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Losing its past while holding little hope for the future.

An ominous vision of the future can be seen in Mongolia. It’s not in advanced technology or infrastructure, how the supposed future is usually referred to in Asia. It is a country drowning itself in vodka to dull the pain of having lost its past while holding little hope for the future.

In recent years Mongolia has been plagued by severe winters, during which extreme cold has killed the livestock that nomadic families rely on for their livelihood. They are then left with little choice but to migrate to the capital, Ulan Bator. There they join the rapidly expanding slum that sits on the city’s edge and is now home to about one third of Mongolia’s population. They generally struggle to find work and must rely upon government assistance to eke out a tenuous living.

The area is called the ger district, named for the traditional Mongol huts residents live in. As many can’t afford fuel, they cook what little food they can find over garbage fires and fall sick as a result. Residents wait each morning outside a government water station to fill their tank and roll it back up the hill to their hut.

There is a tension that bubbles beneath the surface of Ulan Bator. It can be seen as the sun begins to set. Young men, already drunk, jostle and jaw at each other on sidewalks. Violent crime is increasing. Some poor people from the ger district venture into the city by day to earn money by selling seeds or sitting on the sidewalk with a scale. Passersby may weigh themselves for a fee of ten cents.

In other countries after deciding against life in the countryside, the young turn up in cities looking to chase their dreams of wealth and success. Here, they’d like to remain in the countryside but are forced by climate change into the cities.

As luxury goods stores and shiny cafés are built at the city center, there are abandoned buildings just blocks away. The stark juxtapositions of wealth are all the more confounding against the backdrop of a Soviet-era city, with its overtones of equality and basic functionality.

A former communist state and satellite of the USSR, Mongolia is embracing a kind of resource capitalism. It is selling off its abundant resource wealth to foreign investors. The Mongolian government recently announced plans to privatize Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, the state-owned firm that controls the world’s largest coal exploration project. It expects the privatization to raise $300 billion. This is the biggest example of how Mongolian officials aren’t setting up their resource base as a long-term source of employment and revenue; they’re privatizing it, using it as a way to get a big, one-time payment.

Mongolia’s rich resource base means there is no lack of wealth in the country, but there are challenging questions of distribution. To address the problem of growing poverty, the government is increasing spending on social welfare. It has announced plans to invest 92.6 billion MNT ($70 million) in initiatives to expand employment and healthcare and pledged 20 billion MNT ($15 million) to develop small communities in the hinterland and therefore discourage rural to urban migration.

Mongolians are a tough and proud people used to providing for themselves. Their society is now being set up on the model of a small elite growing rich from selling resources while the masses live off handouts.

Poor Mongolians aren’t being presented with the same vague promise as other industrializing societies: that the wave of private wealth being created will eventually reach them. The few well-paying jobs in the private sector almost entirely go to young people from wealthy families that were able to send them to universities abroad.

Each morning during winter trucks circulate the ger district to collect the bodies of those who froze to death overnight after passing out from excessive drinking. Where the district’s edge meets the countryside, new arrivals pitch their huts. As the middle disappears from the economy, there may soon be more cities without a middle, like Ulan Bator. We may one day look to the Mongolian capital for insight into how to build a new life with only what we can carry.

Steven Borowiec is a deputy editor at South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper.

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