I passed through the capitol Ulaanbaatar many times before headed east to town of Ulgii and then into the mountains in search of the disabled girl and her grandmother. Prior to 1990 Ulaanbaatar was a city that imitated socialist Russian architecture but following independence, an evolving market economy and a mining boom, western styled shopping malls and lavish tower blocks and commercial buildings became increasingly common. Consumerism is evident everywhere and the traffic is manic.
Forty-one year old Jargal is a street seller working close to Peace Avenue near the city centre. He sells sweets, the odd cigarette, and the use of his mobile phone. The first time I noticed him sitting quietly behind his table I was across a busy road. It was 6.30 on a winter’s morning and the temperature was an eye-wateringly cold minus 36 C. His face was hidden, being protected behind a mask of clothes and a hood. I pointed to my camera to ask if I could take his photograph. He shook his head slowly to gesture a gentle but clear ‘No’. I liked that. It suggested he had control over his life and possessed a quiet dignity. I returned the next day with my translator who explained who I was and the aim of my ‘Different Life’ project. To my surprise he let me take his photograph and gradually, over time, he let me into his life and told me his fascinating story.
Jargal told me how his life changed for ever on 9th April 2003. He worked as a plumbing engineer for a large company on the eastern fringes of the city. Always an enthusiastic and hardworking employee he won ‘Best worker of the Year’ six times. After a night out celebrating his latest win with his colleagues he stopped to urinate before heading off home across the railway tracks. His friends shouted ‘Hurry up Jargal’ and in his rush he didn’t see the train coming and he stumbled into its path. His left leg was immediately severed just below groin level and stuck to the track. He used his right leg to prise it off but with so much blood around it slipped and that too was severed. Forty eight train wheels went over what remained of his legs.
Life was suddenly very hard. He became an angry person and used alcohol to escape his painful life. He lost just about everything – his wife left him, he had no home, no job and few friends stayed with him. Grief at such a sudden major loss of mobility and ‘selfhood’ led to deep depression and he almost succeeded in taking his own life.
Rebuilding was hard. A Government handicraft training programme was not for him. He worked for his uncle who grew vegetables in a greenhouse but years of hard physical work took their toll and his knuckles cracked and his buttocks were full of oozing sores.
In 2006, with £50 of his savings and by borrowing £12 from friends and family, he bought a mobile phone and a few sweets to set himself up in business as a street seller. 2008 was a pivotal year because he married ‘a very special woman’ and gave up alcohol. Working from 6.30 am to 9 pm in winter and dawn to dusk in summer he built up his business although he has little time for socialising. The future is bright. He has a core group of friends and family who have stayed with him through dark times and he’s looking to build his business and has plans for future projects. He finds time to enter wheelchair racing competitions. Currently Jargal is 3rd fastest in Mongolia and regularly wins races. His self-esteem and self-belief are being rebuilt and a new identity established.
Coming back from near death to build a life is always hard and for many too hard. It takes determination, hard work, friendships and support, to build and start again to rebuild a life. Jargal loves and lives for his family. “I’m a better husband, father, friend, and a better person now.” He’s quietly determined to be there for his children and to give them a safe loving home in which to grow up. He’s taciturn and doesn’t say much but then he doesn’t need to: ‘The finest eloquence is that which gets things done’ (David Lloyd George). Jargal is getting things done.