Living without a car in Ulaanbaatar

One of the things I dislike the most about living in southern California is the reliance on cars for transportation. The only other place I’ve lived where I’ve owned a car is Gainesville, Florida. My goal is to live somewhere where I don’t need to have a car. So one of the things I was really looking forward to about moving to Ulaanbaatar was living without one. I had read about how terrible the traffic here could be, but I had also read that there was an extensive bus system, so I was looking forward to being able to get around on public transit. What ended up happening is a bit different from what I expected, but I am happy with spending the year without a car.

It was clear from the very first day we arrived in Ulaanbaatar that having a car here would be insane. There are already too many cars in the city. A university van picked us up at the airport, and we sat in traffic several times between the airport and the MIU campus where we were going to live. It’s the kind of traffic you get on the 5 freeway going south from Carlsbad towards UCSD between 7:00 and 9:30 am, only these were surface streets. 

The main problem was a confluence of traffic near Naran Tuul market and the Dunjingarav shopping center, which is across the street from it. These are two major retail centers, and there are a couple of traffic lights near them that cause traffic to back up, sometimes for quite a long time. It turns out Emma would be spending a lot of time at these intersections, because this was her way to and from school. It’s a little better on Tuesdays, which is the day Naran Tuul is closed. On the other hand, Tuesdays can still be just as bad for some other reason. But really, no matter where you go in Ulaanbaatar, there can be insane traffic that makes it hard to get around town.

Traffic jam, with pedestrian

There are a few reasons for this. There are simply too many cars on the road, and the streets are constrained by the buildings along them, so it’s not possible to just add more lanes like they do where we live in California. As the population of Ulaanbaatar grows, you end up with more and more cars in the same amount of space. It gets worse in the winter because people who would otherwise walk or take the bus start to commute in their own cars when it gets cold. Also, the roads can be icy, so people drive more slowly, and there are probably more accidents as well. Today, when I was walking down a kilometer stretch of road between Emma’s school and a supermarket I sometimes go to, there were four accidents visible. A couple were just fender benders, but in the other two, one of the cars was totaled.

Traffic backing up because of a car accident up ahead

Another issue is simply the way people drive. I’ve lived in cities where people are pretty creative drivers. Cairo and Addis Ababa stand out in my mind. Cairo, especially, where people drive wherever their cars will fit, including the sidewalks, and negotiate for space with other drivers through a combination of their car horns, gestures, facial expressions, and shouting. There, a taxi would drive down the street sounding its horn every second so that other vehicles would know it was there. Ulaanbaatar’s a bit like Cairo, but the car horns are used more for specific communication than a generalized “I’m here! Don’t’ hit me!” People squeeze in wherever they can, make right turns from the left lane, block lanes of traffic in order to turn, and cut people off at breathtaking rates. It’s a style of driving that you have to get used to, and I know I would have a hard time with it, so I’m happy to leave the driving to others. I’ve already written about what it’s like to be a pedestrian here, but somehow that seems more manageable than being one of those metal boxes trying to move around the city.

We mainly get around by walking, taking the bus, and taking taxis. So far, it’s been easy to get where we’ve wanted to go. The bus routes can be a little tricky to figure out. I try to know what bus we need ahead of time, because by the time I’ve deciphered a bus route from the sign on the side of the bus, that bus is leaving and it’s too late to get on if it’s the right one. I’m a lot better at reading the Cyrillic alphabet that I was a few months ago, but it still takes a bit more time than reading English. There is a bus app, UB Smart Bus, that shows where buses are and what bus routes you can take, but I don’t always find it easy to use on the fly. My school also has an online resource for international students and faculty that has some of the main bus routes in it. But in doing my initial research on Ulaanbaatar, I came across this bus map, and it just made me laugh. I still can’t read it.

Bus map of Ulaanbaatar

The buses use a “Smart Card” that you can re-charge at kiosks found near every bus stop. They must lose a fair amount of money, though, because the card readers in the buses don’t always work, and lots of people get on and off without using their cards. The last two weekends we took the bus downtown, half of our rides were free because the machine didn’t work. Even when we do pay, they are really cheap – 500 tugrik for adults (about 20 cents) and 200 for children per ride; there are also trolleys that are even cheaper. The bus system actually approaches being affordable for many people. As a result, many of the buses are jam-packed, which makes for an interesting time.

One of the things that annoys Emma a lot here is how people shove other people, physically, and how people push in front of other people. She and I are often separated walking in a crowded area or getting on and off the bus, and it really bothers her. “Here’s a child walking with her parent. I’ll just shove her away.” Yesterday, a woman nearly knocked me over shoving to get past me even as I was moving down the aisle into a crowded bus. I can only imagine being Emma’s size, being shorter than almost everyone around her, and being pushed around. It really bothers her when people shove her in the back, especially, but it seems to be normal here. Also yesterday, when we were getting off a crowded bus, a man tried to shove past me as I was about third in line to get off. We were all getting off the bus, but there were people ahead of us also getting off, so my feeling was, we’re all doing the same thing, let’s just do it in order. But that’s not the thinking here. When we actually got off the bus, he turned around to glare at me because I hadn’t let him get off first, and when he walked on, he wasn’t in a particular hurry. Emma and I talk about how it would feel to shove people back, but she says she would have a hard time doing it and I would too; all of our social training is against it.

