November 13, 2017 / 10:00 PM / 8 months ago

WIDER IMAGE-Border jam puts Mongolia's coal lifeline under threat

    By Terrence Edwards
    KHANBOGD, Mongolia, Nov 14 (Reuters) - In Mongolia's Gobi
desert, thousands of heavy-duty trucks laden with coal inch
along a cluttered highway towards the Chinese border in a
journey that can take more than a week.
    Truckers cook, eat and sleep in vehicles covered in coal
dust, many subsisting on the same meat soup that fuelled Genghis
Khan's Mongol Horde more than eight centuries ago.
    Alongside the trucks a bustling microeconomy has sprung up
of traders peddling cigarettes, water and diesel as drivers wait
to clear Chinese customs in a queue that can stretch for 130
kilometres (80 miles). 
    (Click to view a picture package on
the truck traffic jams on the China-Mongolia border.)
    A rebound in coal prices and a surge in exports to China
this year has meant a bonanza for miners in Mongolia, and a
vital lifeline for the country's tiny economy, after a currency
and debt crisis forced it to seek an economic rescue package
from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
    But long delays at the Gashuun Sukhait-Gants Mod crossing,
the main transit point between the two countries, are
undercutting those gains as fleets of trucks carrying coal from
Gobi desert mines to China pile up at the border. 
    The long delays have been blamed on a surge in traffic
driven by the thriving cross-border coal trade. However,
Mongolia's inability to stop rampant smuggling across the border
has also played a role as China has imposed more stringent
checks on incoming deliveries in recent months.
    Customs officials in China's Inner Mongolia declined to
comment when contacted by Reuters. The General Administration of
Customs in Beijing also did not respond to requests for comment.
    The rise in coal prices this year has doubled border
traffic, according to local police, putting law enforcement and
customs staff under heavy pressure in both China and Mongolia.
    With Gobi miners hoping to boost output further next year in
a bid to take advantage of higher prices in China the
bottlenecks are expected to get worse.             
    An environmental crackdown in China has resulted in the
closure of hundreds of mines and the restriction of coal
deliveries into smaller ports, driving up prices. 
    Curbs on coal imports from North Korea as a result of
international sanctions against Pyongyang's nuclear weapons
program have also allowed Mongolia to fill the breach.
    Mongolia's coal exports to China rose more than four-fold in
the first half of the year, but growth has petered out since the
delays at the border crossings first arose in July.             
    Bataa Davaasuren, director of Mongolia's Customs House at
Gashuun Sukhait, said customs on both sides of the border were
short-staffed, adding that the situation had been exacerbated by
events like the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October.
    Mongolia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said the problem was
initially caused by the Naadam summer festival, when many
Mongolians take long holidays.
    Mongolian customs officers are also taking more time to
screen cargoes after their Chinese counterparts complained that
raw meat and even guns had been secreted in coal heading to
China, Davaasuren said. 
    There was even one incident when a driver tried to sneak a
live wolf across the border, he said.
    "Nobody wants the long queue, of course," said Davaasuren,
who said the problem would quickly disappear if Mongolian
customs could raise its handling capacity to 3,000 trucks a day
from 700 currently. "It's bad for the drivers and the country,
so we're all working to resolve the issue." 
    When trucks aren't stuck in grinding traffic, just getting
to the border is also a harrowing ordeal, as vehicles speed
towards China and back down the one-lane road. With no street
lamps to guide the way and drink-driving a constant problem,
danger levels increase at night, drivers say.
    "It's very risky," said one driver, who identified himself
as Bat-Erdene. "We see flipped-over cars on the side of the road
every day." 
    On a recent trip down the road, a team of Reuters
journalists saw numerous overturned trucks and vehicles smashed
up from head-on collisions littering the side of the road.
    "We see unbelievable things," said Dunshig Baasanjav, a
driver standing outside his truck amid the motionless traffic.
"Others who see it would think it's the worst they've ever seen,
but we see it all the time. We're numb to it."
    Miners say the long-term solution to the border bottleneck
problem is a new rail link connecting mines with the Gashuun
Sukhait crossing.
    Mongolia built more than 200 kilometres of foundations for
railway tracks for the link but the project was put on hold
after financing ran dry. 
    Local authorities believe the project may have to start
again from scratch because the foundation blocks have been left
at the mercy of Mongolia's harsh environment for so long.
    Whatever the fate of the railroad, those plying the roads
from the Gobi to China in stop-and-go traffic have little choice
but to keep driving given the lack of opportunities in a country
strapped by austerity measures linked to the IMF bailout.
    "This job is very risky and life threatening, but we have no
other choice," said Choijiljav Ganbold, a trucker who emerged
from his truck as the sun set on the motionless traffic.
     "We have nothing else to do."

 (Editing by David Stanway and Philip McClellan)
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