In September I had my first chance to go out of Ulaanbaatar. (Emma had already spent five days camping and hiking in Hustai National Park with her class. No, I wasn’t jealous in the least.) Mongolia International University has something it calls MTP—Membership Training Program—which is a somewhat odd name for a bonding retreat for each department. The department’s students, staff, and faculty usually head out of town for a day to spend some time together away from campus, getting to know each other and having some fun. The Media and Communication Department rented a bus from the university, and one cold Saturday morning we all piled in and headed for Terelj National Park, to spend the day at a ger (yurt) camp.
We were supposed to leave at 9:00 am, and when Emma and I came down the stairs in the dormitory, a group of my students were huddled around the bottom of the stairs. I laughed, because it was clear they wanted to stay in where it was warm and were looking out towards our bus with some regret. Emma and I went out and saw that Eunsun, our department chair, and Gerelee, the department secretary, and a couple of students were waiting near the bus. As soon as we went out, the other students slowly followed us outside.
It was cold—maybe high 20s/low 30s—and not very promising, weather-wise. The previous weekend had been gorgeous, sunny and in the 60s, and the students had wanted to have the MTP then, but we had planned everything for September 22, and it wasn’t possible to change the date. It was supposed to reach the mid-40s, and we’d just had the first snowfall of the year, so Emma and I had brought all our outerwear (which then consisted of a fleece jacket and rain jacket, in my case, and a couple of hoodies and a rain jacket for Emma). I had hats, gloves, and scarves, just in case. We got in the bus and waited for stragglers. We didn’t end up leaving until around 10:00, because a couple of the students who lived off campus were late, and we couldn’t leave without them. Fortunately, MIU is on the right side of town (east) for going to Terelj, so we got onto the main road and headed out of town.
Like most cities, Ulaanbaatar doesn’t just give way to countryside. It stretches on in a string of walled and enclosed subdivisions that are not yet dense but could be if the city grows enough. Some of the more distant ones look like ghost towns already, even though they are not yet finished. There are also high-rise apartment buildings hundreds of meters off the main road, lone concrete and glass monuments to modern urban living, surrounded by grass and sheep. After passing a development called “Happy Valley,” I thought, here are Mongolian McMansions. Currently, they are along a narrow, two-lane road with cracked pavement, but if what seems to be underway continues, it will become a main thoroughfare into the city from suburbia. At least, this seems to be the idea.
There were several of these communities scattered along both sides of the road. Like everywhere else, people here want to get out of the polluted, crowded, traffic-clogged city, to breathe the fresh air and see the sky, to smell the grass and the soil instead of exhaust fumes, to get back to their nomad roots. Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, but because of environmental degradation, people are moving towards the city in droves. Right now, over one million of Mongolia’s three million people live in Ulaanbaatar, and the city’s population is growing every day. These aren’t people, though, who will be buying McMansions in Happy Valley. These are people who can’t afford to live in the high-rise apartments being built by the dozen in the city center, so they are setting up informal ger (yurt) encampments around the city. (I’m hoping to visit some of these soon and will write about them when I do.) So I’m not sure how viable the McMansions are—who will move into them, how many of them will stand empty like the high rises in the city do. It seems like an act of hopeless optimism to build these neighborhoods, a financial gamble on the part of companies who believe that if they build it, people will come. Like the million-dollar homes developers are building in my American town of Carlsbad, CA, in response to the “housing crisis,” which is really among the low-income community who will never live in those homes.
At some point along the way, we stopped to pick up some more food. The junior and sophomore classes had planned the whole day, including the menu, and still needed to get the ingredients for lunch and dinner. There was a huge Orgil Supermarket seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and we stopped there. I got out to stretch my legs and take pictures, but Emma huddled in the bus, drawing in her sketchbook. There were a couple of gas stations across the street, but otherwise not much else to be seen, except open countryside, and a billboard for Encanto Orange Town, which I think is an apartment complex near the Chinggis Khan International Airport. A reminder of the city that the travelers on the highway were leaving behind.
After the shoppers returned, we continued on our way, turning off onto the road to Terelj. Pretty soon, we were stopping again, in a small town that stretched along the road, and a couple of the students got out to locate some more lunch ingredients. The town consisted of low-lying cinder block and brick buildings, some store fronts along the main drag. There was a dirt road lined with walled-in properties. In front of the bus, a closed Fast Food stand promised “sendwiches,” along with khuushuur (a meat pastry) and shorlog (Mongolian shish kebab).
Soon we were underway once more. At some point, we passed a large cemetery, the first I’ve seen so far. We also passed a lot of livestock, and some scattered ger. The incessant noise and polluted air of Ulaanbaatar were a distant memory, and eventually we drove through the entrance gate to Terelj. As we did, the clouds started breaking, promising better weather for our day in the countryside. (Part Two of this post will follow, when I have a chance to write more, but now we are heading out to an art gallery, and to pick up some supplies from E-mart.)