One of the things I love about where we live in Ulaanbaatar is the exposure. We are on the southwest corner of our building, on the 5th floor, so we get a lot of light in the apartment. As the sun has moved far to the north now, we mainly get direct sun in the afternoon, in our bedrooms, but even in the middle of winter, we had direct sun coming through the southern windows almost all day. The light was a lifesaver. Outside it might have been below zero and dim with pollution, but inside, it was ridiculously warm and light. With the humidifiers and air filter going round the clock, it was like our own tropical getaway.
We also have a great view, which I look at compulsively, many times a day. We look out on the Bogd Khan Uul, a protected area that is likely one of the world’s first national parks, protected by the government since 1783. And to the west, we have a good view of the city and the sunset. Emma makes fun of me, because I take daily pictures from our two balconies, the south one off the living room and the one facing west off my bedroom. It hasn’t really been warm enough yet to sit out on the balconies, but it’s expected to hit the high 70s and low 80s (Fahrenheit) during the coming week, and stay in the high 60s and low 70s after that, which is balcony weather. The view is made more amazing by the overwhelming, changeable sky. We can see the weather as it approaches, the extraordinary cloudscapes, the intense blue of the cloudless sky. I will miss this so much when we are back in California, in our house where trees and hills obscure the view and we don’t have the same feeling of space that we do here.
I feel like there is much more light here, generally. I was expecting the winter to be cold and dark, and it certainly was cold, but because they don’t do daylight savings time here, it was light out until later in the day than it would have been in Boston, or even San Diego (where the sun sets before 5 pm in the winter). Of course, it was pitch black out as Emma and I were leaving for school/work until sometime in March. But the longer days are certainly upon us now. As I’m writing this, at 5:15 am, it’s already light out (sunrise is 5:09, according to timeanddate.com), and sun will set at 8:30 pm.
The quality of the light is very different, too. It’s been brighter than I expected, given how far north we are. This is the furthest north I’ve ever lived, at nearly 48 degrees latitude (before this, I’d lived in Hokkaido, Japan, and Boston, Massachusetts, which are around 44 and 42 degrees, respectively). It’s also the driest place I’ve lived, with humidity levels routinely as low as 11%, which also affects the light. I remember when we lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, even when the May sun was shining the light seemed yellowish compared to what I was used to in San Diego. It never really got to what felt “normal” to me. In San Diego, the sun can be truly oppressive in the summertime, especially on days without the morning “marine layer” or fog that hugs the coast.
Here in Mongolia, the winter sunlight was often dampened by the heavy pollution, but as the day progressed and the pollution subsided a bit, it felt more direct than I remembered the winter sun being in Boston. (Ulaanbaatar’s pollution is mainly caused by home heating, so it tends to peak in the late evening and early morning rather than during the day; you can read more about it here.) Most days here are sunny, especially during the winter, when there is little precipitation. There are also a lot more reflective surfaces, which helps intensify the light. Many buildings are light-colored and have a lot of glass, so light gets bounced around and shines into places it normally wouldn’t. There would be light reflecting off walls in my apartment from the windows in an apartment building about a quarter of a mile away if the rising sun hit them just right.
There are few trees in the city because of the arid climate, and of course the larches and deciduous trees lose their leaves. The evergreens become coated with a black layer of soot, but there are not very many of them, except what has been planted along main streets and in city parks. So buildings are the main feature of the landscape here. That makes it feel different from nearly every place I’ve ever lived (even San Diego, which should be mainly coastal scrub, has a lot of ornamental trees). Ulaanbaatar sits in a wide valley along the Tuul River, so there are hills to the north, and the forested Bogd Khan mountain to the south, but the broad valley is nearly devoid of trees except for poplars, elms, and willows growing right along the river. The area in which Ulaanbaatar sits is classified as steppe, or grassland, and you can see this clearly on the edges of the city. It’s very flat, so there is little topography to guide the construction of the city. As a result, the city feels like it’s been placed upon, instead of built into, the landscape.
The Bogd Khan Uul is classified as a strictly protected area, so there are limits to the southern expansion of the city. It is growing rapidly to the southwest, towards the Chinggis Khan International Airport, around the edge of the protected area, but from where we live in the eastern part of the city, the southern edge of town isn’t far away. The expansion to the north is also easy to see from where we live, as what are called the “ger districts” extend into the hills bounding the city there. (The ger districts are informal settlements that have sprung up over the last few decades as people have moved to the city at a faster pace than the city can accommodate.)
Ultimately, what I feel when I look at and walk around the city is exposed. Exposed to the elements, exposed to the sky, exposed to the wind that whips through here in the spring. Ulaanbaatar is also at a higher altitude than our close-to-sea-level home in Carlsbad, California. The city is at about 4,500 feet (1,370 meters), so not quite a “mile high city” like Denver, but high enough that I could feel the difference when we got here. For the first few weeks, I always had the feeling of being out of breath, especially when climbing stairs. This adds to the feeling of exposure, I’m sure. The air feels thinner, the atmosphere less protective. The Bogd Khan Uul rises an additional 3,000 feet above the city, but it’s not a sheltering mountain, at least not on our side of the city. It seems a bit more like the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, from my college days, with gently rising slopes that made them feel less high that they really were. Bogd Khan Uul is like that, too, at least on our end of it.
I think living on the eastern end of the city has really shaped our perceptions of it. This is the “less developed” side of town, and there’s less construction here as well. It might have seemed very different had we lived in one of the glossy highrises towards the city center, or in one of the Soviet-era behemoths on the western side of the city, which I never even knew existed (or at least not so many of them) until we went out the northwest side of town last weekend on a field trip, but which extend block after block in that direction. There is some construction over here, but not nearly as much, and the highrises are scattered, rather then cheek-by-jowl they way they are over by Emma’s school. We have a nearly unobstructed view of Bogd Khan Uul for that reason (there is one annoying apartment building and a hotel that block part of the view. Sometimes I feel a kinship with the crows that perch on the building tops around us as I look out over the landscape.
Some of what I feel living in this city is difficult to put in words. It feels like the northern, landlocked, high city that it is. The smell of the ocean has been replaced with the smell of raw coal burning, vehicle fumes, and, on rare occasions, the smell of damp earth since the ground began thawing several weeks ago. We aren’t too far from the permafrost zone of Siberia, so now I can almost imagine what living there must be like—Siberia loomed large in my Cold War-era childhood imagination—and several of the people I’ve met here in Mongolia are from Siberia, which, it turns out, is as huge and varied as you’d expect, given that it would be the largest country in the world if it were a country by itself. Ulaanbaatar sits in an area of discontinuous permafrost; because the average annual temperature is below freezing, some places never fully thaw out. Of course, with climate change, permafrost is beginning to thaw and this will have effects on Mongolia (and the whole world) as well.
All of this makes Ulaanbaatar feel exotic to me. The built environment of the city is a mixture of influences, with the Soviet and post-Soviet era dominating, but with more Korean and Chinese companies involved in urban development, the city is changing. The old buildings that have survived this urban development still are not that old, built maybe a bit over a century ago. Some of the temples are older; the city itself has been in this location since 1778. It looks like the crossroads city that it is: a junction between East and West, connecting East Asia to Central Asia, eastern Europe, and western Europe beyond. You can see this in everything, from the architecture to the supermarket shelves.
There are many things I will miss about this city when we leave at the end of the semester. It’s easier to list the things I will not miss: the traffic, the winter air pollution, the bitter cold, and the way people shove you around. That’s about it. What I will miss makes a lengthy list, but among many things are the light, the Mongolian sky, our view, the people I have met and gotten to know, and the feeling of living in a real cultural confluence.