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Light in the dark

Nalaikh, Mongolia

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  • In Dec of 2015 I decided to visit a little known town named Nalaikh in Mongolia. Nalaikh was built as a coal mining town during the communist regime in Mongolia (1919-1991) and served as the main supplier of coal to the capital Ulaanbaatar (District 9 much?). As time passed, many Mongolians moved into Nalaikh, finding work in the massive coal mining factory, hoping to provide a better life for their families than their previous traditional nomadic lifestyle could offer.

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    But Nalaikh's prosperity came to an abrupt end in the early 90's as, almost overnight, the communist regime ended, the factory ceased all of it's activities and the town fell into darkness. In the years that followed, as a last resort to provide for their families, many of the residents of Nalaikh decided to dig their own holes in the ground and continue illegally mining the precious coal themselves.

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    After I'd been in Nalaikh for a few days, I met a young miner who we decided to code name "The Sparrow" in order to protect his identity. After I told him about my intended photo project he agreed to take me underground and introduce me to the world of these illegal mines. A few hours later I found myself squeezing with my camera gear into a narrow rusty metal bathtub that was connected with cable to an old engine at ground level, and so, sliding down in complete darkness through a roughly carved tunnel, we entered the Sparrow's mine.

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    The mine entrance itself was about 80 metres below the surface, the Sparrow and his friends had to dig deep in order to reach this thick layer of quality coal. With a camera in hand I crawled after him through a system of tunnels, barely big enough for a grown person to sit, lit only by a series of mostly blinking lightbulbs and the headlights that were connected to the miners helmets.

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    In the mine work went on around the clock, the harsh Mongolian winter keeps the demand for coal high as many mongolians still use it to heat their homes. Different teams excavate the coal in rotations; some miners use hammers to break the coal out of the mine's walls and others collect and load it into the very same narrow metal bathtub that we had used to get down into the mine. Once the metal bathtub is full, the miners will drag it to the mine's entrance, pull it up to the surface using a cable and add the newly collected coal into a huge pile on the ground, waiting for someone to come and buy it.

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    After spending a few hours in the mine it was time for me to go back up to the surface. With the Sparrow's help we dragged the metal bathtub back to the mine's entrance, connected the cable and squeezed into it. Then, by connecting two exposed electrical wires we activated a bell stationed on the surface, that was the signal for the team at the top to pull us up. The problem was that as we were so deep underground that we simply couldn't hear the bell ring at all, thus having absolutely no idea if it works or not.

    I remember it clearly, that for what felt like an eternity, we were simply sitting in that metal tub - completely powerless. As time passed I started getting more and more stressed, wondering how long it would take until I'd be able to go up to the surface and breath coal-free air again. On the other hand, while I was panicking, the Sparrow seemed to be completely relaxed, telling jokes and breaking small coal pieces from the ceiling as he kept connecting the electric wires every few minutes - he didn't really seem to care if we get stuck there or not and it was in that moment that I realized the importance of his story real is.

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    You see, at the end of the day I got to leave that place and return home, away from these dark and smoggy mines of Nalaikh, but for the Sparrow there is no escape, these mines are his life, as they are his only way of supporting his family, thus trapping him down there - 80 metres below the ground. And every day the Sparrow, and many others like him, ring bells - hoping someone will hear and pull them up.

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    "Light in the dark" is my attempt to use the arts of photography and storytelling to help bring these bell rings to others and shed light on the people of Nalaikh, hoping to raise much needed awareness of their situation. Although things have been improving thanks to the efforts of certain organizations - much work still needs to be done. Please share this story with your friends so more people will hear about it and hopefully will be able to help remove the darkness that lies on the town of Nalaikh. After all - sparrows were meant to fly.
     
     
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    7 comments

    • Peg DiBenedetto

      Peg DiBenedetto

      Comment Link Wednesday, 21 December 2016 02:41

      In the end, education is the only thing that will save mankind, save the earth. And what better way to educate, than through photographs? In seeking out the unknowns of the world, you bring them to light. Kind of a Margaret Mead of the modern world... but the worlds you explore are far from modern. Good work, Asher, and thank you.

    • shelli Stenzler

      shelli Stenzler

      Comment Link Saturday, 17 December 2016 10:45

      I am awe struck at your/their story. Your photography is amazing and together with your words, you describe such an incredible story. These people need help, and you bring the light of hope-just one week before Chanukah. Kol hakavod.

    • ARIK KANEH

      ARIK KANEH

      Comment Link Friday, 16 December 2016 18:42

      Very unique and special pictures with a rare story. You brought the mining experience very close to my heart and it touched me.

    • kAREN sCHUENEMANN

      kAREN sCHUENEMANN

      Comment Link Friday, 16 December 2016 14:58

      Asher, your photographs resonate with your drive and passion to bring this story to light. Thank you for your diligence to make it happen, and for doing it so well. It makes me so appreciate my life and again reminds me to be grateful foe each and every day.

    • Deborah Fouts Rash

      Deborah Fouts Rash

      Comment Link Thursday, 15 December 2016 15:38

      You amaze me and continue to bring the stories of beautiful people and countries to life. Please never stop pointing your camera and listening to the unheard!!! Bravo to another wonderful story!

    • Doug Ersson-Hammerberg

      Doug Ersson-Hammerberg

      Comment Link Thursday, 15 December 2016 15:14

      YOU HAVE CAPTURED IT WONDERFULLY IN WORDS AND PHOTOS. IN MY YOUTH I WORKED SEVERAL DIFFERENT KINDS OF MINES FROM UNDERGROUND TO OPEN PIT. THERE IS A WORLD ONLY MINERS UNDERSTAND AND IN A FEW PHOTOS AND WORDS, YOU CAPTURED IT. FOR CENTURIES PEOPLE HAVE GONE TO THE MINES TO CARVE OUT AN EXISTENCE FOR THEIR FAMILIES DESPITE THE DANGERS. IT IS WHAT THEY DO, TAKE THE RISKS FOR THERE ARE MANY.....FOR THE LOVE OF FAMILY, FOR THE HOPE TO BETTER THEIR WORLD, YET FULLY UNDERSTANDING THEY ARE "TRAPPED" IN YET ANOTHER. WE COMPLAIN MUCH IN OUR WORLD, BUT I WOULD BET YOU HEARD FEW COMPLAINTS FROM HIS. THANKS FOR SHARING THIS.

    • Emma holmquist

      Emma holmquist

      Comment Link Thursday, 15 December 2016 14:40

      Beautiful and powerful. I find it especially potent that you RELEASED light in the dark in mid-december, where in the world of Christianity we are in the season of advent, waiting for the day WE celebrate light coming into the world of darkness. Thank You for sharing the story of SPARROW And his COMMUNITY, BEING their own LIGHT when their world seems so bleak and dark.
      Plus. The PHOTOGRAPHS are marvelous.

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