I just got back from dropping Emma off at a friend’s house for Sunday afternoon. By “dropping off,” I mean riding over with her in a taxi, walking her up to the apartment, and then riding home. A taxi will pick her up later. We decided next time she could do it on her own, because it’s pretty easy to find the apartment.
The friend lives in an apartment complex called River Garden, over on the other side of town near Emma’s school. River Garden is a nice place. Really, it could be just about anywhere in the world, but it happens to be in the southern part of Ulaanbaatar, right on the Tuul River, hence the name River Garden. Actually, the full name is River Garden Luxury Village, though it’s not a village. It’s a cluster of 10-story apartment buildings and a much taller glass tower called River Tower. The buildings and the pine tree landscaping look like they could be in southern California, or where I used to live in northern Florida for that matter. Compared to where we live in the eastern side of the city, it’s quite nice. There are many more trees, and green spaces, and tennis courts, and a bicycle path along the river. The air is also a lot cleaner on that side of the city.
Most of Emma’s friends from school live somewhere on that side of town. Really, all of them do, except for her friend who lives in the Japanese embassy, closer to the city center. The south side of town is also where a LOT of the construction is going on. High-density “luxury” apartment complexes are springing up like mushrooms on an overwatered lawn. I’ve been struck by the names of these complexes, clearly, because I have three or four memos on my phone about names that I’ve noted down on various taxi rides. I think it fascinates me because some of the names are so generic, while others are much more tied to this specific place: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. At some point, I’d like to do a more extensive analysis of the names, as well as the complexes themselves, and what they say about this city and its developers, but here’s a preliminary stab at it.
River Garden Luxury Village is across the street from a complex that is under construction which will be called Sky Garden. The signs on the construction fence claim that it is a True Luxury Residence with a Kids First Concept. The pictures, artists’ renderings, look gorgeous, if you like that sort of thing. There will be shops and sports facilities, as well as a bicycle path. It will no doubt match its neighbor, River Garden, in its generic look and feel. You’d never know you were in Mongolia, which is the idea.
Other names I call “aspirational,” in that they aspire to a certain luxury image, include Casa Da Vinci, Encanto Town, Park Villa, Time Square, Emerald Residence, King Tower, Elizabeth, Roma Town Luxury Apartment, Bella Vista Town, Royal County Complex, Olympic Village, and Marshall Deluxe Village. A new complex that isn’t even visible over the construction fence yet is Palm Springs Resort and Villa, complete with a picture of palm trees on the sign. This one threw me, because I spent a lot of time in the Palm Springs area after my parents retired there in 1994, and the sign looked like it could be from there. Indeed, all of these names are probably found in many places around the world with up-and-coming urban or even suburban populations looking for high-end places to match their high-end lifestyles.
Some of the names are more locally derived, or what I’ve been thinking of as “authentic.” They evoke aspects of Mongolian geography, history, and culture. These include Residence Hunnu 2222 (Hunnu were a nomadic empire that predated Chinggis Khan by around 1100 years), Khan Hills, Luxury Zaisan Village, Blue Sky Town (which evokes Tenger or Tengri, one of the main deities in shamanism), Buddha Vista, and Mandala. These names may be more tied to this place, to Mongolia, but the residential complexes they name are just as luxurious as their aspirational siblings: large boxes of glass and concrete with underground parking, surrounding parks and playgrounds and strip malls.
These are the names that have signs in English (or at least the Latin alphabet). I’m also starting to note down the names in Cyrillic. The easier ones are those that mimic English words, like Comfort. There are also more utilitarian names, like the X-Apartment across the street from my university, named because the building is shaped like an X if you look down on it from above. There is also a neighborhood that shows up on Google Maps as the intriguing “Rapid Harsh Town,” next to the national stadium and just northwest of Emma’s school. I walked through there once just to check it out, and it seemed neither rapid nor harsh, so the name must mean something else. Unless it was built very quickly and is more unpleasant to live in than it seems.
I think one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by these apartment complexes and how they are named is that they represent a mismatch between the severe housing crisis Ulaanbaatar has been facing and what seems to be offered as a solution to it: high-density housing. With more than half of the city’s population living in what amount to informal settlements, not hooked up to the city’s infrastructure or services, known as the “ger districts” after the prevalence of ger or yurts, the traditional rural housing form, some kind of solution is urgently needed. Various international organizations and city administrations, not to mention local and foreign real estate developers, have been pushing high-density housing, but the people who move to Ulaanbaatar from the countryside because their livestock have died or they’ve otherwise lost their livelihoods tend not to want to live in high-rise apartment complexes in the city center. Even if they could afford them.
