When he landed here more than a decade ago, Mr. Hodgson found an economic wasteland still reeling from the fall of Mongolia’s Communist overlords in 1990. The few other expatriates on the scene were mostly busy proselytizing, and there was little to do during the brutal winters but develop a taste for fermented mare’s milk.
Yet to Mr. Hodgson, a veteran of the wilds of Papua New Guinea, Myanmar and Pakistan, the young democracy was a welcome change of scenery. “I’d had enough running around in the jungle,” he said recently.
What made him stay, he said, aside from a nascent mining sector, was an advantage particularly irresistible to a man who had spent a career dodging cannibals, rebels and terrorists: “Here you won’t get shot.”
These days, the perks are far plusher. Mongolia, it turns out, sits atop a treasure trove of copper, coal
and gold that is changing the fate — and the face — of this mostly empty country, thanks to China’s insatiable demand for natural resources. The surging mining trade has made Mongolia the world’s fastest-growing economy
, transforming Ulan Bator into a city where Soviet bust meets Chinese boom.
And now the mercenaries in finance, attracted by a frenzy of deal-making, have joined in, too. “It’s a bit of a gold rush,” Mr. Hodgson said as he worked a booth at a coal industry conference packed with tailored suits and foreign accents.
For locals, their gentrifying capital, home to half of Mongolia’s 2.7 million people, has become a petri dish for their hopes and fears. Amid the crumbling Stalinist apartment blocks and rising skyscrapers, a debate is raging over mining’s impact, pitting those who praise the industry for sweeping away decades of decay against others who see materialism and corruption polluting Mongolia’s traditional way of life.
Like it or not, mining is changing Ulan Bator. Until a few years ago, the skyline was dominated by a pair of cooling towers. These days, the city’s tallest building is a gleaming 25-story hotel with $300-a-night rooms and unreliable heating.
Its glass sheath overlooks Mongolia’s economic and political nucleus, Sukhbaatar Square, which is surrounded by a telling collection of buildings: the Mongolian Parliament, the stock exchange, the headquarters of the Mongolian Mining Corporation
and a billboard for the country’s first British private school, which is to open in September. Across the street, a new mall beckons the nouveau riche with name-brand stores like Burberry and Emporio Armani.
“If it wasn’t for mining, this place would look just as it did 50 years ago,” said Haydn Lynch, who moved here in April from Sydney, Australia, to take an executive position with the exploratory mining company Xanadu Mines
First-world profits are colliding with third-world problems. A series of flock-devastating winters and the lure of mining riches have attracted thousands of herders from the grasslands. They live on the city’s outskirts in crowded yurt slums some locals refer to as Mongolia’s favelas. Unemployment is rampant there; electricity and drinkable water are not. The less fortunate take shelter in the sewers, where they huddle beside hot-water pipes when the temperature plunges to 40 below.
“At the moment people are waiting for the mining wealth to somehow spill over to them,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, director of the Sant Maral Foundation
, a nonprofit organization. According to the foundation’s recent polls, 96 percent of Mongolians think corruption is widespread and 80 percent say they believe their country’s oligarchs have too much power.
Discontent over corruption and the government concessions to foreign mining firms were the major campaign issues in last month’s parliamentary elections. Those now in power face high expectations to spend the mining windfall on health care, infrastructure and economic development.
Still, some wonder whether Mongolia can avoid the familiar demons of political instability, corruption and widening poverty that plague other mineral-rich developing nations. Government officials say they are working hard to avoid the “resource curse” that bloats the bank accounts of a corrupt elite at the expense of the wider public. They say they are also mindful of the potential for the so-called Dutch disease
, the strengthening of a nation’s currency that often accompanies a surge in natural resource exports, making its other industries less competitive.
“Mongolia is at a crossroad,” said Saurabh Sinha, an economist with the United Nations Development Program
in Ulan Bator. “Will the government use the mining wealth sustainably and equitably for improving the lives of all its people? Or will it become a Nigeria?”
Some Mongolians are starting to feel the benefits. This year, civil servants received a 50 percent pay increase. Or consider the improved fortunes of Uuganbaatar Nyamdeleg.
Stuck in Ulan Bator’s perpetual gridlock one evening, Mr. Nyamdeleg, a mop-haired 26-year-old, recounted how he left his $500-a-month job as a hotel bellboy in 2011 to become a mining safety inspector, earning $1,000 a month. Today he has offers from two mines willing to pay him $1,500 a month. “Only mining pays that kind of big money,” he said.
Mongolia’s boom has also been a magnet to some who left years ago in search of greater fortunes. Zolboo Bataa, 34, spent nine years in Ireland, where he obtained a business degree and built a promising corporate career. But with Ireland in deep recession, Mr. Bataa returned home in March, quickly landing a job with a mining equipment company.
“If you don’t see the opportunity in Mongolia now, you’re a fool,” he said over a pint of beer one night at Hennessy’s Irish pub, an expatriate haven tucked into a dingy hotel.
Gantuya Badamgarav, 44, agrees. The embodiment of Ulan Bator upward mobility, Ms. Badamgarav taught herself English 14 years ago using a Russian-English dictionary and went on to become one of Mongolia’s highest-paid executives.
But she gave it up on the expectation that she could do even better seeking a piece of the new wealth flowing through town. In April, Ms. Badamgarav opened the 976 art gallery in a new mall, filling it with abstract oil paintings and metal sculptures. Wearing skinny jeans and biker boots, Ms. Badamgarav said she expected Mongolia’s mining boom to fuel a Chinese-style cultural renaissance, and she plans to be ahead of the curve.
“In China, once they had luxury cars and Louis Vuitton bags, art came next,” she said.
With the country on the brink of prosperity, Ms. Badamgarav is betting her future on her nation’s soaring aspirations. “Mongolians are like dogs just let off the chain,” she said. “We’re hungry to afford the good stuff.”