By REBECCA COOK
I recently arrived in Ulaanbaatar for my inaugural visit and when flying in to land at Chinggis Khaan Airport, I was immediately struck by two staggering topographical features. The first was the looming mountains, sprinkled with snow like icing sugar on a cake, which flanked the metropolis. The second was the vibrant colored house roofs that separated the mountains from the towering high-rise. Dynamic reds and blues leapt out to the eye from the ashen mountains. Yet, after closer inspection as we approached the runway tarmac, I realized these houses were not houses at all, but looked more like cobbled together shacks.
My suspicions were confirmed when I was later told that these lodgings were for those in poverty. I was stunned, because I had been utterly unaware that Ulaanbaatar possessed this area of deprivation on its outskirts, a shantytown or ger district, and faced a harsh division of affluence similar to that of Rio de Janeiro.
My interest in this extensive ger districts were ignited when I subsequently discovered that Ulaanbaatar accounts for almost half of Mongolia’s entire population, an astounding statistic betraying a formidable level of internal migration in the country, which was unbeknownst to me before I arrived.
Ulaanbaatar is a developing capital with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The city has been undergoing a profound alteration in its way of life since the cessation of communism in 1990, when its population was a mere 500,000; a substantial disparity from its current populace of nearly 1.3 million.
Now the skyline is peppered with moving cranes and building sites as infrastructure in the capital is continuously being improved and furthered. It has become a city where residents readily benefit from the country’s increasing wealth; people can live in luxury apartments and shop at Versace. They can sit in their SUV in the congested downtown traffic as they drive to their office situated in a glittering high-rise building. An inevitable consequence of this progress is urbanization, causing the cities to enlarge. The causes for this mass movement range from people’s desire to seek their fortune and advance their social position to the wish to move closer to family members living in the city.
Migration is a prominent topic currently affecting the global community, as reams of people continue to flee war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan seeking asylum in Europe.
Mongolia appears to be no exception to this burden of migration, albeit on a domestic level.
In the two decades since the end of the communist government, the migration rates have infinitely increased. A 2010 National Population Center census speculated that between 30,000 and 40,000 people are migrating to Ulaanbaatar every year, seeking a better quality of life.
Mongolia is known for its rich cultural heritage, the cornerstone of which is a nomadic existence that is still apparent in the 21st century through the generational preservation of this strong tradition. Yet, an increasing number of people are deserting their nomadic way of life in order to move to the city.
A Save The Children report named this phenomenon the “pastoralist drop out”, where there is a sudden halt in pastoralist activities, causing evident and lasting changes to society. The consequences of this behavior to the Mongolian custom are disquieting; prime human resources are constantly being lost, while only the elderly remain.
A fundamental component of the nomadic existence is simple mobility. The people have always had the option to change their location in the vast rural landscapes of Mongolia, allowing them the freedom to move away from danger and towards fresh opportunities, exploiting the rich diversity of their countryside. However, this movement is being utilized to the detriment of the nomadic-pastoralist life as legions of people continue to move from the countryside entirely and relocate in the city.
Urbanization is typically attributed to a national increase in wealth, yet Mongolia seems to be unique in its independence from this trend. Migration here appears to be connected not to the pull of the city’s economic opportunities, but to the push of rural economic vulnerability as a result of a progressive decline in agricultural efficiency, exacerbated by the harsh Mongolian climate.
Weather such as drought, dzuds and biting winters that can last half a year have forced nomads to relocate to Ulaanbaatar. A dzud in 2010 killed 10 million livestock and forced thousands to leave the steppe.
Meanwhile, many others have become victims of desertification caused by global warming and overgrazing; the UN Development Program estimated that up to 90 percent of Mongolia is now brittle dry land.
Since agriculture was privatized in 1993, there has been diminished state aid for livestock management, a fact that becomes glaringly obvious when herders face these extreme weather conditions. As a result, rural to urban migration becomes not so much an active choice, but a desperate necessity for many. The abrupt deterioration of their herding way of life coupled with a loss of income and a forced displacement to a foreign urban setting pose an irrevocable change that can be deeply traumatic. Those who continue to arrive from the countryside are accustomed to open spaces and have rarely experienced the comparatively stifling confines of the city.
