Change in the Countryside August 2023

By Julian Dierkes

For some years, I have now traced visible changes in Ulaanbaatar on my periodic visits.

I’ve kept a similar list for countryside changes, somewhat less regular as extended visits to the countryside don’t come nearly often enough for me. Earlier notes appeared in July 2023 | June 2019 | October 2017June 2017 | October 2015. Additions/edits to that list are marked in italics below, candidates for omissions in strikethrough.

Note that my last list appeared in July 2023, so this is an incremental update to that list.

Visible Manifestations of Social Change in the Countryside

What has Arrived?

  • Guardrails in some curves on major cross-country roads
  • While street signs (speed limits, warnings of curves, etc.) used to be a curious rarity (“when there hasn’t been a sign for 100km, why this one?”) they now seem to appear in clusters.
  • The state is reasserting its authority in some places. Roadside safety inspections of vehicles have returned. On a drive between Baruun-Urt and Chinggis (<3 hrs) we were stopped by police three times: marmot inspection (we weren’t carrying), tire disinfection, seatbelt check. The latter was really a bit of a local police extortion attempt.
  • Fences around large parcels of lands. As far as I can tell these are hayed for winter fodder as nothing seems to be planted there. Fences keep out animals in this case to let grass grow.
  • Pretty significant agricultural activity, esp. around Darkhan and Erdenet, but also towards Kharkhorin. Many locations and huge fields that I don’t remember seeing on first visit to the area in 2008. Entire valleys dedicated to wheat and rapeseed in particular in 2023.
  • I’ve long heard discussion that many of the projects carried out with the Local Development Fund were public toilets. I have now seen some of these!
  • Not all fences around xashaa (property lots) are wood anymore. There are some prefab concrete slabs, corrugated metals, etc. Some residents are also integrating shipping containers into their fence.
  • Ger district conversions in towns. We saw this in Baruun-Urt for example.
  • Virtually all aimag districts now seem to have at least one tall building (8+ stories).
  • New, modern houses are appearing in soum centres. Only buildings in towns that don’t have a big wooden fence around them.
  • “No littering” signs.
  • Motorcycle helmets. Perhaps a greater attention to personal safety more generally as some of the boats we rode offered life vests. Riding helmets for tourist horse/camel rides as well.
  • Even soum centres have significant tree planting programs going on. Freshly-planted trees in so many public and private spaces.
  • Bike infrastructure in towns and many kids riding around on bikes.
  • Very communicative drivers. For example, signal right means, “it’s clear, you can pass” and signal left “no, don’t pass”. Sometimes you get flashing hazards as a thank you, but they can also mean “animals in the road”. It was less clear to me what the flashing headlights mean. Sometimes they seemed to be the oddly-universal, “speed trap” ahead, but sometimes there wasn’t a speed trap after that. While you’re passing, flashing headlights mean, “cutting it a bit close there, buddy”.
  • Thule-style roof boxes in cars travelling between cities and towns. Roof-mounted canopies to roll out for camping have also appeared.
  • Real coffee has appeared at ger camps.
  • Some ger camps have also embraced green houses.
  • There are Khushuur (Хушуур) stands everywhere along the big roads.
  • We actually witnessed sun screen being applied to a Mongolian child!
  • I had heard mention of herders using their Prius to move a herd, but actually saw that. Highlight was when the door of the Prius opened to bark at a recalcitrant sheep.
  • Herders listening to podcasts. Well, at least I saw some herders with earplugs.
  • Ger-customized wall carpets.

What has Disappeared, or at least, Nearly Disappeared?

  • The clever move to simply drive cross-country around toll booths on major roads.
  • Satellite phones. Still necessary for country-side connectivity around 2010, now I haven’t seen one in some time.
  • 500ml water bottles. There has been a real push toward refilling from larger bottles to reduce waste. Still waiting for personal bowls to make a bigger comeback.

What will Appear in the Future?

  • Much more directional street markers.
  • Cross-country biking, hiking, and riding routes away from major roads. Drives designated as scenic routes.
  • Some kind of ultra- or other sonic device that will scare herds away from roads.

What will Disappear in the Future?

  • Roughly in the 2000s, I would guess, more cars were beginning to show up in the countryside, but road-construction was not revving up yet. That meant that on big cross-country routes, entire valleys were scarred by multiple parallel tracks. Along the paved sections of major roads, these scars are slowly disappearing in the landscape. That is a very slow process, however, so even in spots where new roads now provide a good way of driving through valleys/over passes, the scars remain.
  • At construction sites, the paved roads are often simply blocked with large dirt heaps across the lanes. Effective, but scary at night.
  • Greeting of official visitors at city gates.
  • Fancy streetlight design must be a state socialist heritage somehow along with other forms of public art. There are vaguely futuristic designs throughout Mongolia, but they are even more surprising in provincial towns than in Ulaanbaatar. Somehow, I don’t think that they will continue to be built.
  • Lumber bridges on major roads. As roads are being built across the country, these – somewhat scary – bridges appear to be disappearing, though they are sometimes visible just up or downriver from newly constructed bridges.

What won’t Disappear in the Medium Term?

  • Composite electricity poles. In the countryside these consist of a concrete base to which a wooden pole is tied with wire/brackets which ends in a triangle that has space for three attached cables. Metal poles have appeared, but I know similar composite poles from the Yukon and Alaska, so they  must be well-adapted to extreme temperatures and will thus last.
  • Litter. Growth in domestic tourism will make the countryside more littered, but awareness of littering will ultimately build. Such a blight on Mongolia!
  • Buried tires to mark property lines. It seems that there are so many practical reasons (cheap, indestructible, visible to off-roading drivers) that this practice will continue.

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
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