Living in Ulaanbaatar

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t done much to write about what it’s actually like, living in Ulaanbaatar. When I first got here there were plenty of other things in my mind – and since then, being here has become the new normal, so that I no longer find it strange to live in a house that’s permanently heated by a water system that permeates the city, or that I wear a mask virtually every time I step outside. So I thought I’d put down a few thoughts on what it’s like, living here.

I live in one of the old, Soviet style apartments (although quite nicely done up). The walls are thick – I’d say it’s a good forty-fifty centimeters of wall (I’m not sure if it’s concrete, brick, or something else) between the inside and outside. The windows, as far as I can tell, are not particularly thick – they tend to be the cold spots. There are heaters in most rooms – big, thick iron pieces that have hot water pouring through them. They’re hot to the touch, and you can’t sit on one for more than a few minutes. There are long conductor pipes that snake around the walls as well, and they’re equally warm. The hot water comes on when it comes on (my flatmate and I suspect that it was turned off for a few days, a sort of preliminary test run).

We have internet … somehow. When we first turned up there was a router sitting on a dusty sill – and when I went to a service provider and gave them my address (via the help of someone with better Mongolian than I have, translating over the phone) they smiled, nodded, and signed me up. And that was it. I have no idea how it’s regulated, or what the infrastructure underlying it is like – but our connection seems to work, if only intermittently.

Going outside is (at the moment) a process. It’s below negative thirty reasonably often (although today my taxi driver pointed at the gauge for outside temperatures: -18. “халуун байна” I said), and still cold even when it’s slightly warmer than that. So going outside means rugging up. Thermals under your trousers (I’m still just on one pair for now – we’ll see if that changes), and warm shoes (I was fortunate to get a pair of hand me down boots with lined insides), as well as a good jumper and a thick (and I mean warm) winter jacket. Since it’s gotten colder recently I’ve started wearing two scarves, a beanie, and ear warmers. If neccessary, you can always pull your hood up.

But once you’re outside, keeping warm isn’t the only challenge. Pollution is a biggie. If you picture standing down wind of a burning tire (not too close – maybe fifty metres?) you have a sense of what it smells like, just being outside. So I wear a face mask, either one of the disposable ones (which are easier to wear), or a full on Respro piece. The downside to this is that if you’re wearing a face mask, it’ll help, but odds are that the seal isn’t perfect. So warm air might be escaping upwards, where it might fog your glasses. Or, if it’s cold enough, condense in your eyebrows, which can snap freeze. Oh, and have I mentioned – your snot can freeze inside your nostrils, at the right temperatures? But probably the most serious side effect is fogged up glasses.

Which brings me to the other fun thing – walking and crossing roads. Ulaanbaatar hasn’t had snow that often, I’d say – perhaps a few times, a few centimetres at a time. Perhaps it’s more out in other spots. But because it’s so cold, the snow doesn’t disappear. In the city, it gets packed into a layer of dirty brown/grey ice, that’s rough and tumbly. Because there’s such a surplus of labour in UB, the city can afford to have people dealing with this by hand. So often, a day or two after snow does fall, you’ll see people in orange vests, chipping away at the ice that’s formed; long iron poles in hand, gradually shattering into hundreds of small shards, that are then piled up out of the way (and I assume, carted off somewhere?).

So most of the time, walking down the street is quite normal. The other (say, two percent of the time?) is that instant when your foot slips out from under you. There are patches of black ice where you’re almost guaranteed to fall, but even the normal dirty packed snow can be slippery, taken at the right angle. A few people I’ve seen seem to have mastered the art of skidding at will – somehow they’ll step forward and slide along, as though they were on roller blades, without seeming to overbalance. I can’t do that. I haven’t actually fallen, but I’ve spent some time teetering, tottering, and generally on that point just before you overbalance completely and land in a heap.

Street crossings are also fun. Ulaanbaatar traffic is actually quite pleasant to pedestrians, and people give way quite reasonably. What makes for the fun is that the roads are slippery – you have less traction, the drivers have less traction – it’s a careful balance between wanting to hurry out of the way of the oncoming traffic, and knowing that if you hurry too much you may go sprawling. Road crossings are probably the single thing I’ve found most frightening in Mongolia, and that puts them ahead of galloping without knowing how to ride, and sledding across ice that was cracking beneath me.

Another thing that’s different-new-normal is that while UB has official taxis (some of whom I’ve even managed to order by phone!), it also has unofficial ones. The closest parallel I know of (although I’m sure there are others) is post war Germany (embarrassingly I’ve forgotten which war, although I think it was post World War II) where apparently money was scarce enough that a person waving currency by the side of the road could persuade the average driver to stop, and take them where they needed to go. I’m not sure if it’s the same monetary pressure in Mongolia, although I suspect is probably is (and, perhaps, the lack of regulation helps) – but here, you can essentially stand and hail, and cars will just stop. Of course, if they’re not heading in your general direction, they’re less interested in taking you.

I haven’t completely figured out whether the reasons taxis take people is a money thing, or a social thing, or some combination of the two. But I’d be intrigued to know.

And as for UB itself? I’m still reminded of an email that someone sent me before I arrived here, where they described UB as booming mining town on top of crumbling Soviet infrastructure. There is a lot of money around – there are nice restaurants, expensive clothes, and, that Louis Vuitton store that gets mentioned in every article about UB written since 2010. So if you have the cash, you can live quite comfortably – it’s not New York, but there’s good food, nice places to go out, expensive swimming pools and gyms – it’s all here. But at the same time, there just doesn’t seem to be much of a middle class that I can see. None of the middle class brands that I think of as the obvious symbols of globalisation have made inroads here (granted, for McDonalds apparently they couldn’t source consistent lettuce) – but where’s the Starbucks, the mid range brand name supermarkets, where are the other places selling aspirational middle-class Westernism?

So instead you have this dichotomy, between the rich and poor (I don’t have a strong sense of this, either anecdotally, or in figures – but I suspect it’s quite the gap, on average). And then there’s the crumbling Soviet infrastructure. The current government is doing some things, as far as I can tell – major roadworks at some point, restrictions on cars on particular days to reduce congestion (that’s a whole other set of things) … but I think there’s a real restriction on their capacity. Partially it’s probably funding, there’s probably some corruption in the mix as well (I have no idea of any specific examples, or how much), and partially there’s the ever present challenge of bringing significant change to a large system or bureaucracy. But regardless, things are a little bit frayed around the seams. Brownouts are a semi-regular thing, the roads don’t feel as though they’ve been thought through, and … there’s something in the air of the city, of a place that’s old and getting older quickly. There are shiny, tidy things, but they’re the new ones – Central Tower, the other major buildings going up (and even Blue Sky is starting to look a little dusty on top). There’s very little that’s old, that looks well maintained. The state opera and theatre house has graffiti on it, the apartment blocks (even close to the centre of the city, where I live) have a slightly tired air to them, and some of the older shops near me are covered in grime. I suppose my sense is that UB feels like a city that’s straining, but I have no idea when the breaking point arrives, or what it looks like.

That’s a pessimistic note to end on. There are some definite bright lights in Ulaanbaatar’s and Mongolia’s future, and some other things that have struck me, but they can wait for another post.

There’s a lot more that’s different and interesting over here – but that can also wait for another blog post.

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