Ulaanbaatar: What it’s like

One of the first photos I took in Mongolia, driving in from the airport

I’ve been wanting to write a general post about Ulaanbaatar for a while now. This is mainly about my impressions, because it’s impossible to write about every aspect of a topic, especially one as complex as this city, in a single blog post. I’ve already written a bit about it here and there, but I have been thinking a lot lately of how the city feels to me as a place to live. I’ll touch on some urban development issues, but many of these are intricate and warrant their own posts (or book chapters, or books). The biggest issue by far is that more than half of the city lives “off the grid” in neighborhoods that have sprung up because of waves of migration from the countryside. These neighborhoods, called “ger districts” (“ger” is Mongolian for “yurt”) house over 700,000 of the city’s 1.3 million people. So you have a situation where nearly half the country’s population lives in one city, and over half of those people live in informal settlements, only some of which are slowly, slowly being incorporated into the city’s infrastructure. So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot to this place, too much for a 1500-word post. This is just an initial stab at it, with more to come.

Ulaanbaatar a hard city to wrap your head around. It’s such a mishmash of old and new, beautiful and ugly, drab and shiny, crumbling and pristine, generic and unexpected, tranquil and chaotic. It’s definitely an interesting place to live, and there has been a tremendous amount of development since the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the switch to a more market-oriented economy in the 1990s. The booms and busts since then show in the fabric of the city. I have only seen a small fraction of what Ulaanbaatar has to offer, and I could certainly imagine living here for a long time. But it’s definitely a complicated place.

A ger settlement along the Tuul River

I think what makes it challenging is that there is no coherent urban planning to speak of. A lot of attention has been paid to the problems Ulaanbaatar faces. And from what I’ve seen and read, it’s not that there isn’t any planning, but that there are many plans. And the plans seem to change when the mayor changes, which makes it very tricky. People seem to build whatever they can wherever they can. One symptom of this is the 28 unfinished high rises that dot the city. They are buildings that were started without final permits; the developers were hoping they’d be able to finish the buildings and bribe their way into the proper permits, but it didn’t work out. No one knows how to take them down, and they can’t be finished, so they sit there.

A tower that can’t be finished or taken down, lurking over the walled compound of the Presidential Palace

Now, much of the construction takes the form of shiny high-rise apartment buildings, of the “luxury” variety. They are springing up all over the city, but especially in the neighborhoods around Emma’s school and across from the National Park (a large urban park in the southern part of the city), as well as south of the Tuul River in an area known as Zaisan. It was one of the first things we noticed on the drive from the airport when we arrived back in August. There’s a desperate housing need in the city because of the migration from the countryside, but most people moving here aren’t interested in high-density housing. People who move to the city first come to the city center, but they tend to move into the surrounding ger areas because they prefer having more space, even if they don’t have access to urban infrastructure like electricity, piped water, and sewage.  

What the city looks like overall is clusters of new high-rise apartments, separated by older Soviet-era apartment blocks, and some neighborhoods of detached homes. Sometimes you’ll have all different building types in a single block. More and more of the older buildings are being torn down to make way for the high-rises, though a few buildings from the early 20th century remain, especially near Sukhbaatar Square, the large central plaza downtown. It’s the closest Ulaanbaatar comes to a historic center, though much of it has been replaced.

The one thing I’ve been feeling as I walk around lately is how much the architecture here feels suited for the winter. It’s not so much the pointy-roofs vs. flat roofs thing (there are both here; the place doesn’t get large amounts of snow because it’s an arid climate). It could just be that I’m so used to winter now that I really can’t imagine what the city is like with green grass, shrubs, and trees. In fact, even the evergreen trees here turn black in the winter because they get covered in soot, which is an interesting effect. It’s also not that the buildings are necessarily drab; Mongolians are not afraid of bright colors, and it compensates for the muted winter landscape. Schools especially are painted brightly, reflecting the emphasis that is placed children in Mongolian culture.

There aren’t very many parks within Ulaanbaatar, though there has been some effort to increase the green space in the city. The Bogd Khan Uul mountain is a dominant feature of the landscape. Sky Resort, a ski area in winter and golf course in summer, is on the southeastern slopes of the mountain (we can see it from our living room balcony, though we have yet to go there). The city itself is surrounded by countryside, so it’s been quite a contrast to the endless suburbia of southern California that we are used to. You can get to the edge of town, though it is spreading further out.

The city from the air, when we flew back in January

Within the city, close to Emma’s school, there is a large green space called the National Park of Mongolia, which was built with the intention of creating the world’s largest urban park. It has walking and biking trails which extend down to the Tuul River, as well as playgrounds and a lot of interesting statues. There are several food stands close to the main entrance to the park which were closed when I was there in November but will probably re-open in late spring. It’s a good place to go walking, even in winter, as the air is a little cleaner than the rest of the city (but wear your mask!), and the views of the Bogd Khan Uul are beautiful.

National Park of Mongolia

The new-ish looking Amgalan Botanical Garden is on the eastern edge of the city. We tried walking there, but never found the entrance, which I think is on the opposite side of the park from the main road. I say new-ish looking because the trees we’ve seen are all fairly small, and in Google Maps satellite view, it looks like parts are still “under construction.” A large Japanese-sponsored teaching hospital is going up next to the garden, as well. We are looking forward to exploring it further when the weather warms up and plants might be budding, leafing, and flowering. I haven’t been able to find out much about it online, so we’ll just have to go there.

