Mongolia is a country I have always been intrigued by. It seemed to me an impossibly exotic place with a wild independence of spirit that allowed it to maintain an ancient nomadic way of life despite being wedged between China and the once mighty Soviet Union. Perhaps inspired by a sense of romanticism, I imagined Mongolia as a nation of proud horsemen inspired by the legendary deeds of Genghis Khan riding the steppes, drinking vodka and living in felt tents. So I was quite taken aback by images that had emerged from Ulan Bator of Mongolians in Nazi uniforms. Looking more closely we began to sense that this curious and alarming phenomenon was actually a symptom of a nation going through the kind of painful changes that many nations with small populations relative to their land mass experience in the face of globalization and climate change. Sitting on some of the world's largest reserves of coal and wedged between Russia and China, it seemed Mongolia could be falling victim to the curse of resources. We decided to investigate.
Arriving at the Bayangol Hotel in downtown Ulan Bator, the significance of Mongolia's resource riches were immediately obvious - from the suited Chinese businessmen holding whispered meetings in the lobby to the more gregarious Australian mining engineers cracking jokes among a group of Mongolian women downstairs in the basement bar. And the effect of the mining boom on Mongolia's fragile democracy was also soon made apparent. As we settled in to the bar to meet our local fixer and plan the shoot, the big screen TV (which was tuned to a news channel owned by Buttulga Khaltmaa, the same politician and businessman who owned the hotel we were in) began to show pictures of a SWAT team amassing outside our front door. We left our drinks and went out to the car park to find a crowd had gathered to watch as armed police raided Khaltmaa's office. Shortly afterwards the fixer discovered that first his wife had been arrested because of her association with Khaltmaa. It seemed Khaltmaa had become embroiled in a corruption scandal driven by his criticism of the government selling off Mongolia's natural resources to foreign investors. Not for the first time making this series, the story had come to us.
Within hours of our arrival we were at the centre of a Mongolian media storm - the entire country's press were soon camped outside our hotel with a large number of Khaltmaa's supporters - including most of the national wrestling team each the size of a small family car. To say the least it was a surreal moment for us, but for our fixer it was a good deal more serious. The next day he decided to take his son and leave the country. Our translator was next on the list and after a tense few days being shadowed by the security services he too was arrested and taken in for questioning.
The next day, the first day of our shoot, was April 20th - Hitler's birthday. We had heard that Mongolia's far right groups sometimes gathered to celebrate the event with a procession through town. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the sight that greeted us on a patch of waste ground on the edge of the city. Dozens of Mongolian Nazis were gathering in cars and motorbikes - dressed in replica SS uniforms. Filming this event was to open a window on a shocking subculture of fascists not afraid to use violence to preserve what they saw as the purity of the Mongolian race against pollution by foreigners. Amidst the proliferation of extreme nationalist organisations, we discovered one group, led by a seven times national wrestling champion who took it upon themselves to patrol Chinese businesses. We filmed with them as they tore across the countryside in a cavalcade of muscle cars their black bomber jackets emblazoned with a Swastika inspired insignia launching raids on remote rural brick factories where they suspected illegal Chinese migrants were working. And we learned from one victim of vigilante violence how the anti-foreign sentiment was growing throughout the population.
The more we talked to members and supporters of these far right vigilante groups the more we heard complaints of how their natural resources were being sold out from beneath their feet by a corrupt political elite and about their fear of being taken over by their vast and powerful neighbor to the south. As in many poor or middle income countries sitting on vast mineral wealth, the income generated by the sale of natural resources in Mongolia tends to make a small elite fantastically rich without transforming the economic prospects of the majority. Combined with the visible presence of international business owners and migrant workers, this has led some to adopt extreme nationalist views. But in Mongolia there is a further twist to this familiar tale.
Mongolia is one of the most vulnerable countries on earth to climate change. The fragile grasslands which sustained the nomadic herding way of life for millennia is very sensitive to changes in rainfall and temperature. Over the past twenty years the decline in summer rain and the increasing frequency of winter storms has driven tens of thousands of herders off the land to seek work in the capital. The steady stream of new arrivals in the tented slums that surround the city only serves to increase the sense among some that Mongolia is a country under threat, a country at risk of losing its identity. There is an enormous irony in the fact that burning their huge reserves of coal is only serving to speed up the process that could soon see the end of the way of life many Mongolians regard as their defining characteristic.
Ross Kemp Extreme World begins on Wednesday 7th September at 9pm on Sky1