The sun is setting, the temperature is close to zero Celsius, and I'm crawling through a manhole into a filthy sewer tunnel under the streets of Ulan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia.
A weak, AAA-battery headlamp barely lights the way. But the dank, humid air, the intense odor, and the hot pipes carrying sewage and steam are an assault on every other sense.
My guides are three Mongolian children -- two sisters, Cangchimeg, 17, and Ganerdene, 16, and their 11-year-old friend, a boy named Galdanochir.
Faces smudged with grime, clothing torn and ragged, and malnutrition make them all look at least two years younger.
And yet, like streetwise urchins from a Dickens novel, they proudly show off the comforts of their underground home -- their cardboard beds, the water faucet that shoots out steamed water for drinking and brushing teeth. And, of course, there are the thick lead steam pipes that keep them warm when the temperatures outside plunge below zero.
They have lived here for the past two years. And, as we came to learn, their story is similar to that of thousands of other children in Mongolia today.
They are orphans, runaways from abusive parents or kids from families so impoverished they simply have no choice.
In one of the poorest and coldest cities in the world, you will see them at every turn -- begging, selling gum, shining shoes, picking pockets, or scrounging for something to sell or eat in back-alley garbage dumps.
It has been 15 years since Mongolians overthrew their communist government. Today, Mongolia is an emerging democracy, praised by President Bush for its commitment to freedom.
Down in the Manholes
But there are thousands of Mongolian children who define freedom much differently than a visiting American president; especially the homeless children who live in the manholes.
In their darkened manhole cave, Ganerdene, Canchimeg and Galdanochir say they like the freedom they have here, that it is their home until they find something better.
Her haunting face lit by a single candle, Canchimeg says, "Our parents used to beat us. Other kids would bully us when we tried to sell gum at the train station. The police would arrest us for no reason and use us to mop the floors at the police station before letting us go."
Canchimeg, already a young woman, drops her eyes as she describes how older men would try to force her into sexual acts.
"But I run away," she says defiantly. "And once we're down here, we feel safe."
Several years ago, the Mongolian government was deeply embarrassed by reports on the manhole children. They tried sealing up manholes to keep the kids out. But that only led to an increase in children freezing to death on the streets.
More recently, Mongolia has opened its doors to dozens of non-governmental agencies who have provided food, clothing and care to the homeless. And, according to official government figures, the number of children on the streets has declined from about 4,000 to an estimated 2,000.
But even if it's 200, or two dozen, it would still by a "shocking outrage" to one tough, outspoken, and very unlikely guardian angel for the lost and abandoned children of Mongolia.
Her name is Christina Noble, a survivor of the gritty slums of Dublin, Ireland, who has devoted her life to the care of abandoned and abused children.
For years, her Christina Noble Children's Foundation (http://www.cncf.org) worked miracles in Vietnam -- building orphanages, schools, hospitals and saving hundreds of thousands of children from destitute lives on the streets.
Today, Noble has become a fixture in Mongolia, where she tirelessly lobbies the Mongolian government to protect the rights of children.
Alternately scolding and flattering officials, she is determined to show by example that protecting children is the hallmark of a civilized society. And ever so slowly, she is making progress.
'I Love Ya'
On this night, she has brought her mobile medical clinic into the center of Ulan Bator to lure kids out of their manholes for some basic health care -- treatment for broken bones, sewer burns, chronic skin diseases or worse.
Bundled in a baby blue ski suit and a flamboyant white boa, her shock of blond hair glowing under the street lamps, Noble hunches over a narrow manhole on one of Ulan Bator's busiest thoroughfares.
It is freezing and she is weak from her own recent cancer treatment, but she stands like a rock, grabbing and hugging each child scrambling up from the sewer tunnel.
A dirty pair of hands and a grimy face emerges: A young boy, weary at first, breaks into a grin as he sees Noble. He scrambles out and into her oversized clutch.
"I love ya," she shouts in her heavy Irish brogue. "I love ya, darlin'," she says, planting a kiss on his forehead.
Then, another child emerges. And another. And another. At least 20 from this one manhole.
Noble is there to hug and kiss every one as she escorts them into her medical van for a few minutes of warmth, a Band-Aid or two, the gentle touch of a doctor cleaning an infected wound.
"Look at 'em, just look at 'em," she says. "Ach! Look at the sores. Look at the skin diseases. They'll die from infection. They'll get gangrene and have to have legs amputated."
As she describes their plight, Noble becomes more emotional, more emphatic.
"Many of these kids also have syphilis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia," she says. "Some have all three."
"A lot of these children won't survive the winter," Noble says. "And yet, they would rather die on the street and in the manholes than to face the horrific beatings and abuse that they have run away from."
Blue Sky Village
To offer an alternative to children, the Christina Noble Foundation has built a refuge for children here, called "Blue Sky Village." It is a cluster of traditional Mongolian nomad tents, called 'gers,' spread across several acres.
At any one time, about 50 children call Blue Sky Village home. And a few others come from poor communities nearby to spend the day.
At the refuge, older children from the streets and younger ones who might have ended up in the manholes are given a normal life. They are well-clothed and well-fed. They are given education, recreation and respect.
Noble says she knows the government of Mongolia is struggling economically, but more needs to be done. And she's increasingly confident that the authorities will learn from her example.
Mongolia's children, she says, deserve nothing less.
"For God's sake," she pleads, "Give the children back their childhood. Give them back their life. Let them laugh. Let them sing. Let them cry.
"We have a tsunami, we have an earthquake, and the world goes rushin' in," she adds. "Well, this is a disaster, too."
"Maybe," Noble says with more than a little Irish pluck and a twinkle in her eye, "that young Microsoft fellah will see this story and give us a hand."
Back to the Manholes
Still, many days will end in heartbreak for Noble, as she watches children she has hugged and encouraged and treated for illnesses … crawl back in their manholes for the night.
Even on the coldest of winter nights here, with temperatures of 30 and 40 below, there are many defiant street children who insist that living underground is safer than any place else they've known.
After years of abandonment or abuse, these tough kids don't trust too many people. Noble understands that.
She treats them with dignity, even when they choose to go back to their manholes.
But on this night, she walked away shaking and sobbing: "They will pay with their lives. It's just not right. It's not the way it should be."