Mongolia is battling with a Soviet hangover - when the Russians withdrew in the early nineties they left behind cheap industrial strength alcohol and an economy on the brink of collapse, as rural communities disintegrated and cities were inundated with uprooted people. Many turned to drink as a form of escapism from the wrenching social and economic change and alcoholism is now reaching epidemic levels. In 2008 Basque photographer Migel Aristregi travelled to the coldest capital in the world Ulan Bator to document the lives of the city’s many homeless residents.
Aristregi’s -40ºC/96º (Ed - fun fact: -40º is the same temperature in Farenheit or celsius!) photo series offers a sensitive insight into the lives of the city’s alcohol dependent homeless who seek shelter from the bitter conditions amongst the network of underground hot water pipes in the capital. The title signifies the Don't Panic spoke to the photographer about his experiences in Mongolia.
Why did you decide to go to Mongolia? Were you already aware of the homeless people living underground in Ulaan Baatar?
When I first considered going to Mongolia I had already heard about the "rat children" of Ulan Bator, a case that provoked a lot of international media attention and aid in the nineties and early noughties. I worked with the street children of Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2004 and 2005 and hoped to embark upon a similar project in Mongolia. The extreme climate found there would provide a completely new dimension to the work. When I arrived in Ulan Bator in mid-2008 I discovered that there were no children living underground, only adults who were alcohol dependent. The problem with the street children had been more or less eradicated but apart from support from a couple of religious centres no care had been given to the adults living in those conditions. Upon this discovery I decided to document their everyday lives.
Do you have any idea how many people live in Ulan Bator’s network of underground pipes?
Nowadays it is impossible to know the number of alcoholic homeless people living in the Ulan Bator pipe system. During my time there I discovered that some of the residents had been on the streets for over ten years.
Were you able to communicate with your subjects? and how did you initially make contact?
To approach the homeless people living in the pipe system I enlisted the help of Zoolbo, a young English student. Getting close to them took time. We started at The Harhorin Market in western Ulan Bator, one of the two points in the city where they frequent. Despite having an interpreter communicating was difficult as they tended to be drunk, meaning they were easily distracted and had trouble understanding.
In addition, they were always looking for immediate personal profit. It became a constant battle in which I wanted them to accept me without conditions but they wanted money to buy alcohol with a strength of 96 º. If I didn’t give them money I received death threats. When this happened Zoolbo and I had to distance ourselves and wait for them to calm down.
Were your subjects surprised by your interest? How did they react to you?
Obviously the men at Harhorin Market were very surprised about my presence. The power battle between us was ongoing. They wanted cigarettes, food, money or to be taken to hospital. Their subsistence is precarious. they pass the day looking for plastic and glass bottles to sell for a few tögrögs to buy food but mostly alcohol.
What are the relationships like between the homeless people?
It is a sordid world, full of violence, where the strongest survive. They organise themselves into groups, so they can look out for each other. The groups are named after the longest standing member. For example Tuvshee, who has been living this way for 14 years and who presides over 4-5 other group members.
Did you discover any stories behind how they came to be there?
Behind every man and woman there is a dramatic story. The majority of the older individuals became unemployed after the fall of communism. In most cases the difficulties of adapting to the new economic system lead to increased consumption of alcohol. Many of the younger homeless people also grew up on the streets during the 90s.
One of my subjects Enkhbaatarde, a 25 year old boy, had been drinking alcohol since he was 15. His parents died when he was a child, so he spent his youth living with NGOs and in state ran orphanages. He now lives on the streets, he has a daughter but his wife does not allow contact. He lost his sight in one eye during a fight and now has frequent heavy headaches. Enkhbaatar says that he wants to recover from alcoholism, but the absence of a stable environment pushes him to drink over and over again. I met him in an evangelist centre where he was trying to move away from ‘the bad life’. A bible is the only psychological support they receive when they arrive at the centre. Enkhbaatar didn’t adapt to the discipline imposed there and after ten days he finally ran away. In the case of the majority of my subjects alcoholism leads into a blind alley that is impossible to escape from.
See more of Mikel Aristregi's work at mikelaristregi.com