A traveller’s insights into the challenges of urbanization in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia’s political economy.

We are sat at Chuka’s desk while she adds up numbers on a large notebook: we are investigating options for a short tour during our second week in Mongolia, now that we have our visas for China. ‘It depends how far you want to go, the most expensive thing is the gas’ she says to us in French, but it will be difficult for her to plan a very good trip with only four days to spare, and we would spend much of it in a van. We think about the options while she turn to breastfeed her son; her apartment also serves as guest-house and office.

She has convinced us that her small family-run business is truly aiming to provide sustainable and responsible tourism options for the growing influx of travellers to Mongolia. Her agency is a member of the community-based tourism network, and is committed supporting local environmental initiatives. We learn that the government has announced that ‘tourism is now a strategic area for economic development’, yet another sign of increasing reliance upon foreign investment.

We entered Mongolia from Siberia, south of Lake Baikal, and what struck us most was the change in infrastructure. The train engine was now steam powered, chugging along at a gentle pace on the single railway line. Occasionally, we would stop at a station to let a train loaded with coal pass by, headed for Russia. In Ulaanbaatar, we stepped out to broken sidewalks and pot-holed pavement (I soon understood why we only saw cyclists using mountain bikes), car-packed roads and old public buses spitting out spells of black fumes. Combined with industrial sites still located near the city centre, the persistent itch at the back of our throats told us that the large proportion of hybrid cars had little or not enough impact on air quality.

Ulaanbaatar, June 2015

Ulaanbaatar, view of city and factories from south-west, June 2015

The near lack of a public transit system and traffic congestion make transport infrastructure one of the key priorities for the city’s recently revised Master Plan. Until that happens though, we learn that hitching a ride with any willing driver is the most common and easy way to get around the city.

Another key focus of the Ulaanbaatar’s Master Plan is the ‘ger’ districts, perhaps what the city is most (in)famous for. Journalist and researchers have reported on the role of coal-heated yurts in rising air pollution levels, the impact of out-houses on ground water,  the lack of sanitation and basic services, and the resistance of residents to move into apartment blocks. ‘The ger districts are not shanty towns’ says our temporary housemate Anji, director of Nomad Meets the City, a documentary about urbanisation in Ulaanbaatar – or UB as it’s known to ‘locals’.

For over 15 years now, the ger settlements are legal districts, with residents officially owning the plot of land. Although administratively part of the city, many ger districts do not have the funding or basic services such as household waste collection, electricity or running water. And it varies from district to district. Some of the outer districts in the south of the city host more well-off families who are building large houses with a yurt in their back yard, while others on the eastern slopes live on less stable terrain and more basic amenities.

Ulaanbaatar, June 2015

Ulaanbaatar, newer ger districts, south of the city, June 2015

The proposed solution, to move everyone to housing blocks, might solve some of the environmental and public health issues, but hardly takes into account the cultural and historical context in which this urbanisation process has emerged. And that’s before even mentioning the cost. This large-scale development will be a challenge to finance, especially now that private ownership of property has entered into the mix. So…we come back to the country’s economy.

Ulaanbaatar, new apartments and gers in the city, June 2015.

Ulaanbaatar, new apartments and gers in the city, June 2015.

The international presence in UB is palpable, we are surprised we can get by so easily in English. Our host, Emily, is an Australian nurse who is living for two years in UB as part of a larger programme to develop human resources and professional capacities in key sectors. Australia has committed $10.3 million in Overseas Development Aid to Mongolia in 2015-16; the other strategic area of investment is the extractives industries.

We finally decided to spend a few day at a ‘zero impact’ camp in the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. As we head south again with the train, we continue to pass cargo trains. More raw materials, put onto trains and sent north, or south.

After chugging past the last set of hills south of UB, we come onto the plateau of the Gobi desert. First sights of sand, but also the first sights of mines. Neurkin, in his early 50s, greet us as we get off the train in Shivee Gobi, where we are due to start our 2.5 hour drive to the camp. The unassuming camp manager first makes a detour to the town of Shivee Gobi to run a few errands.

Shivee Gobi, June 2015

Shivee Gobi, mining town in southern Mongolia, June 2015.

Rows of lifeless concrete blocks, a few ger compounds around the edges and a football pitch make up this newly expanded mining city. The Shivee Ovoo coal power station is due to be built nearby, but in the meantime extraction continues. ‘The problem is’, says Neurkin ‘everything goes out’, his arms opening wide, ‘people in power have big bellies’. His comments echo Mongolia’s well below-average score (39/100) on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The country is only starting to build its own industrial infrastructure…shipping out raw materials and a model of neo-liberal economic development has brought great wealth to few and loss to many.

. . .

Elona, April 2016

Further reading