That said, it’s nice to be able to take a bus. A major bus stop is right near the MIU campus, called “Officer” (pronounced “offitsehr”) because there’s some kind of military department there. Every time I use a taxi to get home, I say “Offitsehr” as well, and people know where I mean, so it really comes in handy. A bewildering number of buses seem to come through there, including one that goes within a kilometer of Emma’s school. And so far, everywhere we’ve wanted to go is within easy walking distance of a bus stop. It’s so different from where we live in California, where I’d have to walk around a mile to catch a bus.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to hop in a taxi than to take the bus, especially now that it’s cold. There are several different kinds of taxis here. There’s the more expensive call-in-advance kind with English speaking drivers, which is what Emma uses to get to and from school. We have also used that service sometimes to get somewhere on the weekends. There are also regular-looking taxis that are painted white and green, with taxi signs, but I’ve never taken one of those.

What’s more common is to stand on the side of the road with your arm out, angled down towards the pavement, to flag down a car, tell the driver where you are going, and wait to see if they will take you there. Some drivers tell you to get in first, but most of them want to know a destination first, and they will say no if they don’t want to take you there. This is that part that gets a little amusing sometimes. We spend a lot of time standing out in front of MIU asking to go to, say, Emma’s school, or to e-Mart (the Korean superstore), and one driver after another will shake their head and drive on. No. Just no. I can’t remember that happening so regularly any other place where I’ve lived. Often, in Cairo or Addis especially, I would have taxi drivers happy to take me anywhere, because they would see a foreigner whom they could charge more for the trip. Here, with a few exceptions, taxi drivers charge the same rate (around 3,000 tugrik or a little over $1 for most of the trips we tend to take, maybe 5,000 to Emma’s school), but they just say no if they don’t want to go your way.

There are a few tricks I learned early on about taking taxis, though. The first one is to grab a ride in the same direction you are already going. This makes a lot of sense to me—people who are already driving in one direction are less likely to turn around and go the other way. A few weeks after we first arrived in Ulaanbaatar, my department chair wanted to take me and Emma out for lunch. We were going to a shabu shabu restaurant downtown, starting out from the university. We tried flagging down cars, and my department head would say “BlueMon Center,” which is the name of the building the restaurant was in. Driver after driver shook their head, no. Eventually, she got the idea to just get in a car first and then say where we were going. So we got in the next car, and she got in the passenger seat and started trying to convince the guy to go to the BlueMon Center. He wasn’t having it. She kept repeating “BlueMon Center.” He didn’t budge. Finally, he indicated with gestures that we needed to cross the street and get in a car going the other way. We did, and the second or third car that slowed down stopped to let us in. It was a valuable lesson.

Also, never take a ride from a driver who walks up to you offering a ride. That’s also common sense, but once I was out with Emma, and we were going from the State Department Store to e-Mart, and I temporarily forgot. We were carrying boots we’d gotten for Emma, and assorted other things, and obviously looked like two foreigners out shopping. Targets. Some guy walked up and said, “Taxi?” and quite stupidly, I followed him. I mean, we had only been here for a little while, and my Mongolian was practically nonexistent, so I was still a little nervous about grabbing some driver on a street corner. But this was just silly. We rode the ten minutes to the store, and then the guy said, “Thirty thousand.” I assumed I’d misheard and said, “Right, three thousand.” The guy said, “No, VIP service, thirty thousand.” I was dumbfounded, but I handed him a ten thousand tugrik note and got out of the car. A Russian couple was outside, already talking to him about their destination. I was mad at myself afterwards for giving him too much money, but it was the first time this had happened here in Mongolia, so I was taken by surprise.

After a few months here, I am pretty comfortable getting around the city. I am even a lot better about walking out in front of moving cars. Emma’s still blithely confident around cars and in parking lots, but I’m the one who forges the trail, so I’m more likely to be hit. If I’m at a corner with a pedestrian light, I’ll still wait for the light, even if other people don’t. But when I have to cross mid-block, or at a pedestrian crosswalk with no light, I’m getting good at just waiting for a gap and then starting out across the street. Still, there’s nothing quite like the feeling when a car slows down to let you cross, and you’re walking in front of it, when the car behind it zooms around to pass it. I nearly got hit that way this morning, and it’s quite an adrenaline rush. It’s not enough to pay attention to the cars immediately in front of you; you have to watch the ones that are coming up on them, too. It’s a good metaphor for life.

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