Mile-High Mongolia: A Brief History and Discussion of Ulaanbaatar and Its Nation through the Window of a Plane

Posted on May 26, 2012


I have a knack for waking up at exactly the right moment on airplanes. The moment the flight attendants roll out the trays of food, just as soon as it’s within three rows of me, I snap awake. Perhaps I’m responding to micro-changes in barometric pressure, attuned as I am to such fluctuations due to the premature arthritis in my left shoulder and right leg. Or perhaps I’m just psychic. Or perhaps I just really like being fed. Regardless, although the second I got on my flight from Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar a couple of days ago I passed out (35 hours in the air and in airports will tire a man’s soul), I still woke up the exact second we broke cloud cover and came in sight of Mongolia. Those initial observations from above were surprisingly more telling than the crop grids and play-set cars one sees on the way into an American city.

Ulaanbaatar from my window.

Ulaanbaatar from my window.

Flying south-to-north, your first impression of the country is the big nothing, the Gobi desert. It is red, it is brown, and that is it. No tiny lights, no little towns, no roads running here or there. The Gobi is one of the most lifeless places in the world. Those tracks that are made in the sands, largely by the camels which outnumber men in the region by an absurd ratio, are swept away by massive winds that roll over the unprotected desert flatlands.

The Gobi from above is misleading, though. This I learned today when, by some odd chance, Mike and I decided that we had to stop in at an Irish pub called the “Grand Khaan.” I am not sure why, but such expat and hodgepodge bars are not just signs of rapid but confused globalization in Ulaanbaatar—they’re also a place to get real Czech Budweiser, which Mike greatly appreciated. That, and such bars serve local specialities like Chinggis Beer and Chinggisbrau. While chatting, recovering from hours and hours of walking, and trying to avoid the heat, a man at the next table poked his nose into our conversation. We had just mentioned Eugene, Oregon, his home town. He was an engineer sent to Mongolia to oversee the construction of the pulleys for a new shaft mine in the middle of the Gobi.

Recent minearl surveys have unearthed ungodly reserves of gold, coal and (mainly) copper in Mongolia. The new mines are solely responsible for the massive development, new wealth, and urbanization of Ulaanbaatar, the only real city in the country and home to somewhere between one third and one half of the nation’s population, depending on who you ask. Most of these mines are small operations and poorly run, and the untapped, open-pit resources have created a new occupation: Ninjas. Short for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after the green buckets they carry with them, Ninjas are typically rural folk drawn away from the fragility of pastoralism and nomadism by the wealth of freelance mining. They sift through small mine waste and minor pits for gold and copper, and have become one of the most environmentally corrosive forces in the nation.

A ger in Ulaanbaatar, downtown.

A ger in Ulaanbaatar, downtown.

But even with dozens of mines and a hundred thousand Ninjas throughout the countryside, the total mining operations and wealth holds no candle to the recent finds in the Gobi. The copper discovered in those deserts could, within the decade, account for a third of Mongolia’s GDP. And, as with any frontier mining boom town, it will change the shape of this nation. The engineer at the Irish pub recounted to us how he travelled through small desert oasis towns, visited a few herders, and then arrived at a locked-down, sleepy town controlled by the state and customs agents. And he saw that it would just explode, but only if a considerable amount of money were spent in providing infrastructure and water into the desolate place—enough to disturb the land in search of progress.

Ulaanbaatar itself is a study in boom town mechanics and what can happen when you begin to alter Mongolian ecology even slightyly. Flying into the city, from a height you first notice the small cluster of buildings at the center of a wide, empty field pocketed within hills and mountains, with two flat, lazy rivers winding through the center and the south of the concentrated urban development. But then the land gets pock-marked, and the craters and bumps grow larger and larger until you realize that these disturbances of the earth are actually miles and miles of gers, or gers-cum-small wooden houses springing up as the herders who pitched their tents on the edges of the city began to buy into one-family permanent housing solutions.

That’s why it’s so hard to tell how many people actually live here … but I must digress. It might be worth a brief history of the city of Ulaanbaatar, which has carried many names since its inception in the late 1500s or early 1600s—no one is quite sure. And that uncertainty comes in part from the lack of a permanent location through the city’s history. Even the name Ulaanbaatar is one Soviet iteration (it translates to “Red Hero”) of many older names, the most recent of which was the pre-Soviet Urga. Urga was a city of felt tents, housing tens to hundreds of thousands of people in a mobile capital, collapsing periodically and moving on a slow journey to the east for hundreds of miles over as many years, reconstituting and remaining for a time. But when the Soviets arrived, welcomed tacitly as liberators against Chinese aggression, they brought with them Soviet notions on dealing with nomadic cultures. And if you ever wondered how Marxist-Leninism deals with nomadic cultures, the short answer is “fence them in and send them to school.”

