RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been in Mongolia this week, a country whose economy has grown dramatically thanks to mining. In recent years, Mongolia has been mining a fortune in copper, coal and gold, minerals that are in great demand by its neighbor to the south, China.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And as new mines open, they're providing good jobs in a country where a third of the people scrape by on just over $1 a day.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt traveled to the middle of the Gobi, a region that's a mix of desert, mountains and grassland. He brings us this story from one of Mongolia's massive mining operations.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Ooarnkoyar Maikhuu spends 12 hours a day behind the wheel of a 60-ton dump truck. She hauls dirt from a giant, open pit at Oyu Tolgoi, which, in a few years, is expected to become one of the world's largest copper mines. Ooarnkoyar says, for her, the job is a great fit.
OOARNKOYAR MAIKHUU: (Through translator) I love machinery. I love technology. For example, when I was in ninth grade, when I wasn't legally old enough, I learned to drive.
LANGFITT: Ooarnkoyar is a 22-year-old single mom with a five-year-old son. She wears a white hard hat, gold hoop earrings and lip gloss that sparkles. When she started here two years ago in the mine's cafeteria, she made just $96 a month. Today, as a truck driver, Ooarnkoyar brings in close to $1,400 a month.
MAIKHUU: (Through translator) I just got a loan on my salary and bought a little plot of land. When my son is older, I want to move into Ulan Bator and buy an apartment, and I want my son to go to school there.
LANGFITT: Ooarnkoyar is one of thousands of young Mongolians who come here to improve their lives. Oyu Tolgoi - which means turquoise hill in Mongolian - is more than 300 miles south of the capital, Ulan Baton. But it might as well be in the middle of nowhere. The mine camp is a self-contained city of around 14,000, surrounded by the lunar landscape of the Gobi. The neighbors are mostly camels, goats and sheep. Weather here features sandstorms, tornadoes and temperatures that drop to 40 below in winter and soar to 135 in the summer. In the evenings after work, miners play outdoor basketball and ping-pong inside a Quonset hut.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
LANGFITT: From seven to nine, the camp bar serves beer by the case beneath black lights. The clientele ranges from young Mongolian women just out of college to grizzled, 50-something miners from Australia.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
TSEREN-OCHIR: My name is Tseren-ochir, but lots of people call me Augie.
LANGFITT: Augie is a mine superintendent. He's directing workers to dig a nearly 5,000-foot-deep shaft straight down to reach the copper ore. Oyu Tolgoi is owned by two big international mining companies, Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe. Augie says they provide great on-the-job training for Mongolian workers.
TSEREN-OCHIR: I got 18 and 19-years-old guys came here, like five, six years ago. And now, they've became just, like, international, like, miners. And they can operate, like, everything, like, the latest technology underground. And those guys are fantastic.
LANGFITT: People work long stints at Oyu Tolgoi.
TSEREN-OCHIR: Now, I'm on rotation, just 56 days here, and then 14 days back home. The difficult thing is, like, living, like, far away from your home. And now I've got, like, a five-month-old baby, OK. I just, like, miss her so much.
LANGFITT: Augie makes about $24,000 a year, good money in Mongolia. Privately, though, Mongolians complain foreign workers from Canada and Australia with similar skills make at least three times more. Mining provides opportunities for Mongolian workers, but it also siphons away talent from other important industries, like tourism.
BATBAYAR AMGALANBAYAR: We lose at least, like, four people a year.
LANGFITT: Batbayar Amgalanbayar runs Mongolian Expeditions and Tours. He says mining companies routinely poach his best drivers and translators. Mongolian Expeditions offers everything from horseback-riding trips to winter kite-skiing. Batbayar's already had to turn away business this year because he couldn't staff some trips.
AMGALANBAYAR: I had to turn down just jeep tours. Then I had to turn down canoeing tours, trucking tours. So, I mean, this is something that never happened before.
LANGFITT: Workers in the Gobi who can't hire on with mining companies often strike out on their own. Mongolia has an estimated 70,000 illegal gold prospectors. They're called ninjas, either because they carry pans on their backs and resemble the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or because they cover their mouths and heads with bandanas and look like real ninjas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)
LANGFITT: I've been driving through the desert for a couple of hours, and I've just come across kind of a remarkable scene, something out of a California Gold Rush. There are scores of people here in this very craggy ravine with pickaxes, shovels, drills, jackhammers - you name it. And they're digging all these holes, prospecting for gold.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR BEEPING)
LANGFITT: The Ninjas use metal detectors to find a good spot, and then dig away with shovels and power drills.
(SOUNDBITE OF POWER DRILL)
LANGFITT: They sift the soil and pick through the rocks to find scraps and nuggets of gold.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD HITTING PAN)
LANGFITT: I met a 30-year-old miner named Batbildeg.
BATBILDEG: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: We're fining lots of gold, he says. Indeed, miners display their haul, pouring small, yellow rocks out of tiny, white pill bottles. And they say they can sell an ounce for about $150.
BATBILDEG: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: Batbildeg says he's been mining for two to three years. It's quite good. Last year, I made nearly $4,000, he says. Before that, I used to be a herder. My livestock all died out.
(SOUNDBITE OF PICK AX)
LANGFITT: Batbold Badrakh is hovering over his mine, a four-foot-deep pit. He wears a gray cap and a lined face that looks a decade older than his 42 years. Batbold served as a soldier when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite in the 1980s. He's struggled since.
BATBOLD BADRAKH: (Through translator) I did look for jobs, but now I'm over 40, and no one is going to hire me, anyway.
LANGFITT: Batbold has applied to work in mining companies.
BADRAKH: (Through translator) I tried with Oyu Tolgoi, but they won't hire me. First of all, my health is not good enough for them. And I have a family, and I can't leave them for a year.
LANGFITT: Batbold can't lift heavy objects because he has a bad back, but here, deep in the Gobi, he can still manage to run a sifter. That seems to be enough for the three other members of his ninja crew, and it's the only way Batbold can get a small piece of the action in Mongolia's mining boom. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: You can find this story and the rest of our series on Mongolia, including some stunning photo slideshows from NPR's John Poole, at npr.org. Tomorrow, in the final installment, Frank Langfitt visits a goat herder in Gobi whose son has taken a job in the mines.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Young people have stopped herding animals. There's lot of employment opportunities for them in the mining business and a lot of other stuff. Therefore, I can probably say that the generation of herders is ending with me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.