I am breaking this post into two parts. The first are things I learned about Mongolia from talking to people that I found interesting and couldn’t fit into other posts. The second part are my thoughts on the country in general.
Mongolia is a very different country than others that I have visited. Since half of the population lives in one city that is where most of the infrastructure spending goes. The number of paved roads outside of medium-to-large sized towns is minimal, and they mainly connect cities in the center of the country.
Ulaanbaatar was designed for 500,000 people, but about 2 million people live there now. Since many of the people that live there were formerly nomads they just took their gers and placed them at the edge of the city. Most of the people that live in gers use coal (sometimes plastic bottle waste) for fuel for their stoves. This coupled with Ulaanbaatar being the coldest (or second coldest) capital city in the world has led to air pollution in the city that is worse than Beijing, something you would not expect for being one of the lease population dense countries in the world.
The previous administration tried to address the sprawl of Ulaanbaatar by offering subsidized loans on apartments in the city at 8% interest. The current administration has taken away the subsidies for new loans, so our guide has a mortgage on his condo at an 18% interest rate ($300 per month payment). The government is trying to entice people to move back to the country. They have initiated a voucher program where if you live in Ulaanbaatar you get a voucher for 0.7 acres of land for free as long as it isn’t in Ulaanbaatar (with a few other stipulations).
The number of people in Ulaanbaatar has led to the city being a traffic nightmare. It takes 30 minutes to get the airport without traffic, but the one time we went in the middle of the day it took over 60 minutes with most of that additional time being spent traveling less than two miles. They do have a public bus system, which is jammed full during rush hour, and according to TK, during the winter when everyone is bundled up, he has literally been lifted off his feet by a wave of people leaving the bus and forcibly “taken” off the bus before his stop.
The average wage in Mongolia is low. In Ulgii the salary for a teacher was about $160 per month (our guide was a teacher the rest of the year). In Ulaanbaatar it is about $300 for teaching English at a public school and about double that for teaching at a private school. When Mongolia became “independent” the literacy rate was very low, less than 10% of the population. While part of the USSR the literacy rate increased substantially, and today it is in the high 90%s. Mongolia now scores 92 on the human development index, which is a statistic reported by the UN that stratifies countries into different tiers of development, and a score greater than 80 denotes a high level of human development. Now it is not required to send your children to school, but most people do, even in remote areas. This is done through a combination of boarding schools and the fact that in the winter families move to their winter house for ~7 months, usually in a village with a school.
The universities in Mongolia are in Ulaanbaatar, and many families send their kids to Ulaanbaatar for education, but many never leave. This has translated to Ulaanbaatar being a very young city. Despite all of this prices in the city are very cheap. We ate lunch at a noodle shop, and it was $3 for two entrees and a soda. A beer at many establishments cost $1. Despite the low food prices there is a emphasis on food safety. We did not have GI issues the entire time that we were in Mongolia, which I found very surprising. At the cheap noodle place I repeatedly saw them wiping counters (not sure if the rag they were using was clean, but there was an effort).
Mongolia is not the most vegetarian friendly place we have been. Faced with Katy’s dietary restrictions, most places offered her every carrot in a 5 kilometer radius, but little else. On a plus side, she can now see a mile through her eyelids, and the orange hue to her skin will likely fade eventually… (really, that many carrots)
There for some reason there is an infatuation with Korean beauty products (which Katy shares), and most things are 50% cheaper than US/Korean prices. Like in the US, most people have a smartphone. In general things are really cheap in Mongolia. Spending more than $4 in a typical restaurant is difficult. Even in fancy restaurants the $8-10 plates are meant for two people. That being said Mongolian food is not a culinary delight. They use minimal amounts of spice, and most of the meat is boiled. They don’t differentiate fat from meat, so a lot of dishes with meat are pretty fatty. When we got back to Ulaanbaatar our dinner stop was Indian food, and boy was it good and spicy. Most Mongolians when they go out to dinner don’t eat Mongolian food, and Korean is the current food fad. One thing they do well are noodles. Most places that we got noodles they were homemade wheat based chewy noodles that were really good.
Overall Ulaanbaatar was a surprise. It is a city that is trying in many aspects. After not having a real bed in about four weeks coming back to a real bed and laundry machine was pretty amazing. Katy and I both had an amazing time in Mongolia. We feel that we saw a lot of the country (even though we missed giant parts), and we might come back in the future if there is a compelling reason, but it isn’t at the top of our return list. I am glad that we split our trip up into two parts and were not with one tour company for the entire time. It allowed us to fly between segments, which saved over 40 hours of driving with our itinerary and gave us two different but equally good guides with very different perspectives to share.