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Worldcrunch

When Nomads Settle The City: The Urbanization Of Mongolia

Article illustrative image Partner logo Urban Mongolia

ULAN BATOR – Over the last decade, Mongols have rapidly begun to concentrate here in its capital, as well as other cities.

This trend is accelerating and making Ulan Bator an unbearably crowded place, though still relatively small in comparison with most of China’s major cities. Nevertheless, the impact may be more drastic on a nation historically made of nomadic people.

After the declaration of independence in 1924, Ulan Bator’s city planning was directed by the Soviet Union. The capital was designed to contain a maximum population of 400,000.

In recent years, however, it has rapidly become home to 1.3 million people, almost half of Mongolia’s entire population.

Traffic is one of Ulan Bator’s major issues. On the roads, which are not wide to start with, some drive on the right, some on the left. Apart from the very center of the capital, there aren’t many traffic lights at intersections, and the result is horrendous traffic jams.

Another of Ulan Bator’s ills is pollution, which largely comes from the raw coal that the majority of the habitants burn for heating in the long winter. As for the herders who live on the hillside, they generally use dried cow dung as fuel. In the winter, the atmosphere above the city is full of the soot and smoke.

Go to the capital

Still, more and more Mongols and their flocks are marching towards the capital. According to Mongolian law, any Mongol can move around freely. Around the cities, as long as they make a demand, they get a free piece of land of 0.7 hectare to tie down their yurt, the traditional portable round dwelling, and keep their flock. Herders are increasingly moving closer to the capital, often settling down on the outlying hillsides.

Ulan Bator is a city surrounded by mountains; the Tula River, known as the Mother River, traverses the city. Looking at it from afar, the densely dotted yurts look like white galactic disks embedded on green brocade. With the yurts on the slopes complementing the tall buildings in the basin, the capital makes for a unique urban picture indeed.

But why do the herders want to come to the city? It is a complex question. One expert who has studied Mongolian livestock husbandry told me that because of the popularity of television, more and more Mongols are gradually getting to know about modern society. The young Mongol generation aspires to have contacts with the outside world, and going into the city is the only way to do that.

The Mongolian population has a median age of 35, a young country indeed.

Out of the 2.7 million Mongols, more than 300,000 go and study or work in Japan, South Korea and China. The majority of the Mongol ruling class has had foreign experience. They are having a great influence on Mongolia’s opening up to the outside world.

Another reason for the move to the cities is that the desertification of Mongolian territory. Suitable land for pasture is decreasing year by year, and it is becoming more and more difficult to pursue a nomadic life style.

Urbanization

With the acceleration of urbanization, Ulan Bator’s real estate sector is burgeoning. Rent is extremely expensive. In a country where annual GDP per capita is only $3,042, an apartment of 30 square meters costs $300 to $400 per month.

For ordinary residents of the capital, 30 square meter apartments are the norm. A living room plus a bathroom, just like a standard hotel room, makes up a household’s entire living space. They receive guests and eat in the same room. They, of course, also sleep in it, just like in a yurt. The earliest yurts didn’t have beds anyway, and Mongols often slept on a felt rug on the floor.

What foreigners notice most about Ulan Bator may be all its pubs. They are in every corner of the capital and full of drunken men, even in the day time. In a place where there are only three months of warm weather, a drinking culture runs deep.

Disparities

The wealth disparity is wide in Mongolia. For most herders who are newly arrived in the capital, they came with no tradition of saving money. After selling off their flocks they can only afford to live in yurts. Buying a house is an unreachable dream for them.

Over time, their children grow up and yearn to live in a building, to have convenient living facilities, to watch television, and to surf online. The diligent ones can find their own place in the rapidly developing city. They work for foreign companies from all over the world, adapt to the urban life and become Mongolia’s middle class.

Others, however, are bound to remain marginalized, unable to adapt to the city’s rhythms or to secure a livelihood.

Nevertheless, more herdsmen are bound to become city folk. The process may take a generation or two, but by now it appears inevitable. 

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