In a hot, concrete hut filled with acetylene fumes, an elderly Mongolian miner struggles to contain her excitement as she plucks a sizzling inch-long nugget of gold from a grubby cooling pot and raises it to the light.
Khorloo, 65, and her sons spent the day scrutinizing half a dozen CCTV screens as workers at the Bornuur gold processing plant whittled 1.2 metric metric tonnes of ore down to 123 grams of pure gold that could earn the family as much as $6,000.
Near the plant, separated from Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, by 100 km of rocky pasture and mostly unpaved road, life has remained largely unchanged since Genghis Khan's "golden horde" rampaged across Asia nine centuries ago.
But Khorloo is a member of a new horde of at least 60,000 herders, farmers and urban unemployed trying to extract the riches buried in the vast steppe with metal detectors, shovels and home-made smelters.
In the last five years, dwindling legal gold supplies and a spike in black market demand from China have made work much more lucrative for Mongolia's "ninja miners" - so named because of the large green pans carried on their backs that look like turtle shells.
For thousands of dirt-poor herders, the soaring prices alone are enough to justify years of harassment, abuse and hard labor.
"It took us a week to dig this out," Khorloo said, holding the nugget. "But we dug for three years to reach the vein."
Text: David Stanway, Reuters
Image: A small-scale miner shows the gold he and his colleagues have found in one day on a small hill overlooking grasslands located around 200 km south-west of Ulan Bator.