The Mongol flag in central Ulaanbaatar.

The Mongol flag in central Ulaanbaatar.

Soviets and Soviet-crony Mongols in the early 1900s developed Ulaanbaatar and brought into it a great deal of Soviet wealth. Although nominally independent, Mongolia was allowed the same military protection and subsidies that the Soviets sent to local Soviet Republics, all in the name of maintainin an increasingly important buffer with on-and-off communist frenemy China. So the city solidified and grew and grew more attractive. And when herders lost their flocks or had a hard winter or a son too many, they sent one or two or more family members to Ulaanbaatar. And then more and more families came to Ulaanbaatar.

The demands of the city continue to upset the previous order of the mobile Urga. Consider this: Ulaanbaatar, although beautiful and clear at this time of year, is possibly one of the most polluted cities per capita in the world in the winter. All the little gers around the city burn coal in inefficient stoves in the winter to keep warm, leading to a thick smong cloud that prompts most locals to don small surgical masks, while the representatives of health organizations bring out the full gas masks, according to one expat we spoke to. It’s a dirty city, an attractive city, an unsettling city. And the Gobi will likewise unsettle and attract failing nomadic families, slowly sucking in gers and turning gers into houses, militating against the nomadism the nation is so proud of and seeks to survive in itself. It’s an odd experience of urbanization and development here, and one that will get worse before it gets better.

Anything that does pop up in the Gobi will experience much what Ulaanbaatar has: the development of a small, central core of buildings, then the gathering of nomads and their gers into smoggy clusters at the periphery, then the frantic scramble by the government and the market to provide infrastructure and supplies, further prompting the growth and wealth of the city, until it sucks in and begins to urbanize all the local population. It’s that fill-in-the-blank development that defines Ulaanbaatar—uncontrolled high rises and small houses appear stacked close to each other, some not even on streets and thus incapable of receiving one of the basic addresses used in the city plans. Shops pop up, never any chains, but rather a hundred thousand independent internet cafes, karaoke pubs, and fast food stalls, which appear to constitute nearly the entirety of the indigenous, non-governmental, non-industrial economy.

There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s part Dubai, part Tibet, part Moscow, and part Mongol, with no firm trend at any given time. It’s sprawling and upward expanding at once. It’s whatever it can be in a frantic, eclectic scramble to grow, grow, grow. It changes every street every year, and after ten years a local can’t even find, much less find his way around, his old neighborhood. I don’t know what will happen to this city or when it will settle. But I know it will certainly be dynamic, to say the least, for the next few decades. And it will totally change what it means to be Mongolian, and what place the Mongols occupy in the zeitgeist of the developed and developing world.

Even against this sprawl, though, from the window of the airplane, you can see that beyond the paved road, there appear light arteries—little geometric lines made by off-roading jeeps, but hundrets more organic capillaries of horse tracks winding through the edges of the city and out into the valley and the hills, collecting into thick whitish brown trails around the sides of the rivers. The nomads haven’t given themselves up to the city totally. They are active and vocal participants in the development of Ulaanbaatar and the meaning of modern Mongolia. But they, like everyone else, are experimenting, unsure, eclectic.

Sukhbaatar square, the dead center of Ulaanbaatar, with the mountains in the background.

Sukhbaatar square, the dead center of Ulaanbaatar, with the mountains in the background.

I’ve rambled enough for today, but that’s what I will write about tomorrow: identity in Mongolia, especially in Ulaanbaatar (as a side note, I will be in Ulaanbaatar one more day before moving into the countryside). I mentioned on Facebook that there are a number of swastikas in the city, and that’s part of the story. There is no hard line and the government itself seems unsure what to make of Mongol identity in the coming decades. And that means it’s a wild free-for-all of cultures and ideologies on the streets of Ulaanbaatar.

Mongol pride, neo-neo-Nazis, communists, and nomads—all coming up and coming up against each other in my next entry.

P.S. As a side note, for all the sprawl and the lack of government facilities, this place has amazingly low trash production. There are no trash heaps and almost everything is bio-degradable and small, a testament, I am told, to the retained strength of their Tengrist, shamanic ancestry and culture. Fridges have not caught on, not really, and the water is still relatively clear and clean. In terms of sanitation, Ulaanbaatar is a coup.

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