Nalaikh miner
An illegal miner hitting a coal vein with his pick at the Nalaikh mine in March 2014. Safety equipment, infrastructure, and procedures are almost non-existent throughout thr Nalaikh illegal coal-mining operation. Jacopo Dettoni

ULAANBATAAR, Mongolia -- Deep inside the earth, the eyes of blackened miners shimmer under spotlights as they hammer endlessly upon rock, tapping the vein of Mongolia's largest illegal coal mine. The Nalaikh mine, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is both a vision from the past and a rogue operation from the present.

Coal dust streaks the miners' cheeks, their hands, their worn clothes. In many cases, whether they know it or not, their lungs are being ruined by coal and nicotine. They risk their lives every time they go into the pits.

Frequently, theirs is a losing bet. The miners here are part of a booming complex of illegal mining in Mongolia, the seamy underside of an expansion of legal mining in the past several years. Fatal accidents take place at a higher rate here than in the infamously deadly China mines, as private operators seek to maximize profits by skimping on safety gear.

The miners crawl in the darkness for hundreds of meters through narrow, rambling passages before reaching the working face, where the new coal is cut. Dug with shovels and picks, the tunnels have few timber supports -- a minimum safety standard in any coal mine, and the walls crumble as carts loaded with coal slide up, pulled from the outside by trucks. The air feels chill and still; only a few in Nalaikh can afford ventilators, another minimum safety standard in coal mining.

Every year, about a dozen miners die here. That's the official figure. In reality, nobody knows how many people are buried in the makeshift pits, as Nalaikh largely lies beyond the authorities' control.

Across Mongolia, the national Mine Rescue Service has recorded 422 peak-season accidents since 2000, with collapses and explosions claiming at least 175 victims. With an average annual production of 700,000 tons, that means one fatality for every 56,000 tons of coal mined, making Nalaikh far deadlier than Chinese coal mines, where one miner dies for every 2.7 million tons of coal mined.

“But this one is safe,” says Ganzorig B., referring to the particular mine shaft he is working with eight fellow miners. Ganrozig, like most Mongolians, omits or abbreviates to the first letter his last name. He smiles as he offers his disclaimer, trying to sound reassuring.

Nalaikh mine office
A crumbling façade is all that's left of the former state-owned mine at Nalaikh. What is left of the old office building of Nailakh's state mine. Visitors can still read "Nalaikh Great Mine" in faded Cyrillic letters. Jacopo Dettoni

Mongolia has gained a worldwide reputation as the next big thing in mining. Some people call it Minegolia, and companies from all over the globe have rushed in to tap its vast coal, copper and gold deposits. With investments for billions of dollars lining up, the country's economy posted double-digit growth rates in each of the last three years.

Yet it is Nalaikh's “informal” coal that still heats up half of Ulaanbaatar during Mongolia's frigid winter. Though only a handful of the hundreds of mine shafts active in Nalaikh are legally authorized, that has not stopped scores of local miners from coming back, winter after winter.

“Every autumn we come back and dig new holes, because the old ones are either depleted or collapsed,” Ganzorig said.

Ganzorig's mine shaft lies just down the road from the ruins of the official, vast mining operation that the government used to run here. Opened in 1922, the Nalaikh State Mine was the nation's first industrial mining operation. It provided jobs, and the usual dose of mining tragedies, to generations of local men before going bust in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet-backed state economy dried up its subsidies. A few words can still be read on the façade of the old office building: “Nalaikh Great Mine.”

Perhaps those who looted the building to the last usable brick in the 1990s left the sign as an act of respect, but today, the words embody the irony of Nalaikh's boom-and-bust curve. Ruins are all over the place: Traces of a railway lead to the skeleton of the old loading station, the office building's façade itself is falling apart, and the Cyrillic letters will be gone soon, under a pile of debris.

Only the coal underground is left, and the hundreds of men who dig it up for a living.

Tent City

“During the peak season, there are more than 200 active mine shafts, and only 26 shafts are authorized,” said Tuyabaatar A., a representative from the office of the governor of Nalaikh district.

Up to 2,000 "hand miners" work at Nalaikh from October to May. They supply around 70 percent of the 1 million tons of coal burned every year in Ulaanbataar's underprivileged ger districts. In winter, the more than 750,000 people living there in gers, the traditional Mongolian nomadic tents, or other semi-permanent structures (about half of the city's total population) feed their stoves with 30 to 50 kilos (up to 110 pounds) of coal per day.

The smoke has turned the city, once known for its blue skies, into one of the world's most polluted, according to a study by the World Health Organization. Famous for its high calorific value, Nalaikh coal is sold at any corner in 15-kilo yellow bags for no more than 2,000 tugriks (US$1.10). It's a huge black market trade that happens mostly in plain view.

