Mountain of gold

Mountain of gold

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The image of Vladimir Lenin looms up from the top of a hill in Kajy-Say, a township some 90 km (56 miles) from Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor goldmine. The mine is a major source of wealth but the riches it churns out are also a point of conflict in a country that has lived through serious political upheaval. Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions in eight years, and nationalists there are now threatening to topple another government unless it expropriates the mine, which they say was sold too cheaply to foreigners.

. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Kumtor stands over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, making it the second-highest gold mining operation in the world. The mine produced a total of 8.7 million ounces of gold from 1997 through 2012 and accounted for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product in 2011.

Now it is a source of serious political tension, as parliament in the Central Asian state has set a deadline of June 1 for the government to renegotiate - or repudiate - a deal struck in 2009 with Canadian firm Centerra Gold to operate it.

A state commission said the Canadian firm has been paying too little to run the mine, and accused it of inflicting environmental damage leading to $457 million (302 million pounds) in fines.

The dispute has reached the streets. Last October, three nationalist lawmakers led a crowd of supporters trying to storm the government headquarters, demanding Kumtor's nationalisation. The trio were later jailed for up to 18 months.

. Kajy-Say, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

In the nearby town of Kajy-Say, a local resident stands inside the abandoned building of a uranium combine.

Locals here have suffered from a decline in industry exploiting Kyrgyzstan’s vast natural resources. The local uranium combine closed in 1968, replaced by a plant which produced diodes and semiconductors until it died in 1993. Finally, a factory extracting quartz was closed in 2005.

Kajy-Say's population has shrunk to about 2,500 from 15,000, and its abandoned apartment houses gape with broken windows. Jobless residents eke out a living by dismantling idle industrial buildings for construction materials.

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Slideshow

A landlocked country half way between Moscow and Beijing, Kyrgyzstan holds its national treasure at the Kumtor mine 4,000 metres (12,000 feet) up in the Tien Shan mountains, near one of the world's remotest borders, the old Soviet frontier with China.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

A landlocked country half way between Moscow and Beijing, Kyrgyzstan holds its national treasure at the Kumtor mine 4,000 metres (12,000 feet) up in the Tien Shan mountains, near one of the world's remotest borders, the old Soviet frontier with China.

Huge dump trucks drive through the open pit mine, located 4,000 meters (12,000 feet) up, where the air is so thin that collapsing visitors sometimes need to be rushed to a pressure chamber for oxygen.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Huge dump trucks drive through the open pit mine, located 4,000 meters (12,000 feet) up, where the air is so thin that collapsing visitors sometimes need to be rushed to a pressure chamber for oxygen.

Vehicles drive through the mine, where rocks are delivered to a gold-extracting mill that runs 365 days a year.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Vehicles drive through the mine, where rocks are delivered to a gold-extracting mill that runs 365 days a year.

A worker stands next to a conveyer belt carrying gold ore. The mine employs 3,400 full-time and contract workers with monthly wages of $2,000 - 10 times the national average - something that helps compensate for the physical hardships of the job.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

A worker stands next to a conveyer belt carrying gold ore. The mine employs 3,400 full-time and contract workers with monthly wages of $2,000 - 10 times the national average - something that helps compensate for the physical hardships of the job.

Employees at the mine do two-week shifts at high altitude and are then given a rest to recuperate.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Employees at the mine do two-week shifts at high altitude and are then given a rest to recuperate.

Moulds stand filled with hot molten gold alloy, part of production at the mine, which Kyrgyz leaders have long seen as the country's ticket to stability and prosperity.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Moulds stand filled with hot molten gold alloy, part of production at the mine, which Kyrgyz leaders have long seen as the country's ticket to stability and prosperity.

Despite the wealth produced at Kumtor, however, Kyrgyzstan is 12 times poorer than its former Soviet neighbour Kazakhstan, which has oil, gas, metals and grain-producing farms.
. KUMTOR, Kyrgyzstan. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Despite the wealth produced at Kumtor, however, Kyrgyzstan is 12 times poorer than its former Soviet neighbour Kazakhstan, which has oil, gas, metals and grain-producing farms.

"Some vehicles never even stop their engines in these ferocious conditions of Arctic tundra and permafrost."
Shamil Zhumatov, Reuters Photographer

“Don’t run! Slow down! Just don’t run!”

I repeated this to myself non-stop, like an incantation. But in fact it is hard even to pace quickly, let alone run, when you have to breathe rarefied air wearing a protective helmet and brand-new rigid boots with steel toes.

I also had to look out for giant trucks the size of three-storey houses chugging around. It was difficult to keep my emotions under control during the few hours on this tight assignment.

I was at an altitude of over 4,000 meters above sea level near the Chinese border, inside a huge, open-pit gold mine at Kumtor, Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold asset, which is currently operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold.

Gigantic trucks and excavators worked non-stop in the snow-clad pit, looking like characters from a fantasy movie. As if playing a computer game, an excavator operator elegantly manipulated small joysticks – just five scoops full of ore, and almost 200 tones were loaded into a truck in about a minute.

To conform with Centerra Gold’s tough requirements, I had to pass two medical checks before I started working at these giddy heights. A day before, we had to stay the night at a guest house located at about 1,700 meters above sea level to get accustomed to the altitude before ascending to Kumtor. The gold mine is the world’s second highest gold deposit after Peru’s Yanacocha mine. Some vehicles never even stop their engines in these ferocious conditions of Arctic tundra and permafrost.

Finally, the labour of hundreds of workers, dozens of huge machines and a state-of-art gold-extracting mill reached its logical conclusion. Two workers, moving like extra-terrestrials in their silvery heatproof overalls and helmets, slowly poured dazzling, bright orange molten gold from a crucible into moulds.

Minutes later, four bars containing around 80 percent pure gold and worth $2.6 million were ready for polishing. A worker wearing a mask closed the curtain of his glass booth to polish a 20 kg bar inside.

I saw gold dust catch the light of bright lamps illuminating the booth. After being photographed as though they were prestigious models on a catwalk, the four shiny bars were stamped and sealed in massive vaults. I have seen batches of banknotes worth more than $2.6 million but, without a doubt, gold bars look much more attractive!

When I left the hot melting shop, I saw a crystal clear sky over the Kumtor mine outside. Our team prepared for the 400 km (248 mile) ride back to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, and I raised my camera to shoot a final general view of the plateau.

In the bright sunlight, a few tiny specks of gold dust were still glittering on my lens and camera.