Atmospheric Observations

By Julian Dierkes

My August trip to Mongolia was the first visit after over 30 months of global COVID19 restrictions. I have already taken note of some of the visual and consumer changes I observed in Ulaanbaatar. But, I also want to share some of my observations of the post-COVID19 (we hope) overall mood.

Retail Businesses

One of my great surprises was that I recognized many retail businesses in downtown Ulaanbaatar. I had half-expected that small retail operations would have been most impacted by some of the restrictions in the first COVID-year, but my impression was that I recognized most stores in walking around the downtown core. I can say little about areas outside of the downtown core, or in Sainshand and Tsogttsetsii where I visited on this trip as well, simply because I don’t visit there regularly enough to have a strong sense of the cityscape and would thus notice changes at a casual glance.

I would include businesses such as restaurants, many of the souvenir/traditional goods stores around the Department Store, some of the kiosks and smaller shops along roads that I walk regularly. Obviously, this is merely an impressionistic observation, but it did surprise me. Of course, this was a happy surprise as it made feel Ulaanbaatar as familiar as on previous visits.

Young People Leaving

Many younger and older Mongolians have left Mongolia for higher education or work purposes for many years. I have met many Mongolians living in Vancouver, but also in Germany. My experience had always been that a surprising number of these Mongolians who are largely going abroad for higher education was keen in returning to Vancouver. That was certainly the case in the 2000s and early 2010s but shifted somewhere around 2015, I would guess. The most frequently named reasons are air pollution and education (in the case of those Mongolians studying abroad who have kids).

What was new to me on this summer’s visit to Ulaanbaatar was that a number of people mentioned that their younger colleagues were looking for any opportunity to leave. Not to go somewhere temporarily for work or to seek further education/training, but to actually leave Mongolia. I heard this several times and from people working in significant business operations, thus most likely offering jobs with decent pay and some advancement opportunities. Is this another version of the frustration with the lack of results of government action apparently expressed by demonstrators this April? Was this an observation that was only new to me? That’s always hard to tell as the number of conversations and the kind of people I meet are obviously limited, but it struck me as something that I hadn’t heard expressed as drastically before.

Who Is Spying on Me?

It is kind of amusing how my own interests and activities are perceived by Mongolians over the years. For example, in late 2016, I returned from a visit with the impression that many people I spoke to assumed/asserted that I was some kind of spy. In the same post, I noted that a number of people I met with in late Spring 2019 were concerned with my biases. At the time, I tried to respond to this impression by pointing to factors that enable me to retain my independence and also factors that might persuade readers of that independence, or at least look for evidence of a lack of independence.

On this visit, I had a couple of – somewhat humorous – conversations about the likelihood of foreign spy agencies, but also diplomatic missions in Ulaanbaatar, keeping some kind of eye on me. So, let me address those of you reading and reporting my analyses in various embassies, but particularly those of China and Russia: I would be very interested in hearing what you make of my analyses and how you see my position. Do you really exist, i.e. is there really someone out there who reads my posts and translates/summarizes them for the consumption of colleagues? Am I breaking the 4th wall of blogging? Will you help me in that? I must apologize, however, I’m somewhat reluctant to come visit you in your embassies, but I’m sure we can identify a nice cafe nearby.

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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