Of Mongolian nomads and mineral hunts: my Gobi desert encounter

As a geologist, I consider myself pretty lucky to have had the chance to visit the Oyu Tolgoi (Torquoise Hill) copper mine. It’s one of the largest copper discovery in recent years and not a lot of people would get the chance to visit this mining marvel. Also, they just started production when we visited in September 2013 so the facilities were all shiny and state-of-the-art. Geologic reasons are one thing, but as a lakwatsera, it’s a not-to be-missed opportunity, because you know, Mongolia. and Gobi desert. ’nuff said.IMG_6074

The trip was part of a geological conference organized by our laboratory. So it was that from Ulaanbaatar, twenty-five participants from Japan, Southeast Asia and north Africa flew in a propeller plane to the South Gobi desert. The view of the Mongolian landscape from the air was just stunning (hurray for window seats!), so the 1.5-hour flight passed quickly.

View from the plane

View from the plane (photo by Sakiko)

We landed at Khanbumbat airport, which is owned by the mining company. Its architecture is very interesting, as it was modeled after the ger — the Mongolian traditional house.

Airport

Khanbumbat Airport

Airport ceiling

Airport ceiling

Upon arrival, we were immediately ushered to the bus that would take us to the mine. It was a bit chilly in late September so everyone had their jackets on. As the bus drove away and I saw the vast expanse of the treeless horizon, the realization that I was really in the Gobi desert started to dawn on me. But seeing the camels walking casually about sealed the deal.IMG_6063
IMG_7098 The mine was very conspicuous with its blue and white buildings: the only structures to be seen for miles around. All the structures were new, clean and modern.IMG_5813 They gave us the standard tour of the open-pit and tailings pond.

The copper ore concentrates ready to be transported

The copper ore concentrates ready to be transported

Tailings pond

Tailings pond

They also showed us their corehouse as well as some of the drill cores, and so as not to sound geeky I’ll just say I was really impressed with their facilities.

Chalcopyrite (yellow) and bornite (blue) - ore minerals of copper

Chalcopyrite (yellow) and bornite (blue) – ore minerals of copper

The only stressful bit in this trip was when I had to give a presentation to the participants and the company geologists, and I was given about 30 minutes to prepare! I decided to just give them a rundown of the mineral resources in the Philippines, because that’s one thing I was sure they didn’t already know.

Impromptu presentation

Impromptu presentation

We had our meals at the mine cafeteria, where everybody eats. There were two options: Western-style dishes or Mongolian food. We tried and enjoyed both, of course.IMG_7027 One of the highlights of the trip was when they took us to our rooms… actually, “room” is an understatement. We each had our very own modernized ger for the night.

Our accommodations at the Oyu Tolgoi

Our accommodations at the Oyu Tolgoi

My room for a night

My room for a night

Outside it looks like the traditional ger, but inside it had all the basic modern amenities you could want: a proper bed, cable TV, fridge, microwave, aircon/heater, and WiFi! More importantly, the ger had an extension at the back for a proper toilet and shower. Obviously, we weren’t expecting all these comforts in the middle of the Gobi, so we were really pleased.

Traditional outside, modern inside!

Traditional outside, modern inside!

In the evening, we went to the mine bar (oh yes, they had a bar!) for some drinks. I tried “The Mongolian Classic Lager Beer” to cap off the night.

Employees enjoying drinks on a weeknight

Employees enjoying drinks on a weeknight

Mongolian Lager

Mongolian Classic Lager Beer

The next day was spent in the desert looking at peralkaline (high potassium and sodium) pegmatites (igneous rocks with very large crystals). All of us were scrambling for samples of the Gobi’s interesting minerals.

Standing on agpaitic pegmatite rocks

Standing on agpaitic pegmatite rocks

Large arfvedsonite (black) and albite (white) crystals

Large arfvedsonite (black) and albite (white) crystals

Dike intrusion of arfvedsonite, elpidite and albite

Dike intrusion of arfvedsonite, elpidite and albite

I had several samples I took home, never mind the extra baggage weight. We were a very happy bunch of geologists that day, I tell you. But rocks and minerals aside, the landscape was also really interesting. There were no trees, no clouds, no buildings. There was only the rock formations, the short shrubs, and the blue sky. It was really a different environment from what I was used to, to say the least.IMG_5963

A grasshopper mimicking the granite rocks in the desert. Amazing stuff!

A grasshopper mimicking the granite rocks in the desert. Amazing stuff!

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While we were looking at the rocks, a nomadic couple from a nearby ger went to us on their motorcycle. They were good friends with the geologists who discovered Oyu Tolgoi (who were also guiding us to the outcrops). Even though we couldn’t really talk to them with words, we felt their hospitality with their kind eyes and beautiful smiles. It was a real privilege to meet Mongolian nomads in their home turf.

The nomadic couple's ger

The nomadic couple’s ger

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Before long, it was time to go. While driving back to their ger-inspired airport and taking photos of the cloudless sky, rock formations and random camel encounters, I felt really thankful for the opportunity to visit Oyu Tolgoi mine, collect unique mineral specimens and meeting Mongolian nomads in the Gobi desert.

We passed by more camels on the way back

We passed by more camels on the way back

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3 responses to “Of Mongolian nomads and mineral hunts: my Gobi desert encounter

  1. Hi, Jill. My name is Em Espiritu. I work for a student magazine called Sci-Tech, published by Dane Publishing. Would you mind if I interview you through email about your work as a geologist? Really looking forward to your favorable reply. Thank you.

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