ULAN BATOR — Chimgee remembers the days people crowded in front of her meat market stall, waiting to buy from her storage locker jammed to the ceiling with beef, goat, sheep, camel and horse carcasses. “It was full, and people would line up here to buy from me,” she said. “People would say, ‘Buy from Chimgee! Buy from Chimgee!’”
After they finished buying meat, they might head downtown to pick up a condo, or a new Rolls-Royce. After all, they lived in “Minegolia,” a country about the size of Quebec and so jammed with mineral resources that respectable people talked about a future as the next Qatar or Brunei, with fabulous wealth shared among a population of just three million.
Theirs was a Canadian story, too: Canadian miners made up a large percentage of the foreign investors prepared to pour in capital. Growth of 17.5 per cent in 2011 made a gilded future look inevitable. The International Monetary Fund expected the country’s gross domestic product growth to keep roaring at 14 per cent through 2016. It wasn’t hard to find people who thought it could double that performance.
But in a few short years, Mongolia has gone from Asia’s golden child to its binge-drinking adolescent, with government borrowing to make payroll, cash-short consumers reduced to bartering for goods, and observers openly talking about the possibility of either a sovereign default – national bankruptcy – or a massive bailout.
Hurt by China’s teetering economy and nationalistic domestic policies that scared off foreign investment, today’s Mongolia is epitomized by the idle construction crane, which has become a monument to an economy stalled by the unrealized dreams of just a few years ago.
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