Snaking across the barren Mongolian desert, a convoy crawls along the once-busy highway to the Chinese border — its truckers desperate to finally deliver their cargo of coal after months of brutal COVID-19 delays and no pay.

Pre-pandemic, the route was packed with drivers delivering the vital fuel to China — the world’s biggest coal importer — currently grappling with widespread power cuts threatening its economic growth.

But now the line of trucks outside the tiny coal town of Tsagaan Khad has been reduced to a trickle, held up by China and Mongolia’s strict coronavirus measures, leaving the drivers stranded without pay or company.

“Our families are calling us and saying they need wood, fuel and clothes to wear in winter,” said Davaasuren Tsogtsaikhan, 32, having waited three months to make a single delivery.

“Life is hard here,” he said.

Trucks loaded with coal wait near Gants Mod port. | AFP-JIJI
Trucks loaded with coal wait near Gants Mod port. | AFP-JIJI

Last year, resource-rich Mongolia exported over 35 million tonnes of coking coal to China — this year so far is less than a third of that.

Terrified any outbreak might make China slam the border shut, Mongolia has imposed strict coronavirus rules.

Some 3,500 increasingly distressed drivers have been quarantined in camps of 40 people while they wait.

Undrakh Bold said spent 42 days waiting without making a delivery, having been quarantined outside capital Ulaanbaatar after one member of his group tested positive.

After returning to Tsagaan Khad, the 43-year-old faced another 28 days of waiting.

“If all of us test negative, we will be able to transport our coal the next day,” the weary father-of-three said, as he queued to be tested.

On the Chinese side, they are not allowed out of their cabs, or even to open windows.

“I want to dump the coal in China, get my money and go back home,” he said.

Drivers are tested for COVID-19 in Mongolia then bussed over the Chinese border in masks and hazmat suits, where they undergo yet another test.

Mongolia’s vast South Gobi province is home to 12 billion tonnes of coal reserves — a key supplier to Chinese iron ore smelters.

Truck drivers protest near Tavantolgoi, Mongolia, on Oct. 16. | AFP-JIJI
Truck drivers protest near Tavantolgoi, Mongolia, on Oct. 16. | AFP-JIJI

But now many drivers are considering finding other work.

“We worry about COVID-19 test results all day and night,” said trucker Davaasuren, preparing to take his first test.

There is already a shortage of drivers, with numbers down by around half according to Tsagaan Khad officials, and the impact on the small town has been devastating.

The main street is empty, with canteens and shops closed.

Strict virus measures are necessary to keep trade flowing, officials say.

If COVID-19 cases increase and China closes the border, “our economy will collapse,” frets Soronzonbold Purevjav, head of Tsagaan Khad’s emergency commission.

Anxious not to catch the virus, drivers stay inside their round white tents, dwarfed by huge piles of coal and rows of parked trucks.

“We keep an eye on each other all the time,” said Turtulga, a 32-year old driver.

Beijing has maintained a strict zero-COVID policy that has all but closed borders to the outside world.

The gridlock comes as China also battles an energy crunch that has seen widespread power cuts due to record coal prices and tough emissions targets.

Hopes of an easing were raised after China’s prime minister Li Keqiang held online talks with his Mongolian counterpart last week.

The pair agreed to increase coal export volumes, according to a Chinese state media readout, with plans to allow double the number of trucks through the border — as long as they meet strict COVID-19 requirements.

But it will take time to clear the backlog.

Yalagdashgui Naranpil, head of a truck drivers’ union, said that the restrictions — including the closure of another border point — are making life near-impossible for the country’s drivers.

A handful of them protested in Ulaanbaatar last week, wearing face masks, high-vis jackets and holding signs reading “Save the lives of drivers.”

“We are on the edge of poverty,” Yalagdashgui said.

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