Mongolia is very much an “all roads lead to Rome” sort of country, and it isn’t the roads that bring you to its capital city. Ulaanbaatar is the seat of pretty much everything: the government, the postal service, the Embassies to various other countries, and the primary manufacturing facilities are located here, as well as over half the population of the country. And so it was that I found myself on the road to the capital yesterday morning, since its immigration office is the only one that gives residence permits.
The capital city and I have, shall we say, a contentious relationship. I would call it love-hate, except that to do so would imply an equality between the two sentiments that simply isn’t so. Love-hate-hate would perhaps be closer to the truth.
Now, there are certainly some good things to be said of UB. I have a number of friends here, and I am always excited by the opportunity to see them again. Ulaanbaatar also boasts a number of dining an entertainment options that are not available in Erdenet: a movie theater! Indian and Thai food! Beer with actual flavor! A duty-free shop where you can buy whiskey at halfway-reasonable prices! There is also a national opera house, though I have never had the fortune to attend a performance there.
Disconnected as I am from the world of pop culture, the movie theater is not usually at the top of my priorities. I have seen exactly two movies during my time here: a repeat viewing of Dark Knight Rises, when we first arrived in August, and Hotel Transylvania, during my Thanksgiving visit. No, food and friends are definitely much higher on priority list. A trip to the city is incomplete without a visit to one of the nicer bars (Ikh Mongol or MB), the Duty-Free Store, and a restaurant serving cuisine of a persuasion unavailable in Erdenet. (There are many; our line-up features one American bakery, one Italian pizzeria, one Korean restaurant, and two Russian, along with three other restaurants that serve Western food. There are exactly four locations in town that serve non-instant coffee, all of them on the previous list, and for those, we are the envy of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country).
When I have time, I also try to visit the miraculous Mercury Market, home to all manner of generally inaccessible foodstuffs. You can’t buy rosemary, cumin, or maple syrup in Erdenet, but they have them at Mercury.
I try hard to remind myself of these advantages anytime life necessitates a trip here. But even so, the truth of the matter is that I avoid the capital city whenever possible.
Erdenet is quiet and welcoming. People say hello to me on the street, and the owners of the delguurs I frequent ask me how I am and how my work is going. Foreigners are seen as rare subjects of interest, rather than rich, exploitative carpetbaggers. And while it’s certainly overstating matters to say that all Ulaanbaatarians resent and hate foreign people, the Nationalist movement is certainly good at getting its message heard. I have gone out with a group of around ten Americans in Erdenet a number of times and never been disturbed; the one time I found myself at a club with a large number of Americans in UB (albeit a much larger one, this group closer to 50), a fight broke out between the Mongolians and the foreigners.
Moreover, I feel safe in Erdenet. A flat 1000 tugriks will get you a taxi ride to anywhere within the city limits, and I have never felt threatened when walking the streets at night. In UB, I have had taxi drivers try to charge me 20,000 tugriks for a ride worth maybe 2000, and it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether walking or taking a taxi alone after dark is more dangerous. I have witnessed exactly one instance of theft in Erdenet, whereas at least three people have attempted to pickpocket me in UB, including one who succeeded. I didn’t lose anything of particular value on that occasion, but several friends have had their phones stolen during trips to UB, including expensive smartphones.
At least the city’s least favorable aspect has mostly abated with the return of warmer weather. I’ve read estimates that as much as 80% of the city’s population lives in its many ger districts, since a pattern of emigration has brought far more people to this city than its limited housing and infrastructure can support. Most of these people burn coal during the winter, as well as rubber tires, trash, and anything else they can find. The city’s heat and electricity are also provided by coal plants. Unsurprisingly, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air quality in the world during the winter months, so much so that multiple current and former residents of the city have had doctors interpret the lung damage as the result of lifelong smoking. I roamed the city without wearing a face mask for one day in late December and spent most of that night awake coughing, as my lungs tried to rid themselves of all the pollutants they had acquired over the course of a few hours out of doors; my friend Adam, after a similar level of exposure in November, awoke to find his tongue had turned black.
Thankfully, the ger-dwellers only need to light fires for cooking purposes now, so the amount of particulate matter in the air has dropped precipitously. I can breathe easily during my time here – at least literally, if not figuratively.