If you lived in the city: Ulaanbaatar
Half of all Mongolians live in the capital city: Ulaanbaatar. Many of their houses and apartments look like houses and apartments in most cities of the world. If you live in a city, whether you are in Delhi, Sidney, or New York, this street probably looks at least a bit familiar! The signs on the small stores may be in Mongolian and English instead of your own language, but the pattern of big apartment buildings and some small local shops may not be much different from what you see every day. The inside of those apartments is probably pretty familiar too: a kitchen, a family area with a television, a bedroom or two, all have similar furnishings to apartments in many cities.
What homes might you see in Ulaanbaatar that aren’t quite like other places? Even in the capital city you find many people living in gers (often called yurts in English). These round tents are warm and relatively inexpensive.
Mongolia is a country with few people and lots of land, so each family is allowed to claim a piece of land as theirs. In places like Chicago or London, a family would find it expensive and difficult to find a place to put a large tent. Laws called “zoning laws” also would stop you from living in a ger in these cities; there are rules about the kinds of buildings you can use as a permanent home and about where you can build. In cities like New York, Delhi or Beijing, people are crowded together and land is scarce. In Ulaanbaatar you see gers even in the middle of areas with large apartment buildings.
The Ger District: Living Off of “the Grid”
An area called the “Ger District” surrounds the city on three sides. In this district mainly lower-income people live in gers and other inexpensive housing. Over half of the people in Ulaanbaatar live in this area. Most of them have no connection to the electrical power grid.
Ulaanbaatar ger district, photographs © J. Orchlon, all rights reserved
The Mongolian government and many organizations are trying to make the ger district a better place for people to live by creating parks and improving schools. The biggest problem, though, for the ger district and the whole city is heating.
Ulaanbaatar is said to be the coldest capital city in the world! No one can live in an unheated home in the Mongolian winter. In the ger district people burn smoky coal in stoves to heat their homes. This type of coal doesn’t cost much money. Coal that doesn’t create so much smoke is too expensive for many people. Because there are so many people who burn this raw coal for heating, the air throughout the city becomes dirty and dangerous.
This winter the government will be distributing cleaner-burning coal to try to improve this situation, which makes some people very sick, especially children. They hope that until they can connect this area to electrical power so that they can start to use other types of heating, better coal will improve the air for everyone.