Another notable green space that we have yet to visit is the National Amusement Park, which is downtown just south of the Shangri-La Mall and Hotel. Featuring a roller coaster (that unfortunately has been broken down the last couple of years) and a large ferris wheel, the amusement park also has games, smaller rides, and even paddle boats on a small lake. The park closes for winter after Halloween, but leading up to that it has a haunted house, as well.

Some of the green spaces are no more. If you look at Google Maps, there’s a large green area around the National Sports Stadium, but when I walked through that area the other day after retrieving my ATM card from the Khan Bank Tower (it had been eaten by an ATM machine), it seemed like the whole area is now a construction site. The amount of building going on here is extraordinary. There were people in the space around the stadium, out with their young children, treating the area as a park.

National Sports Stadium

The Selbe River bisects the city, running north to south and then bending west, and while it’s lined in concrete on either side, it is a reminder of why the confluence of the Selbe and Tuul rivers has been an important place in Mongolian history. The presence of surface water is rare enough in this arid landscape. The banks of the two rivers also provide habitat for many birds, both migratory and year-round residents. Unfortunately, the Tuul River is running ever lower and lower as water-intensive industries like mining extract more and more from it. In fact, water is probably the biggest crisis the city faces, because without water there can be no city.

Selbe River, in September

I guess what is most striking to me about Ulaanbaatar is the coexistence, side by side, of crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks and ultramodern high-rises. The few cohesive looking neighborhoods tend to be the low-density residential areas. There is one of these next to Mongolia International University, which I like to go walking in when I get a chance. The houses are all surrounded by high walls that are difficult to see over, and run the gamut from decades-old wooden homes to new multi-story brick and stucco affairs. Many of the compounds also have gers inside them. I like walking here because it’s quiet, and there isn’t much traffic. In general, MIU is not located in a particularly attractive neighborhood. It seems to be near the car repair district; there’s a car door store just down the street, and Narnii road, which leads west toward the Naran Tuul market, is lined with tire, parts, and repair shops. It’s interesting, for sure, but as Emma and I say, it’s not a beautiful neighborhood for walking in.

Peace Avenue, one of the main streets running east-west through the city, has a certain cohesiveness to it, too. We live at the eastern end of the road, near a military compound that gives the neighborhood its name, “Officer,” and the buildings are mostly low-rise, two or three story commercial and office blocks that are a few decades old. There are also several brightly painted schools. As you move further west toward the downtown, more high-rise apartment buildings pop up, with stores and restaurants inhabiting the first couple of floors. One of my favorite buildings in the city is the bright teal Terra Europe restaurant (which seems to serve Korean food, according to its sign) tucked along the street in front of the large, circular wrestling palace, home of one of Mongolia’s favorite sports. Terra Europe is an old single-story building across the street from the tiny but similar vintage Ulaanbaatar City Museum. It looks like it’s about to fall in, but it has a lot of character. I don’t know anything about the history of Terra Europe or this building, but I enjoy seeing it when we ride the bus downtown.

Continuing west on Peace Avenue, you reach the distinctive Blue Sky building, a blue glass hotel and office building that is curved on one side, so that it’s hard to imagine what the top floor is like. Across the street is Sukhbaatar Square, a large paved plaza with the equally distinctive Parliament building along its back edge. Dotted here and there are some buildings of cultural and historic note, including the melon-colored State Opera and Ballet Theater. Many of the cultural buildings are painted bright colors with white trim, and their older architecture stands out, though they are frequently overshadowed by adjacent highrises. The bright reddish-pink National Academic Drama Theater, behind Tsedenbal Square where Seoul Street and Chinggis Avenue come together, is surrounded.

Finally, Ulaanbaatar has a lot of public art. Some are formal installations, monuments, or statues, like the Mongolian dog statues guarding the intersection of Narnii Road and AH-3 near Mongolia International University. There is also a lot of street art painted here and there on walls, some of which may have been commissioned, but some of which has no doubt just materialized. Much of it is quite good and reflects the strong artistic traditions of Mongolia. The other striking thing about the city that I noticed on our first day here is the prevalence of karaoke clubs, particularly “VIP Karaoke,” as well as assorted snooker, billiard, and pool joints, sometimes combined with karaoke.

Like Ulaanbaatar itself, this post has been a mishmash of impressions. We’ve only experienced a small part of the city so far, too. Most tourists, when they come through, experience even less. They see the flashy downtown and the historic monuments and museums, and then head out of town on their tours. Most of the city isn’t like that. Area-wise, most of it is the informal settlements of the ger districts, which pose the biggest development and environmental challenges for the future of Ulaanbaatar. The high-rise buildings look beautiful, but they are also a drain on the city’s scarce resources, and it’s unclear how many of them will be inhabited in the long run. So, if this post has seemed like a confusing mess, imagine how the city is even more so.

4 thoughts on “Ulaanbaatar: What it’s like

  1. So interesting to see the ger settlements! I think there are similar encampments in Oakland CA and New Orleans LA but certainly not on the same scale.

    I’m appreciating seeing these contrasting photos of Ulaanbaatar. Were those hills/mountains forested in centuries past?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marie! The mountains to the south are forested and have been protected since at least the 18th century, but records show earlier (it’s the Bogd Khan preserve I wrote about in the Manzushir post). Other areas have probably been deforested because people used wood for making gers and for fuel. But this is an arid climate, so it’s always been more grassland (steppe) than forest. Quite a few places I’ve seen have been protected because they have spiritual value, but places that are not are often devoid of trees, though trees would mainly grow along rivers or above a certain altitude.

      Like

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