It’s not all that different from San Diego, where real estate developers build million-dollar homes and say they are addressing the housing shortage there. Well, guess what? People need homes they can afford and want to live in. Developers want to make money, and lots of it. Often their goals are incompatible with the needs of people who seek housing. Especially if those people are poor and have just lost their livelihoods, or are still seeking employment.
In Ulaanbaatar, this is a major crisis. No matter how beautiful the new luxury complexes are, or how aspirational or authentic the names, most people simply can’t afford them. In the city center, many long-term residents have been forced out of their Soviet-era homes to make room for new developments, often cheated out of fair market value for their property, or promised housing the developers did not deliver. The people forced to reside in informal settlements considerably outnumber those who can afford the luxury, and they are also the cause of the deadly air pollution that afflicts the city over half of each year.
So, the luxury complexes like River Garden and its soon-to-be neighbor Sky Garden, become comfortable homes for foreign residents and very well-off Mongolians, while doing little to mitigate the serious problems this city is facing. I’ll write more about how they are making things worse, by using resources that contribute to the water shortage and climate change, in another post. In the meanwhile, I am also thinking of names that might be more appropriate, like Capitalist Sham, False Hope, Unaffordable Luxury Village, and Corruption Town. I’m not sure what the marketing for those would look like, though.
7 thoughts on “How to name your apartment complex in Ulaanbaatar”
Older buildings that sprouted randomly in UB are identified by a mere Number, e.g. “Building 14, Zukov area” 🙂
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Anything that was built in the Soviet era was built under very different ideological circumstances, as well!
I like your ideas for names at the end! More honest by far. Gardens seem to be a bit of a fetish since the weather doesn’t allow a lot of them. Rapid Harsh Town is classic. Sounds film-ish! Maybe foreign developers named Rapid and Harsh? I’m sure the gov would never consider making it possible to support ger villages with clean utilities, etc… It wouldn’t fit with the moguls’ city planning.
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Hi Marie! Thanks for commenting. Yeah, the focus on “garden” is interesting, for sure. It reminds me a bit of the habit of calling suburban sub-divisions in San Diego “Ranch,” which is what they are no longer. “Rapid Harsh Town” was developed by the Khurd Group, LLC, and their tag line is “for rapid development,” I looked up “kharsh” in my Mongolian-English dictionary, and it means “palace.” So it’s half translated into English? Should be “Rapid Palace”?
The urban development context is complex here. There is no real city planning. I’ll be writing about it in more depth soon, but I’m still doing the research. There are a lot of projects to improve the ger districts (I think it’s not really helpful right now to call them villages, just like River Garden isn’t really a village either), and some have gotten hooked up to electricity. The big issues are heat and sanitation. Most of the projects seem to remain in the study phase for ages. There is no real urban planning here, and no one is really in the driver’s seat. The city plan changes every time the mayor changes. The mayor just changed again, apparently. There’s been a lot of talk to make Ulaanbaatar an “eco-city,” and there’s also talk of moving the capital to a brand-new “eco-city” somewhere. The main issue is water.
Urban development is also influenced by large international organizations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. They all talk about the difficulty of extending infrastructure to the ger districts. Ger themselves are a problem because they are difficult to heat (which is an issue here, and a major cause of the urban pollution). But many people prefer the ger districts because they like the space, and they are more affordable. There are about 40,000 ger in the city now, but the ger districts also include houses that people have built, which are also “off grid,” so they contribute to the pollution as well. Finding ways to reduce their dependency on burning coal for heat has been a focus, but there are too many different projects working from too many different angles (efficient stoves, “cleaner” coal, insulation, etc.).
Of course, the private developers (foreign and domestic) all just want to build new buildings. The problem is getting people to move into them. And then the extra utilities that apartments need, like power, heating, and water. I”m not sure where it comes from.
Hello, and I apologize for bursting in your place like this to leave a comment that isn’t pertinent to the post it comes attached to, to boot.
I’ve read my way through your posts, and I wanted to say thank you. I look forward to every new entry, and I can’t wait for the book!
I guess, by now you can intuit there’s something I’m going to ask you about. As a woman myself, maybe I’ve kept more of an eye to your mentions of your female students, the other women you’ve encountered, the position they held, their social place or even how walking on the streets by yourself (yourselves) is handled there, and attempting to read between lines how you are related to this context.
Now, I realize you must be swamped in your particular study area and the blog itself covers a pretty wide range of themes, so if this is not something you have already had in mind, please do not take this as a must-answer question. Not at all. This is more of a reflection on my part, and a personal one, at that. Besides, the subject ‘how are we women over there’ is so general, to boot.
