By Julian Dierkes
Yes, another periodic visit to Ulaanbaatar, yes once again too short a visit, but here are some immediate impressions along the lines of observations on previous visits that I noted down: May 2015 | November 2014 | May 2014 |November 2013.
Cityscape and Traffic
– I arrived in the middle of the night and flew out before first light, so I didn’t see the airport road during the day, but it seems to change almost as quickly as the immigration and departure hall at Chinggis Khaan (of course!) airport. For the airport changes, Tsogoo suggested “nomadic reformism” as an explanation. I think we might have to expand our policy series to feature this perspective! Back to the airport road, development along this road is continuing though the large mall certainly looked quite dark. Lots of gas stations, too. And, a new row of trees along the southside to complement that poor stand of JICA-planted trees that have been more or less alive on the northside of the road for seemingly decades.
– I don’t think I had previously been in Ulaanbaatar just before/on the beginning of the academic year. There was a noticeable and seemingly overnight increase in traffic to celebrate the beginning of the school year. This also coincided with the introduction of jaywalking fines for crossing the street outside of crosswalks. According to Y Otgonbayar, an individual from the province he represents in parliament, Bulgan, had beat me to the punch in becoming the first person fined, but oh my, how the world has changed when you see Mongolians waiting for a pedestrian light to turn green even though traffic is jammed in front of them. The jaywalking fine threat is unfortunate, of course, as the return of traffic makes downtown Ulaanbaatar safer for pedestrians who can cross in between stopped cars.
– With increased traffic and the disappearance of open areas in downtown Ulaanbaatar, parking is growing scarce. I noticed for the first time that the small hotel where I like to stay now charges hourly for use of its (very central) parking lot.
– There still is an astonishing number of hotel and commercial buildings under construction in central Ulaanbaatar. Hard to imagine what hordes of conventioneers, businesspeople and tourists are meant to fill all these buildings. The Shangri-La appears to be sort of open, couldn’t say that it looks particularly attractive from the outside, but early reports are of high quality on the inside.
– The beginning of the school year is clearly treated as a holiday and it was wonderful to walk in central Ulaanbaatar between appointments. Lots of kids on the hands of their (grand)parents in brand-new school uniforms, the girls with fancy hair, chattering away excitedly, reporting on the first day of school, I imagine. Teenagers also walking along in newly uniformed groups, looking like they were deep into catching up on events that may have occurred over the summer. Wonderful atmosphere.
– In several conversations I found general astonishment and surprise about the removal of MPP ministers from cabinet earlier in the summer confirming my own sense of the current political landscape. The consensus on identifiable causes/explanations: DP in-fighting. The tug-of-war between УИХ Speaker Enkhbold Z and PM Saikhanbileg Ch. continues, now focused on the naming of new ministers in front of parliament. Apparently, the DP caucus is demanding that these are all double-deel DP MPs.
– While the electoral system for next year’s УИХ election appears to be on track for some continuity (28 proportional, 48 first-past-the-post with some multi-member districts), there is some speculation about an early (March) or late (October) election instead of the usual late-June date. The argument for early centres on the DPs inability to govern (with the common expectation that we will see more changes in government until the election). Speculation about moving the election to a later date is in part rooted in the July ASEM summit which will clearly have much of the government (and Ulaanbaatar) preoccupied from some time in the late Spring with preparations.
– Several conversations highlighted the deepening governmental engagement with China, beyond the symbolically important and visible participation of Mongolian troops in the Sept 3 military-triumphalism-event in Beijing.