Risking life in the Mongolian gold rush

UK miner Craig Notman described Mongolian mining as 'like a prison camp'

Mongolia, one of the most remote and desolate places on earth, is in the middle of a gold rush. But with 40% of the population living in poverty, around 100,000 people work in deadly unregulated mines in order to survive.

"When I look at families with horses, I feel so sad tears well up in my eyes."

Sukhbaatar used to be a nomadic herder - the ancient way of life in Mongolia.

"That was when I was a real man with horses", he says. Now he is a miner.

Find out more

(L-R) Anga, Craig Notman, Sukhbaatar

The Toughest Place to be a Miner is on BBC Two Sunday 19 August 21:00 BST.

Two years ago, all of Sukhbaatar's livestock - 300 horses, yaks and goats - were killed in a long harsh winter known as a Zud.

Severe droughts and Zuds in recent years have devastated Mongolia's livestock herds, killing an estimated eight million animals.

"Nothing was left, everything was dead and that's why we moved here," he explains.

His destination was Uyanga, a mining town on the Mongolian Steppe, a rolling grassland that stretches in a large crescent around the Gobi Desert.

The mining boom in Mongolia has given the country the fastest-growing economy in the world. Billions of dollars of copper, gold and coal flood over the border to China.

While this has created a new class of super-rich, more than a million people live in acute poverty, risking their lives for a few pounds a day working in these unregulated mines.

Every day, whatever the weather, Sukhbaatar and his wife Gansuvd ride on motor bikes two miles across the Uyangen valley - past yak herders, a reminder of their former life.

Their destination could be described as the middle of nowhere.

Map of Mongolia Mongolia spreads across 1.5 million sq km of the Central Asian plateau

Rolling grassland stretches as far as the eye can see - not a tree or bush in sight.

People are working at holes in the ground, that look a little like craters on a moon. Smoke is rising out of some of them, adding to the otherworldly feel of the landscape.

The smoke is from dung fires lit by the miners to melt the layers of permafrost, permanently frozen land. Each hole has been dug by a different family.

One person can fit into each hole, being lowered down into it by rope. But there is nothing in the holes to support the walls.

"The ground collapses. Some people are saved and some have died buried in the ground," Sukhbaatar admits.

It is not known how many have died in the massive network of tunnels that now cover the valley.

British miner Craig Notman could not believe what he was seeing when he travelled from Staffordshire to Mongolia to experience Sukhbaatar's life.

"This is Victorian mining I can't get my head round it. The hole looks like a grave. It's like going into your own tomb," he says.

In the UK, mining is done by big machines, with stringent health and safety rules. Sukbhaatar, Gansuvd, their daughter and son-in-law use pick axes and shovels, which is gruelling work.

Digging down to the gold seam on the ancient river bed can take days.

(L-R) Milking a Yak. Gansuvd, Craig Notman Gansuvd taught Craig how to milk a yak, when they visited family

They bring up nearly half a ton of soil every day. The earth then has to be sorted, the larger stones removed and then the rest panned to hopefully reveal gold flakes.

They are lucky to make £5 a day.

The government in this part of Mongolia refuses to issue licences for people like Sukhbaatar because they claim that they damage the environment. But further up the valley, big companies have been given licences to mine gold on an industrial scale.

They have pledged to make good the environmental damage when they have finished mining in the area. But Sukhbaatar believes they will take what they want and move on.

"It makes me sad. Before there was a large river running along the valley. There used to be herders all up this valley."

In 20 years of mining, the Ongin river here has all but dried up.

The Mongolian people have a deep connection to their land and digging it up runs counter to their beliefs. Every few weeks, Gansuvd and their young son Samya visit the Buddhist temple on the edge of town to pray for forgiveness from the land.

In the UK, Craig has been a miner for 15 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and he believes mining is a brotherhood.

But he finds that it is every man for himself on the Mongolian plains.

One day they return to find three families have dug tunnels into Sukhbaatar's hole to take the gold from it.

Craig Notman The valley is now a warren of tunnels raising the risk of collapse

"The owner of one of them is a friend - I can't believe they would do this," Sukhbaatar whispers.

Safety is Craig's highest priority and he is upset and frightened that people work like this. He is determined to help Sukhbaatar to mine more safely.

Wood is expensive and Sukhbaatar is worried any props to support the sides of the holes would be stolen. Craig eventually persuades him to use props that they take home every night.

He is "chuffed to bits" that they are taking on his advice but admits that he found his visit "hard and upsetting", seeing the risks they were taking.

Back home in the UK, Craig is determined to help the miners in Mongolia.

"If a miner is struggling, another miner is going to help him and that's what's happening, it's a brotherhood."

Craig describes Sukhbaatar as a "good honest man, with a heart as big as a lion", and mining teams around the UK are now planning fundraising to buy him cattle.

"I want to pull up outside his place with a big lorry full of cattle and drive out to the countryside and park up and leave them [Sukhbaatar's family] to it - to where he should be.

"I will achieve that and I'm looking forward to that day so much."

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