Initial Observations in Ulaanbaatar, Again

By Julian Dierkes

On previous visits to Mongolia, I’ve taken notes on my initial quick observations about changes (and the lack thereof) in the Ulaanbaatar cityscape: November 2014May 2014 | November 2013.

So, here it goes for May 2015.

Travelling to ULN

I came via Seoul. That is such a more pleasant way to come than the transfer in PEK. Incheon is a really nice, bright, modern airport. International transit is well-organized with a simple detour through security ahead of passport control so that Korean immigration is not involved at all. The only thing that it is missing are better newsstands with international newspapers and magazines.

Flying KAL is also much more pleasant than the Air China flight from PEK. The flight leaves from a reasonably-located gate, not the last gate at the end of the furthest reach of the terminal that PEK always seems to assign to ULN flights. It’s really hard to fight the sense of a imperial Chinese attitude toward Mongolia during the PEK transfer and the gate assignment is part of that. Other elements: the CA flight is always the oldest plane in their fleet, last night was a modern, very pleasant plane. KAL hires Mongolians as flight attendants, so all on-board announcements are made in Korean, English, and Mongolian. Even though you would think it would be easier for CA to find Mongolian-speaking Chinese flight attendants (even if it is Inner Mongolian) than KAL, I’ve never heard a word of Mongolian on CA flights, nor any attempts by their staff to cater to the many Mongolians that travel with them. I also took note that the flight arrived precisely on time, despite the usual sidewind/turbulence at ULN.

I arrived at ULN late at night which always reminds me of my first trip in 2004 (I think, and not counting a 1992 Transsiberian stop). It’s always slightly surreal, too, to drive into Ulaanbaatar from the airport at night.

Khaan-Uul District

It’s really amazing to see how the whole stretch of Ulaanbaatar between ULN and the bridge over the Tuul has developed.

One of the curiosities that struck me last night is that most of this area doesn’t have a lot of gers in it.

There’s probably an easy/obvious answer to why that would be (please, let me know in comments!), but it is striking. Yes, the area is relatively far away from the centre of Ulaanbaatar, but so is much of the Western end of Songinokhairkhan and there is lots of ger sprawl there. Something about being on the North side of the mountains, so in the shade? Something about the airport or about the Naadam horse racing course?

Of the various directions out from central Ulaanbaatar, this is one of the areas that is developing mostly by contemporary construction, not by people “voting with their ger” to move here. Thus there are lots of tall buildings sprouting up including the International School, etc.

Some new (to me) developments I noticed last night:

  • are the streetlights blinking on-and-off in a coordinated way? Is that a desired discotheque-effect (though it seems of limited benefit to drivers/pedestrians)? Or (more likely, I think), is this faulty wiring?
  • when there are traffic lights in the middle of an otherwise deserted stretch of road to allow pedestrians to cross to busstops, that’s a great thing. When those lights aren’t button-activated but on a timer and thus give pedestrians a green light in the middle of the night when there don’t seem to be any pedestrians, that frustrates drivers, and few will stop.
  • there’s a brand-new, very nice-looking Sansar supermarket on the North side of the airport road now.
  • the Hunnu Mall was still dark last night and it didn’t look like it was close to opening, or at least not closer than it looked late last year.

Coming into Central Ulaanbaatar

That whole section from the Tuul bridge to Peace Bridge looks so different now.

One part that is particularly striking is what used to be the traffic circle near the Olympic building

Here’s my immediate impression I tweeted last night:

Given my past (and hopefully future) involvement with the National Olympic Committee, I’m a bit dismayed by this loss of prominence.

I also noted that the Shangri-La is still dark and unfinished.

The apparent lack of city planning is continuing to produce strange concoctions of structures and streets in weird configurations.

On the Street

Speaking of street lamps (see above): I did notice that a number of the street lamps in central Ulaanbaatar seem to be LED lights. I haven’t noticed even one of those in Canada, so if my amateur observation is right at all, a case of leapfrogging technology.

I continue to be fascinated by the varieties of cars that show up on Ulaanbaatar streets.

When I was a kid, the car that would have been voted least likely to be adorned with flame stickers or a wing of any kind, might have been the Volvo Station Wagon, car of choice for all academics and other nerds. Well, today, the Toyota Prius might win that particular vote at least until you see versions of Priuses on Ulaanbaatar streets. Not only do some body panels seem to have a tendency to rip, but they also seem to get the tinted-window and fancy hubcaps treatment with the same frequency as all other cars. Note to self: check whether is still available as a domain name…

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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