Ulaanbaatar is a rapidly growing city with an infrastructure struggling to keep up with the influx of new inhabitants; this has resulted in the expanding ger districts that backs onto the mountains at the periphery of the city, dwarfing it in size.
The chronic lack of affordable housing in Ulaanbaatar has contributed to its dizzying growth. Now it is estimated that more than half of the city’s population resides within these ger districts.
The ger is intrinsic to the nomadic tradition. However, the term “ger district” has romantic connotations for a very unromantic way of life. The reality is harsh and severe. Inhabitants have no basic public services: no plumbing, no sanitation system and sporadic rubbish collection. Unpaved mud paths serve as roads, with no signs or streetlights. These roads wind through the assortment of self built shacks that form the majority of the dwellings.
These feeble constructions create little economic activity in the area. The ex-herders who arrive to the ger districts often do not possess viable skills for an already saturated job market. Therefore, unemployment remains a critical issue; a World Bank report found unemployment to be slightly over 62 percent in the ger districts. This coupled with fragrant alcoholism compounds the difficulty of living in these areas.
Over a quarter of Mongolia’s entire population now live in these ger districts, yet when they first began to haphazardly spread along Ulaanbaatar’s surrounding mountains, they were not officially considered to be a part of the city. Their eventual recognition was partially due to the pollution that the gers and shacks emitted.
Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city. During the long Mongolian winters, temperatures dive into the minuses for months, causing families to burn coal, wood and, occasionally, rubbish in order to remain warm since the ger districts are not connected to the city’s central heating grid. This not only posed an even heavier financial strain on households, but led to the formation of ample clouds of pollution which caused the World Health Organization to name Ulaanbaatar as one of the world’s most polluted cities.
This has provoked the government to take action to alleviate the burgeoning issue. Governmental and non-governmental initiatives are aiming to replace the basic traditional stoves in use with new ecological alternatives.
A proposal has been made involving the employment of private developers to build apartment blocks in place of the gers and shacks. However, the practicalities of this could prove problematic as, after years of being ignored by the authorities, the people reportedly have little trust in them. The reality is that, although money continues to flow into the capital from the extensive mining of the country’s mineral deposits, little of it is apparent in the primitive setting of the ger districts.
This tale of two cities is one that is only worsening as inequality increases. It is a supreme irony that in the least densely populated country in the world, the capital is struggling for space to accommodate its thriving population, which has resulted in this hillside sprawl. This transition begins in the secluded agrarian recesses of Mongolia and ends in the ger districts, with parents cherishing the hope that if the situation cannot improve for them, perhaps it can improve for their children through obtaining an education that will assist them in transitioning to a more sustainable future.
Yet, this is at the sacrifice of their cultural heritage as herders. It is abundantly apparent that the grim realities faced by the inhabitants of the ger districts are not sustainable, nor should they have to be tolerated by half the populace of a modern urban city.
Over the years, governmental recognition for this stark situation has gathered momentum, aided by local NGO campaigns. The results of this are already apparent: the districts are currently more accessible than years previously.
Projects aiming to pave roads, build local schools, supermarkets and businesses are underway, while maintaining an ultimate aim for the outright substitution of the ger districts with high-rise apartments. Yet, this is by no means an easy feat, nor will it be a meteoric one.
When it comes to these districts, progress seems to be sluggish and laborious.
However, I think inch by painful inch, the problem will be rectified and eventually dissolved entirely. The somber circumstances are personally heightened by what I perceive as the cultural tragedy of this socioeconomic dilemma: the ger itself, the symbol of a nomadic age that harks back to the Mongolian warriors under Chinggis Khaan, who used to inhabit them, as well as the generations upon generations who lived in gers after them. This classic white icon of the nomadic existence is morphing into an emblem of the growing underprivileged shanty towns of Ulaanbaatar.