Photograph by Andrew Rowat

Ninja Mining in Mongolia's Far North

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    Mongolia’s illegal miners, many of them out-of-work herdsmen, are called “ninja miners.” Their nickname comes from the green bowls they carry on their backs, which resemble the shells of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For years, the lawless miners have worked in abandoned commercial mines and on the edges of active mines, using their green bowls to pan for gold. Here, a reindeer train makes the three-day journey to an illegal gold mining camp in the northern reaches of Mongolia. The reindeer belong to the Tsaatan, a nomatic people who ferry supplies into the camps for a profit.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    Two lone tents are located a few hundred yards from a gulley where artisanal (and illegal) gold mining is going on. Men, and some women, have flocked here from all over the country to try to make their fortunes in this frontier land.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    The "ninja" mining camp is located a three-day reindeer ride from the closest town, Tsagaannuur. Although the miners are destroying the environment by felling trees and burning them, the Tsaatan are running something of a taxi service—ferrying supplies in from town to the camp—making them complicit in their own homeland's destruction.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    A young Mongolian man ties knotted ropes around his boots to give him better grip in the snow on the three-day journey to the ninja mining camps.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    Metal detectors are too expensive for any one miner to purchase, so the devices are rented out for a percentage of the gold that is found.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    Dressed in traditional garb at an illegal gold mining camp in Khovsgol Province, Mongolia.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    The technology used to mine—digging holes into the ice, felling trees, and lighting fires in the holes to thaw the earth—is more primitive than the methods employed in the Klondike Gold Rush more than a century ago.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    A checkerboard of holes cut into the ice of a frozen river: The trees from the surrounding slope are then cut down and sawn into shorter logs. At the bottom of these holes, which might drop more than 20 feet, a bonfire is stoked, and the smoke rises into the air. The fires thaw the earth so the gold can be pried from the rock and riverbed.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    The holes are fortified at the top with trees to prevent them from collapsing and to delineate them from the ice. Several miners have died from falling into these holes or have had the holes collapse on them.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    Batches of gold taken out of the ground have nicknames, depending on their size—everything from a "baby goat" up to a "yak." The gold is purchased on site by enterprising buyers, who take the gold back to Ulan Bator, where it is sold or smuggled onward into China.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat
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    The miners have come from all over China to seek their fortunes in a landscape out of Jack London's Call of the Wild. Murder and banditry abound—and men walk around drunk in the middle of the day and hope the warmth of the vodka will keep out the cold of -50C nights.

    Photograph by Andrew Rowat