Guest Post: Mongolian Visuals – Capturing the City in Rapid Changes

By Mend-Amar Baigalmaa

In December 2019, when the decision to demolish the Natural History Museum was announced, many residents of the city fought with the slogan #SaveTheMuseum, and professionals led by G. Ochbayar—researcher of the Ulaanbaatar City Museum appealed to the court to keep the building and not to demolish it, unfortunately, the action was unsuccessful. The memories of many residents of the city who visited museums when they were kids have been destroyed by the demolition. I believe its residents of the Ulaanbaatar and their memories make are the city. This event led, my wife and I, to create the social media page Mongolian Visuals in January 2020 to share those memories through photographs, especially for the younger generation of Mongolia.

Mongolia is the 19th largest country in the world and the 7th largest in Asia, which covers an area of 1,564,116 square kilometres. And the fact that, half of the population lives in the capital of city, Ulaanbaatar, is a huge problem. To that extent, it was a shame to see a bunch tight packed buildings being built on public property such as school grounds, children’s playgrounds, and any space that was close to the city centre. And when the spaces ran out, Ulaanbaatar’s old and historic buildings were destroyed and soulless new tall buildings were built in their place.


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Short History of Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar—the city on the steppes has a history that extends back more than 380 years, and even with that extensive much of the netizens have recollection of that past. The most vivid memory most of us know only reaches back a few decades. The city is rapidly changing in front of our eyes, and our – admittedly – short collective memory is deteriorating as new changes brought about by poor urban planning have made the city increasingly uninhabitable, with increased smog and traffic congestions. When Mongolia became the second communist country in the world to declare the People’s Republic of Mongolia in 1924, the capital city Urga was renamed as Ulaanbaatar, which means Red Hero. And this Red Hero is unique because this new city enabled traditional nomadic Mongolians to adopt the settlement culture.

Subsequently, in 1946, after World War II, large-scale construction works began in Ulaanbaatar, with the construction of Sukhbaatar square and many other surrounding buildings, and the general plan of the city began to be implemented in stages to accommodate more than 500,000 residents. In the late 1980s, the communist regime collapsed in many countries, and Mongolia has not been spared. Since the democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolians have been able to own private property, travel freely abroad, and engage in multilateral free trade.


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Ulaanbaatar in transition period

When I first moved to Ulaanbaatar as two-year-old with my mom from Germany, where I was born, the city was in the process of gradually transitioning to capitalism, with new shops selling electronics, souvenirs, and hairdressers all on the first floor of its old socialist-era apartments. And I grew up during this rapid transition in the mid-’90s. The first things caught my eye from that time were that the old model buses and trolleybuses of the Soviet LIAZ, ZIU, and Czechoslovak Karosa, which were introduced during communism and were still used in Ulaanbaatar. Slowly but surely most of the soviet era buses got beaten out and was replaced by Korean Hyundai and Japanese Nissan buses. You could have still seen some old soviet buses in the city till the 2010s but there are no longer around.

One of the other things that represented this shift was how eager Mongolians were at the time to adopt western fashion and music, particularly hip-hop and alternative rock music, which spread quickly among young people and can be seen in the photos. As the listeners of this new genre of music increased, so did how people dressed, especially young Mongolians started wearing baggy jeans and clothes similar to that of Hip-hop culture in the USA, which was very much a separation of traditional Mongolian clothing of Deels and boots or just a suit tie that was common in the communist era. However, now there is almost a shift in Mongolians toward embracing Mongolian traditional clothing style.


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Sins of the Modern Revolutionist

Some of what I mentioned are still a common sight today but not the ones that should matter the most. One constant in the 1990s was that most people still lived in old communist apartment buildings, and from the apartments, you could see the ger district and smoke from coal-fired stoves bellowed hazy smog as young children went to nearby wells to get water, but in the 1990s, the ger district had actual Mongolian gers, and now most of the inhabitants have four walled houses. Apart from this, it is especially hard to find images that actually show all of this during that time, but with the few available images, they tell so much.

As a matter of fact, Mongolia had a history of successfully preserving many of its visual publications and images of communist times before the 1990s. Most of the images made in the communist era are now housed in national archives, museums, universities, and other government institutions. However, it abandoned the practice of preserving images from its past, and many images from early democratic Mongolia may have been lost. Because most of the posters from the early democratic era in the 1990s were difficult to find or were simply lost as the former institutions stopped doing what they were best at, the posters that I found were mostly kept by individuals. Many of the posters was preserved by Irja Halász, one of the first foreign press journalists to cover Mongolia’s transition from communism to democracy and later we made the book Posters of Mongolia in Transition.


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What is Mongolian Visuals

Mongolian Visuals currently has 46.6K Instagram followers and over 21K Facebook followers, with photos ranging from Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar during the socialist and democratic eras to historical buildings, culture, and fine arts. And Mongolian Visuals is registered as NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), and we have become available now to implement projects in wider areas. The main objectives of the NGO are to raise public awareness of intellectual property, especially about copyrighted images, to promote urban culture through photographs, and to categorize all the photos related to Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar.

About Mend-Amar

Mend-Amar has a background in Graphic Design and Multimedia. His research fields are mostly in urban photography and posters. Besides curating Mongolian Visuals, he is also a co-host of the podcast Live from Red Hero. He is an alumnus of the ACM (Arts Council of Mongolia) Fellowship Program, and his team successfully held a photo exhibition called Unseen Ulaanbaatar within the program. He aims to study for his master’s degree in urban culture and photography in the near future and keep going with what he does now.

Translation by: Anand Tumurtogoo

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
This entry was posted in Anand Tumurtogoo, Architecture, Change, Curios, Heritage, History, Mend-Amar Baigalmaa, Society and Culture, Ulaanbaatar. Bookmark the permalink.

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