Photographers' Blog

Don’t rush for gold

April 3, 2013

Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

“Don’t run! Slow down! Just don’t run!” I repeated this non-stop to myself like an incantation. Indeed, it is hard even to pace quickly – let alone run — when you have to breathe in the rarefied air and wear a supplied protective helmet and brand-new rigid boots with steel toes.

I also had to look out for giant trucks the size of three-story 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, 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 one minute.

In line with Centerra Gold’s tough requirements, I passed two medical checks before I started working at these giddy heights. A day before, we had to stay for the night at a guest house located at about 1,700 meters above sea level to get accustomed to high altitudes before ascending to Kumtor. The gold mine is the world’s second highest-altitude 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 work of hundreds of workers, dozens of huge machines and the state-of-art gold-extracting mill reached its logical conclusion accomplished by just two workers. Moving like extra-terrestrials in their silvery heatproof overalls and helmets, they slowly poured dazzling, bright orange molten gold from a crucible into molds.

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 shine in 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 then stamped and sealed in massive vaults. I have seen batches of banknotes worth more than $2.6 million, but beyond all 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. As our team prepared for the 400 km (248 mile) ride back to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, 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.

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