Countryside Impressions

On recent visits, I have generally been stuck in Ulaanbaatar. In late October, however, I had the opportunity to travel out to Arvaikheer, the capital of Uvurkhangai and to collect some impressions from this brief foray into the countryside.

As far as I recall, this is also the first longer trip I’ve taken by car into the countryside outside of the summer months other than a mine site visit some two hours out of Ulaanbaatar.

As is the case with my recent Ulaanbaatar impressions (Sept 2015May 2015Nov 2014May 2014 |Nov 2013), this post is quite impressionistic and not an attempt at a deeper analysis, rather a record of things I noticed.

Roads and Traffic

The expansion of the network of paved roads throughout the country is almost as astonishing as the number of intact sidewalks in central Ulaanbaatar these days. However, the road to Arvaikheer has been in good shape for some time, I recall driving along this way in 2009 already.

Roads in the countryside still offer many surprises. My favourite are the seemingly somewhat random signs that appear in odd spots, like no passing signs after many kilometers of no such signs. Sometimes these signs seem similar to some of the new intersections in Ulaanbaatar (for example Seoul St/PM Tserendorj St), i.e. the overactive graduating thesis of a traffic engineer.

Cars in the countryside can be divided into three broad types:

  • minivans and minibusses (most common: the large Hi-Ace models, old Russian minivans (Purgon), and some Delica)
  • SUVs (large Landcrusiers still dominate the Mongolian landscape, though there seem to be more Mercedes G-Wagen these days; curiously, Range Rovers are quite visible in the city, but don’t seem to venture into the countryside, perhaps because of their reputation of being too high-strung for Mongolian reality)
  • various sedans: Hyundai accents are still quite common in the countryside, though they seem to have been replaced by Prius’ in the city as the most common model

SUVs are always passing the other types at high speeds.

The other category of traffic is motorcycles. Mongolians living in the countryside really must have thick (facial) skin for motorcycle riding. They are often bundled up with their entire body and hands, but the cheeks typically remain bare. Yes, motorcycles are exactly flying along at 100+ km/h, but still in temperatures near zero, my face gets quite cold even on my bicycle.

Somewhat surprisingly, there seems to be a boom in gas station construction. While my sense on previous trips had been that there were just about enough gas stations to make it possible for everyone to drive from one population centre to the next (aimag or soum centre), now there seem to be many more gas stations, many of them newly constructed. Clearly, there are more cars in the countryside now, but still, why so many gas stations and often in clusters?

Another area where obedience of traffic laws has increased, is that Mongolians seemingly don’t seem to try to avoid the toll booths any more by going off-road just before the booth and getting back onto the road just after. Perhaps this is only the case for the Ulaanbaatar-Arvaikheer route, but still.


The contrast with summer drives to/through the countryside was clear in that there were far fewer goats/sheep herds close to the road and many more horses. Some of that is probably the particular route I took (Uvurkhangai being famous for its race horses, of course), but most likely this is because smaller animals are kept closer to winter residences which are typically tucked away in the shelter close to Southeastern hillsides that are more protected from Siberian winds. Larger animals, especially horses, roam on their own much more and thus appear in greater numbers close to the road.

If you’ve ever seen vultures by the road in Mongolia, you will recall that they appear to be roughly person-sized. They are huge!

We did also see a sand-coloured fox scurrying through some low brush, as well as some few camels closer to Arvaikheer where the landscape begins to shift to a drier, more brush dominated form already as one approaches the Gobi. We also saw some pigs which are a somewhat rarer sight in Mongolia.

Even after a good number of trips to the countryside, one of the most impressive (i.e., making an impression) “sights” is still the absence of fences. In North America and Europe domesticated animals are closely associated with some method of keeping them in place, typically fences. We are not even supposed to walk our dogs “off-leash”. By contrast, Mongolian domesticated animals roam freely, unencumbered by fencing, and often not terribly bothered by passing cars either.


There are a number of aimag capitals that are quite attractive. Uliastay and Tsetserleg come to mind, right away. Both are nestled up against mountains (Tsertserleg) or surrounded by mountains (Uliastay, also quite close to the majestic Otgontenger) and they have nice central town areas.

Arvaikheer, the capital of Uvurkhangai is not situated in a particularly pretty spot. Most Mongolian towns are situated in spots where there was a monastery at some point, though many of those were destroyed in the 1930s of course, so that the reason for a location in particular spots is not always apparent. Arvaikheer has some small hills behind it and does look out over a vast valley, a location that many monasteries also favour.

It was home to a Soviet military base, and a Mongolian base is still located close by. That base in turn is somewhat famous for its giant analog calendar. On a reasonably high hill next to one part of the base, near the top, white rocks are assembled to read out today’s date. It is very visible and quite impressive a sight from the road. If you’re wondering who “sets” that calendar, I wondered the same thing some years ago and was told that it is army recruits who climb up at dawn everyday to change the date.

[I digress, but… Military hazing that is also the subject of the recent Mongolian movie “Top Secret” (Маш нууц). It chronicles an incident in Darkhan in the 1970s that most Mongolians seem to “know” about while it remains undocumented where army recruits took over a base after battles between different cohorts of recruits (military service at the time was mandatory for 3 years), and the army ultimately had to intervene. Good film! And, coincidentally, the actor who played the general in the movie was on my flight ULN-INC)]

The other main attraction to Arvaikheer is the horse shrine/monument nearby that is a tribute to Uvurkhangai’s reputation for race horse breeding and some of those horses.

One much less attractive feature of Arvaikheer is the lack of a central heating plant. It seems that Sukhbaatar (Selenge aimag) is the only aimag capital with such a plant. In Arvaikheer – as in other aimag and soum centres – heat is supplied by neighbourhood heating plants. Apparently, the filtration technology employed at these plants is not even rudimentary.

The fact that Arvaikheer sits on a relatively open spot means that much of this black smoke blows away fairly quickly.

I’m delighted that I am now involved in a project with the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute that probably means that I will have a chance to visit other aimags more regularly as well. The Mongolian countryside really is gorgeous!

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 toots and tweets @jdierkes
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