This weekend, we welcomed fall temperatures in Mongolia and finally had a chance to go on a “Ger Area Tour.” In case you’re not familiar with UB (and I realise not too many outside of Mongolia are!), urbanisation has also made its way to this sparsely populated country.
A little over 3 million people live in Mongolia (and just for reference, Mongolia is just a little smaller than the state of Alaska, which by the way is very big!). As we ironically learned the night before at a Trivia Night, Mongolia measures 1,565,000 sq km … so yep, it’s a pretty big place with very few residents. More than half of the entire country’s population lives in UB and there is a steady increase of nomads heading to the city in search for a better life (stay tuned for an upcoming documentary on this process).
The growing influx of residents has led to an ever expanding area called “the ger district” that spans pretty much the entire north part of UB. A “ger” (pronounced gare with a “g” like in “girl”) is the typical Mongolian felt tent that is surprisingly insulated and cozy. Once land is claimed, residents pitch their gers (this only takes about 1-2 hours, not more) and build a fence around their new territory.
There is no running water and limited electricity in the ger district and now, more than 60% of the entire city’s population lives here with very little infrastructure (think schools, medical facilities, adequate and safe water supply). Due to the extreme cold in winter, ger residents heat their homes by burning coal which leads to horrendous air pollution (be on the look-out for a forthcoming article in the Foreign Service Journal on the issue, written by yours truly … and yes, I’ll link to it here when it is published).
A few years ago, a new NGO emerged in the ger district with the idea of wanting to create social change by creating maps of the area and working with citizens to identify important issues. Run by energetic young people and funded by international organisations, the Ger Community Mapping Center has created hundreds of maps showing the needs of the district and has been using them to advocate for change.
About a year ago, this group started to organise small tours with the idea to bring UB residents (not tourists) to the ger district to show them what life is like there and promote local businesses. Of course we had to sign up for one of these tours which by the way, is extremely community-driven and very much takes it to heart to not exploit ger residents’ lives by greatly limiting the tour size and frequency.
So this Saturday, the four of us and two friends packed into a tiny van to set a few minutes north of the city we had been calling home for quite some time. We very quickly were transported into a different world.
It was quite obvious as we exited the car and took a look around that we were entering a different world. Of course we were; we all knew that but seeing the vastness of the district and its opposing commercial center booming with sky scrapers (and yes, very much hurting financially) was truly overwhelming. My social scientist heart was beginning to beat faster and faster….
Our guides supplemented the tour by showing relevant maps they created such as the ones that show that there is one (yes, only one!) preschool option for an area covering 16,000 residents or the one highlighting the very limited water wells.
Since gers do not have running water, residents must travel to wells on their own to fetch it – every day. There are government wells that sell safe water at a (for us) cheap price: 1 liter of safe water = 1 MNT ~ 0.00045 US$. But then multiply that number by how much water a family needs on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis and it’s not looking so small anymore especially considering the destitute nature of many residents plus the tanking economy (Mongolia is currently rated as one of the most economically stressed countries). I have been told of local charity efforts that stop by such a well and leave money so that residents do not have to pay for water that day. I love that idea and I am adding it to my local charity initiatives to support.
So yes, safe water is available but then again, there are issues related to carrying the water safely and then, there are the many unsafe wells such as the one pictured below to which residents can go and fill up their canisters without paying.
See the stray dogs around the field of the well? Yes, my public health friends – this is life here.
Next, we headed to a local business “монгол оймс” (Mongolian socks) and were blown away at the variety of local made socks and leg warmers from yak, camel, and sheep wool available for purchase. Of course we had to purchase a bunch.
Interestingly (and sadly), when we opened up our socks at home, we noticed they each had a very distinct smell … of burned coal. Winter might still be a little while away but with dropping temperatures, that (horrible) smell is starting to make its presence known again.
We rounded out our visit at the wonderful initiative called “green lake” or Ногоон нуур. The green lake used to be a quarry (and subsequent landfill) right in the ger district and one man, Ulzii, took it upon himself to clean the area up and create a lake for children to swim/splash in during the summer and ice skate on during the winter. Green lake has quickly grown into a great place for children to get together; he has added small boats and animals for the kids to enjoy and is slowly adding a library as well.
It was a wonderful tour and a great way to experience the ger district. We left with a new understanding of daily life here and as was bound to happen, I left with a new desire to find a way to work with this great organisation.
Cheers from Mongolian fall – and don’t forget to count your lucky stars for having access to electricity and running water.