 years old teenager, they all come here to work hard, make money fast and fulfill their hopes : paying for their children’s education, going back to the countryside, buying a new flock of sheep and goats – and riding their horses.