Out in the Cold:
Homeless in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
December 2008

by Sean Gallagher

It was 5 a.m. and the temperature was about –20 degrees C. As I stood shivering in the darkness down a back alley in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, I was starting to believe the claims that this was indeed the coldest capital city in the world. This alleged fact, however, wasn't why I was there. My guide Batszaya turned to me and said, "I don't think they're coming."

© Sean Gallagher Photography
Widespread unemployment in Mongolia has caused many social problems such as depression, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and crime. Otguntugs, 28, and his wife Ounsuren, 36, use what money they have from collecting bottles to purchase cheap Russian vodka which they drink in order to stave off the bitter cold that embraces Ulaanbaatar for large portions of the year.
We had been waiting in the cold for the past hour for a homeless family who we had met the previous evening and had arranged to meet at 4 a.m. near their home. It appeared, however, that I had been stood up.

Currently, 36 percent of Mongolians live below the poverty line, lacking the ability to buy basic food and goods needed in order to survive on a day-to-day basis. This figure has barely changed since the fledgling democratic government took power in the early 1990s. As the world experiences the effects of the global financial crisis, small countries such as Mongolia are feeling the effects as much as anybody. The 3 million residents of Mongolia hang on the actions of the great superpowers of Russia and China that sandwich the country to the north and south respectively. The country is currently experiencing its highest inflation rate in over a decade, accompanied by rising fuel and food costs. With Russia supplying Mongolia with 95 percent of its petroleum and a large amount of its electricity while China is receiving 70 percent of the country's exports, Mongolia's economy is fraught with vulnerability, dependent on its two looming neighbors.

© Sean Gallagher Photography
Early in the morning in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Ounseren, 36, lights a fire in order to boil a soup which consists of any food left over from the previous day. The country is currently experiencing its highest inflation rate in over a decade, mainly as a result of rising fuel and food costs. This directly affects the family because the price they receive for the bottles they collect has dropped, meaning they can afford less and less food.
I was in the Mongolian capital, via a 'short' 30-hour train journey from Beijing and had only three days to find and photograph people who were being affected first-hand by the economic crisis in Asia. This project was self-assigned and I knew I needed a little luck if

I was to find people willing to be photographed and get enough images for a short feature.

My first day appeared fruitless, however, as my guide and I drove around the capital searching for people to photograph. Our first attempts at asking people to be photographed were soundly rejected and it wasn't looking good. Then that evening we met Battsetseg, 36, a friendly woman who has been living on the streets for over 10 years after running out of money during the country's worst economic recession in the 1990s. She, like many others, has been living in an underground sewer with her family, in a room whose floor is lined with hot-water pipes that they lay on to keep warm. That evening my guide and I found ourselves lowering each other through a manhole down into the pitch black and into Battsetseg's 'home.' By flashlight we talked about the difficulties she and her family are now facing because of rising food prices.

"I was 26 years old when I began living on the street," she said. "I came to Ulaanbaatar as I thought life would be better in the city. At the beginning it was better but now it's getting worse and worse. It's very difficult for poorer people. Today, for example, I got up at 3 to look around the garbage for bottles. I found enough to buy a loaf of bread for my children. I then go home, sleep a little and then walk around again. I worry about this evening's food."

That evening we agreed to meet at 4 a.m. the following morning so I could photograph her and her family through a normal day. So, at 5 a.m. the next morning I found myself having been waiting for an hour with no sign of Battsetseg. The lives of people living on the streets in Ulaanbaatar are fraught with danger and unpredictability. Just a month ago, Battsetseg told us, in the middle of the night a gang of homeless people descended into her family's underground home and stole their bedding, food and money. In the process they slashed the neck of her husband with a knife as he tried to stop the thieves robbing his family.

© Sean Gallagher Photography
An abandoned garage in central Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, serves as a home to one family of homeless people. With no heating, temperatures inside the garage match those outside with winter temperatures dropping as low as minus 40 degrees Centigrade.
So having given up for the night, my guide and I returned to the streets the following day. This time, however, we didn't find anybody ourselves-- instead we were found. Late in the afternoon an old man and a young child approached our parked car as we waited for Battsetseg from the previous day. They introduced themselves as Battur (55) and his grandson Huyga (6). They had heard through other homeless people that there was a foreign photographer in the area and they had come to find me because they wanted someone to hear their story.

They led me and my guide through some of the alleyways that divide the communist-era apartment buildings which dominate Ulaanbaatar until we finally arrived at their home, an abandoned metal garage, big enough to house an average-sized car.

"We have been living on the streets for 10 years and in this garage for one year," said Battur, the grandfather of the family who, in his youth, studied Mongolian Language and Literature at one of the capital's universities. Divorcing from his wife in the1990s turned him to drink and, hence, onto the street. He introduced me to his son Otguntugs (28) and his son's wife Ounsuren (36). Having heard of my presence in the community, they asked me to spend the following day with them in order to show people how they live and to tell people of the difficulties of their lives and the discrimination they face.

The next morning at around 6 a.m. I accompanied the family as they crept out of their garage-home. Behind them they left 6-year-old Huyga, sleeping soundly hidden beneath blankets, alone in the darkness. Each morning the family heads onto the streets to search for plastic and glass bottles, so they can be sold to recycling centers. A morning's work can yield some 100 bottles, for which they can get some 1000 Mongolian Tugrik, barely US$1. With this money and a little left over from the previous day, they head to the local food market where they buy not food, but cheap Russian vodka which they proceed to drink in quantity in order to stave off the biting cold of the Mongolian winter morning. And so their day continues in a cycle of collecting bottles, drinking vodka, finding any food they can and just making it through the day.

© Sean Gallagher Photography
Battsetseg, 36, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is a former nurse who, 10 years ago, was forced onto the streets when she ran out of money during the country’s worst economic recession in the 1990s, following the country’s move to new democracy. She now lives underground in a sewer that has hot water pipes running through it, which she and her family use to keep warm and escape the cold.
For the family of three generations the story is similar and echoes many of the lives and subsequent problems surrounding being homeless in Mongolia. Widespread unemployment has caused many social problems such as depression, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and crime. Facing discrimination from many areas of society Otguntugs, the father, told me of having lost the family's official documents some years ago and the problems that has created. “In the hospitals nobody will help us because people believe we are dirty. We have no insurance or documents so are refused treatment."

For the country's 1 million people who live below the poverty line the world's reaction to the global financial crisis in the coming months and years will have huge direct significance on their lives and their basic ability to survive. The lives of Ulaanbaatar's homeless residents continue to hang perilously in the balance, hinging on the actions of others, both abroad and at home. Tomorrow morning, however, Ulaanbaatar's homeless will rise again into dark, sub-zero conditions and begin their search for bottles once again, trying to make it through one more day.

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© Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher is a British photographer, currently based in China. Graduating in Zoology from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England in 2002, he subsequently changed career direction into photography. To date he has lived and worked across the world, spending extended periods of time in locations as diverse as Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, China, the United Arab Emirates and various European nations. His most recent work has specialized on social and environmental issues in Asia, with specific emphasis on China. This approach has resulted in being the first recipient of the David Alan Harvey Fund for Emerging Photographers (2008), receiving sponsorship from FujiFilm UK (2006) and during 2004-2005 he was selected to undertake a one-year paid internship at the prestigious photojournalism agency Magnum Photos, among other awards.

His work has been published internationally, in print and online, in leading publications, and exhibited worldwide.

Contact and see more of Sean Gallagher's work at http://www.gallagher-photo.com/main.php.

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