Ochir Damchaa chuckles as he drives his second-hand Toyota sedan through the alleyways of Nalaikh, a ramshackle town 35 kilometers east of Ulaanbaatar: “There’re just two kinds of jobs here: drive a taxi, or dig coal.”
Mirage-like, a slinky piece of asphalt appears on the horizon after hours of driving across the dusty Gobi Desert. What’s coming into sight is the only paved surface for miles around. Yet many trucks are driving alongside the new highway, not on it.
Reflecting Mongolia’s booming economy, Ulaanbaatar’s skyline has been transformed in recent years, with socialist-style low-rise buildings displaced by lots of steel and concrete structures. And as the towers go up, their owners seem to go into politics.
Starting just over two decades ago, tens of thousands of citizens started leaving Mongolia amid a wrenching economic transition from a planned-economy to a free market. Now, with the Mongolian economy poised to boom, many émigrés are wrestling with a dilemma – whether or not to abandon the new country for the old?
Batogoo Dorj is a nomad in southern Mongolia’s Bayankhongor Region who makes his living raising cashmere goats. Each spring, Dorj can shear about 300 grams of the valuable, downy wool from each of his 350 goats. Those voracious and sharp-hoofed animals are contributing to the desertification and climate change that is reducing Mongolia’s available grazing land.
A mining boom helped Mongolia’s economy grow by an eye-popping 17.3 percent in 2011, according to government statistics. But while investors’ hopes are riding high at the news, there is little rejoicing among the country’s lower-income households for whom rapid growth means worrisome inflation.
This is the time of year when blasts of Arctic air start sweeping across Mongolia’s steppe, ushering in the long, hard winter. It’s when many, especially those who adhere to traditional nomadic rhythms of life, hunker down until spring.