Notes From an Expedition: Gers in the Big City


by David A. Andelman

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia—Five years ago, Zaya came to the Mongolian capital from the nation's remote northwest—swapping her ger, a flat round Mongolian felt tent, in the isolated countryside for another in the heart of a sprawling slum on the outskirts of this increasingly congested urban landscape.

Zaya had lost her entire herd of sheep, cows, and goats (cashmere)—virtually her entire wealth—in a dzug, one of the rare, but ferocious winter storms that sweep across rural Mongolia every six or eight years, decimating herds and livelihoods. Six winters ago, herders in Hovsgol province—an immense tract of high mountains, stunning lakes, and brutal winters—were the victims of a particularly nastydzug, sending thousands fleeing to what they fervently hoped would be the greener pastures of UB as the capital is known, only to be sadly disappointed.

“I could not find any jobs in Hovsgol,” she says. “It’s not just the animals, it’s the dzug. No matter how many animals you have, if there is the dzug it is impossible."

When she arrived, she had just enough savings to buy a modest ger on the outskirts of the capital. Eventually, she found a part-time job as a cashier, which requires little more skill than the ability to make change and read numbers (more than 95 percent of Mongolian are literate, one of the more remarkable legacies of seven decades of communist rule), and a husband—a fellow refugee of Hovsgol. But now she has two children, aged two and four, “so I have to stay home now and care for the baby, she continues.

“How is your life now compared with then?” a visitor asks. A long pause as she looks on into the distance. “There is no difference,” she sighs. When her children are old enough, she is determined that they will go to school, but that is 10 miles and a long bus ride away each day. They still live in a ger. Her husband is a carpenter. “My dream is to have a house,” she continues. But right now, all she has is some electricity—and her dreams.

We’ve come across her with a small, rusting luggage cart and two grimy gasoline cans filled with water that she’s hauling up a steep slope to her ger. There’s no running water in the community. So each day, she has to walk down to a small brick building that’s the water source. The city has drilled a well there and for a few tugruks (a penny or so), villagers can fill their water jugs. We’re not talking pure potable water—it must still be boiled before it can be used for human consumption. But it’s all they have.

Each month, Zaya, her husband and their two children receive a stipend of about $20 from the federal government—a handout engineered by the National Peoples’ Party [NPP], the successor to the communist party when the Soviets ruled this nation, and which now holds a majority in the parliament. For now, it’s all that stands between Zaya and pure penury. “It’s 30 percent of our income each month,” she calculates. “With it, I can buy rice, flour. But we’d rather have the government give my husband some carpentry tools, then perhaps we could make a decent living.” Right now, he goes from short-term job to job. Home for 10 days, he’s just left for Baganor, deep in the countryside, for two days of work. And their lot is better than many of her neighbors in Ulaanbaatar. Only about half have jobs of any sort.

The predicament of Zaya and her husband—and that of dozens of others we talk with during out visit—raises a critical question that is dividing the nation and its leadership—handouts versus infrastructure. “This is a waste of our national resources,” sneers a senor aide to the president, also the leader of the opposition Democratic party which emerged after Mongolia was freed from Soviet, hence communist, domination two decades ago. “It is a misuse of our national resources. We should be building schools, housing, jobs, not squandering our money on short-term handouts.”  Still, the handouts are a potent political force that helps keep the NPP in power.

And indeed there are some who still see some progress against poverty, even in the most depressed areas of Ulaanbaatar. The United States Ambassador to Mongolia, Jonathan Addleton, measures progress in the ger camps by “the number of tin roofs.” The number of these red or blue roofs marking new houses has been increasing with every visit, he says during an interview. Still, that’s just the sort of house that Zaya and her husband can only dream about. For every new tin roof, it seems there are still more gers, climbing out of the blighted valley into the hills, stretching ever further from the bright lights and the big jobs downtown—for many a lifetime away, certainly out of sight and for the moment at least, out of grasp.

Indeed, Mongolia is rapidly becoming three nations. The big question is how the government might manage to bridge these gaps—before it is too late. Will the money be able to trickle down, spreading outward from the sharply-dressed crowds of young people strolling through Sukhbaatar Square in downtown Ulaanbaatar to the misery of the ger camps beyond the ring road? 

Mongolia is rapidly becoming a nation of young people, and all too often, young and unemployed. About two-thirds of the population is under age 30, while 36 percent are under 14. This is also a nation of extraordinary contrasts and conflicts. How its leaders—political, business, academic—mediate those efforts in the coming years, indeed in a frighteningly short period of time—will largely determine its success or failure.

Right now, foreign investment bankers, consultants, and wildcat prospectors rub elbows, at times degenerating into outright brawls, in a half dozen western style hotels and restaurants. But so far, there is little to show for all this action.

Everyone, it seems, wants something out of Mongolia—but how much are these folks willing to give back? This is a nation with a gold-rush mentality, and it’s hard not to think back to California in 1848 as the most apt comparison.

With gas prices hovering between five and six dollars a gallon, traffic is still snarled across the capital in vast honking lines that begin at dawn and last late into each evening—an extraordinary waste of oil and human resources that the government seems powerless to prevent. A subway is desperately needed. But one top Mongolian business executive with close government ties concedes it’s still in the hands of the consultants. Not even, yet, on the drawing board.

Half the population of Mongolia is already in and around the capital—and no other population center seems remotely in a position to compete in attracting those forced to leave the countryside. Not surprisingly, building is proceeding all but unchecked and unmonitored. The skyline of Ulaanbaatar has turned into a skeletal imitation of Dubai four years ago, before that bubble burst. While many provide jobs for some of the new arrivals from the countryside, at least half the workers on many job sites are Chinese immigrants of questionable status. So while a home in such projects remains far beyond the wildest dreams of those building them, who will be their customers or their tenants?

“Oh, we don’t really worry about a bubble here,” smiles a local businessman confidently. “After all we have more valuable resources per capita beneath our soil than any other nation on earth.”

The question is whether those resources can be plumbed in time—to help Zaya and her family in their lifetimes, or before desperation and unrest turn promise into chaos. 



David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, is winding up the sixth leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. Friday evening he took the Trans Mongolian Railway from Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, to Hohhut, capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. 

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, Training Day, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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