“Authorities just cannot control it,” middleman Khashkhuu D. said with a grin on his face. He had just paid the usual 5,000-tugrik bribe to a police patrol that stopped his truck loaded with coal along the highway to Ulaanbataar. Khashkhuu fills up the truck at the mine for some 160,000 tugriks, and resells its load for around 300,000 in the city. The profit is equivalent to roughly $79.

Nalaikh coal
A truck carrying illegally mined coal from Nalaikh arrives in Ulan Bator's ger district, where the coal is shovelled into typical yellow bags, each one worth some 2,000 tugriks. A truckload can fetch up to 300,000 tugriks, around $180. Jacopo Dettoni

Soon after shutting down the state mine, authorities divided it into small plots and privatized them. But demand from the capital's burgeoning ger districts kept growing, and the government could not, or would not, crack down on the expansion of illegal mining at Nalaikh. Dozens of mine shafts began to actively probe the lode. Today, coal remains a major source of income for the local economy.

“Around 42 percent of the people here live below the poverty line, and the first thing that comes to their mind [to make money] is mining," the Nalaikh government's Tuyabaatar said. "They pay no taxes whatsoever, make 40,000 tugriks to 50,000 tugriks [$28] per day, and get the cash straightaway at the end of the working day.”

With monthly earnings reaching 1.5 million tugriks ($842), Nalaikh's miners make far more money than most Mongolians -- the national average income is 631,000 tugriks -- during the winter months. With no other real alternatives, they care little for the price they might end up paying.

“In the past, the mine's operation would go deeper and be more complex, but we had the names and numbers of those who were down and a rescue team would be sent out for any accident," said Janchiv T., who has worked in Nalaikh as a rescuer since the 1970s. "Whereas today, we don't really know what is happening and how many people get stuck underground when accidents happen.”

Legal Coal Makes A Comeback?

As the winter season comes to an end and Ulaanbaatar's stoves gradually cool off, Ganzorig and his fellow miners will soon seal off their mine shafts and empty out the site, leaving behind their old picks and mountains of trash. But this year, the mine site will not be utterly abandoned, as engineers from a Mongolian private mining company are expected to camp out here while conducting surveys.

“We are concentrating on how to build one big, reliable project, and local mining firm Tsagaan Shonkhoor will carry out some studies on it this spring,” Nyamsuren S., general director of the Mine Rescue Service, said in an interview in his office. He was toying with a pen branded with the logo of Coal Mongolia 2014, an annual conference that attracts Ulaanbaatar politicians and coal barons from all over the world.

This year's conference, which was held in February, gives an idea of how high coal mining ranks on the government's agenda. The speaker list featured Prime Minister Norovyn Altankhuyag alongside three members of the cabinet and three vice-ministers. Coal is the country's biggest export item, accounting for one-fourth of total exports in 2013. Mongolia last year exported 18 million tons, up from just 2.2 million tons in 2005, according to figures from the mining ministry. The government expects to increase exports to 83 million tons by 2028 through the development of large untapped deposits such as lie under the massive Tavan Tolgoi basin, where official estimates put total coal reserves at more than 6 billion tons.

Nalaikh does not feature among Mongolia's most appealing coal reserves, and rarely makes it onto the agenda of Coal Mongolia. Yet there is still plenty of coal left to dig out. Tsagaan Shonkhoor, which legally owns some mining licenses in the western part of the basin, estimates there are coal reserves of about 24 million tons, and authorities are backing a project by the company to restart industrial mining operations at the site.

However, Tsagaan Shonkhoor has met with the fierce opposition from the informal miners, who are suspicious of its alleged Chinese ownership. Years ago, its employees were attacked by miners armed with spades and crowbars, the local press reported.

Nalaikh mine shaft
A miner carrying a rope deep down in one of Nalaikh's hundreds of illegal mine shafts. Jacopo Dettoni

A spokesperson from the company confirmed Tsagaan Shonkhoor is still working on the project but declined to comment further.

“Authorities have to come up with a plan for Nalaikh, but so far there has been a lot of talking and no concrete follow-up,” Janchiv, the mine rescue worker, said.

Down in the darkness of the earth's interior, the miners do not really care. With spring coming up, they are all in a good mood. “Your semester is about to end? Ours, too!” Ganzorig said to a local NGO worker who was about to finish university, prompting laughter from his mates. Soon the underground city of illegal coal will fall silent again. Ganzorig will be idle until autumn comes, then he will go off looking for a new mine shaft. And so it will continue, until the government makes good in its talk to turn Nalaikh into a legal project -- or until the coal runs out.

Bolor Munkhbold contributed research for this story.