To narrow down my busting in your place like this, this is a bit of context for my interest. I came upon your blog after I read Bryn Hammond’s books. [ https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13419204-against-walls ] She’s a medievalist—these books are fiction, though–shading in the Secret History of the Mongols with an eye both to historic understanding of a different epoch and civilization, and making it understandable to today’s modern pattern of thought too. As it happens, I took a shine to her portrayal of two of the characters: Jamuqa, but that’s the second book, but mostly Hoelun, Temujin’s mother, of course, who takes up so much of the first section.
Afterwards, as it happens these days, speaking of communication and your area of interest, I kind of fell into a snowballing phase of searching source material, articles, more books, and this is where your blog comes too. She was particular that, despite the ‘general’ knowledge of how the Mongolian culture and society was perceived, in actuality, the role and place of the women was much more than what we thought. Hoelun, Börte, one of the daughters, or daughter in law? momentarily the name escapes me , they all took the lead and were granted recognition for both their position, and the assumes leading one too.
So, that’s for the historical context that has me peeking to catch sight and meet again, or simply discover anew, through your present-day impressions of the place.
Also, having been born and lived in Eastern Europe for half of my life, I’m constantly being jolted with recognition of things I have almost forgotten– some of the pictures you post, for ex. This makes me wonder too about the delayed layer of western sexism that’s only now entering there, about the different flavor of eastern sexism and how it too had affected a society that, one presumes, because of the nomadic and disperse aspect, has managed to maintain itself closer to its roots just by the lacking the centralism and hierarchical flow—I mean, Genghis Khan unifying unique feat is the angular stone they’re apparently refer to still.
In any case, if this is not a topic you had thought before of addressing, either in the blog or in your future book, please do ignore all the above rambling. My main point here is that I like your posts, I’m very interested in every topic you offer, and I look forward to reading you as eagerly as ever. Your blog and seeing your journey are a bright point for me.
Wishing you both well,
All my best,
Andrea Demetrius (penname).
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Hi Andrea! Thank you so much for your comment! It is something I have thought about and have been wanting to write about more, but I’ve been holding off because I am not sure I have enough information to write anything remotely accurate. I have some vague impressions, and I have talked to my students about it (a group of opinionated, dynamic young women that simultaneously deny sexism in Mongolian society but nod their heads vigorously in recognition when I talk about inequalities in American society). I think the gender relations here are quite different than in other places I’ve been, partly because of the nomadic history. Also the language – Mongolian has no “he” or “she” pronouns, for example, just third person single and plural. I’m also not sure what impact, if any, the Soviet influence has had, and now of course there’s been nearly 30 years of western exposure, as well as influence from Korea. I will definitely write about this more. (I have a long list of posts planned, and not nearly enough time to write them; I’m sure you know that feeling!)
Thank you also for the book reference! I’ve been reading historical novels from more recent periods (The Green-Eyed Lama and Wolf Totem, which is actually about Inner Mongolia, but I have students from there as well), but I’ve been looking for good historical fiction from other periods, too. Chinggis Khan looms large in Mongolia now, especially since there’s a nationalist president.
Thanks again for commenting! It’s not always easy to figure out what people see in my blog, and what people are interested in. I really appreciate your interest!
Thank you for getting back at me, and for the books recs. Already bookmarked, can’t wait to read them, especially the first one. Books are always appreciated 😉
And yes, isn’t that always the reaction? ref. women and sexism talk. We need the outside perspective to look at and learn ourselves, but this isn’t something that’s easy to come by. And the things we were taught in school –especially for someone like me (us?) I confess, I kind of goggled there for a while when you said 30 years since the Soviet influence had ended. Because, right. Definitely, I’m not that kid anymore. But yes, there’s always a stretch in extrapolating things we’ve heard about, and there’s another step altogether in applying them to ourselves. Which is one the reasons I look forward to blogs such as yours. For example, we all are starting to be more conscious of the pollution surrounding us, but depending of where we live the close to the skin reality of that varies. And this is where a blog post of someone landing smack in the middle of that comes to open our eyes a bit more.
Because, you don’t get the impression that we’re moving beyond general learning these days? It’s almost like we dismiss general knowledge for ‘real voice’ or ‘real life experiences’ or this tweet or that facebook pic from a ‘real’ person that seems to transform for us that theoretical, nebulous thing into something real that could affect and impact me, the reader of that post, because somehow it removes me, an adult, from that time where I was a student when my mind was stuffed with all these things I didn’t see the relevance for me as individual. We crave proximity, a value of—social media—without the personal connection, there’s no interest. And this is why you recording your journey’s experience through blogging become of import and of value to me too.
Okay, that’s for my take on your not-quite question about your blogging.
Also, thanks for explaining that part about the language! That’s something that interests me quite a bit, too.
Take care, and have a nice weekend