I stayed in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia for three weeks in July of 2018. It was a rest stop after hitchhiking across Siberia with fellow AP writer, Igor Sobolev.
My natural interest when I visit a city is to evaluate it from a living and working perspective. I have a frontiersman’s spirit and instinctively look for settlement potential as I wander. I spent most of my time getting to know local people and scouting the areas outside of the tourist bubble.
Ulaan Baatar has always intrigued me, so I gave it more attention that usual.
The first thing you’ll notice about Ulaan Baatar is how out of place it is. By car it is 8 hours away from the nearest (big) city – Ulan-Ude in Russia. That 8 hour drive is through absolute wide-open, barely populated land. Emerging from the steppe and into the urban sprawl was jarring. UB was more modern and developed than I expected.
Most striking, you can see the surrounding mountains from within the city. The mountains, and the weather that rolls off of them, never let you forget that UB is only a dot in a vast land. The architecture and city layout, however, are nothing to write home about. But that’s OK, this is a wild place, not Venice.
The center is nice but the quality deteriorates quickly as you go out to the working class neighborhoods. It is a city built by nomads, so if you put it in the historical perspective of ‘their first try at city building,’ it’s not so bad.
In the center, people on the streets are well dressed and, for the most part, courteous. Most seem down to business and in a hurry to be somewhere. When out in the evenings, you see that that Mongolia is a family oriented country – mostly young families out for dinner instead of single partiers.
Outside of the posh part of town, Mongolia’s poor economy is evident. The people look malaised – nomadic warriors ill-adjusted to urban life and capitalism.
The constant bad traffic is omnipresent and distracting. The number of new, black, Mercedes G-Wagons stacked in traffic shows that that their is an astronomical wealth disparity between those in the city and the nomads outside it.
If there is one thing that I have learned as a nomad and expat it’s that we humans cannot escape being affected (both physically and psychologically) by the environment around us.
- Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital city on Earth! Even in July, I needed a light jacket 50% of the days. Weather changes unpredictably. It rains frequently.
- Locals complain of horrible air pollution. I did not notice this at all in the summer, but apparently it is worse in the winter.
- Relatively clean city. Little to no garbage on the streets like you see in SE Asia. No bad smells due to cleanliness and cold weather.
- Outside the city, the entire country is pristine outdoors, some of the most beautiful land on earth. The summer is so beautiful here it could justify enduring the winter.
Mongolian is one of the coolest sounding languages – very deep and masculine for an Asian language. Unfortunately, it is difficult for most outsiders to reproduce their sounds. Since Mongolian is only spoken in one country, it is hard to justify putting in the effort to learn it.
- Regarding English language prevalence, I usually consult the EF English Proficiency Index as a gauge, but Mongolia isn’t listed in the report.
- Since summer tourism is a big industry, there is a decent population that speaks English. You can get by with day-to-day things in Ulaan Baatar with English, but you will be socially isolated due to the lack of Mongolians that speak English and the almost non-existent expat population. For reference, I found the English language level to be Bangkok/Phom Penh level.
- Many older people speak Russian, but they are aging fast and won’t be around much longer.
Mongolian food is primarily meat, dairy, and carbohydrates. It is hearty and fatty food intended for fueling your body during the winter. Flavors are relatively bland.
If you’re a “meat and potatoes” kind of person, you’ll be fine. The food matched me well as my metabolism requires a lot of calories and animal protein to stay focused. I appreciated the energy dense food. In places like Thailand, I always struggle to feel full – not a problem in Mongolia!
For such a big city there are few options for foreign food. Japanese and Korean restaurants are common, but most other types of cuisine are either unavailable or expensive.
It would be very challenging to live here (and eat out) if you are a vegetarian or have some kind of particular diet. I saw a few vegetarian restaurants but they were spread far apart and expensive. There isn’t a large amount of food choice here.
For more a detailed look at Mongolian cuisine, see the Mongolian Food Guide I created. (It has photos as well as Mongolian and English translations – so a great tool if you travel to Mongolia.)
In my estimation living here long term would be as cheap or cheaper than living in a major city in SE Asia. (Living a comfortable, bachelor lifestyle for about $600-$800/month.) The expensive part is getting here and back.
A few data points:
- Rent: I queried some friends about rent. For a decent bachelor pad, just outside the center, you are looking at $150 – $250. You can be in the city center for about $300 – $450.
- SIM card (brand: Unitel) with 10gb data and call/sms: $6/month
- Taxis: $2 gets you almost anywhere in the city.
- Great (but not luxury) meal/Western food: $8
- Good meal: $4. Filling, quality ingredients, upper middle class atmosphere in restaurant.
- Local style meal $2. Filling, sometimes delicious but relatively cheap ingredients, very simple seating area, working class.
- Note: You get about 3 times as much food/calories for the money than you do in Thailand or Cambodia. One average Mongolian meal = two meals for me.
Note: My evaluation of the safety of this city must include a very dangerous situation I experienced with a taxi driver (in the city center). I will do a full post on this later. The short version is: he tried to rob me, I refused, which led to a kidnapping where I had to pull a knife on him to get away.
I am assuming this encounter was a rare exception since I don’t often hear about violent crime against foreigners in UB. I write the following observations assuming this was an uncommon occurrence.
- Felt totally safe during the day.
- At night, I felt mildly at risk of crime a few times. Things like getting eyeballed by sketchy characters combined with patches of sidewalk that are poorly lit and not well trafficked. However, it was at a low enough level that I would not be discouraged to live in the city center long term.
Outside City Center (working class neighborhoods):
- During the day the only issue I encountered was receiving a lot of stares for standing out. The stares were not always friendly. Considering the poverty, some of that attention could turn criminal if given the opportunity.
- I was told my multiple locals that I would definitely get mugged at night in those areas.
- Mongol men are physically stout and temperamentally aggressive (especially when drunk). (They come by it honestly being descendants of Genghis Khan.) Wrestling is a national sport that EVERY boy learns. Alcoholism is a problem. These three things mean that if you get into an altercation, it won’t go well for you.
- Bus stations had many drunks and obvious pick-pockets eying everyone for an opportunity.
Mobility / Transit
Unfortunately, UB has poor urban planning. There isn’t an efficient grid pattern to the roads, there are many dead ends, and you often have to go far out of your way to make a u-turn.
On top of that, traffic is a serious problem here, even outside of rush hour. This renders automotive transport painful.
Walkability is decent – but of course I was there in the summer, not the winter.
- There are sidewalks almost everywhere in the city. Sidewalks are not cluttered with vendors like in SE Asia. Walkways do not drain well during frequent rains, so waterproof shoes are a must. City maintenance is hit or miss. You will encounter an occasional hazard like an ankle-breaking hole in the road.
- City center is small enough that you can walk to most places.
- Due to the extreme weather – only more robust individuals will enjoy walking here as a routine.
There appeared to be sufficient bus stops and the buses were of decent quality and not overloaded like in 3rd-world countries. Of course, traffic cripples them.
Taxis….Where do I begin? Currently, they are a pain in the ass, but I think they may improve soon if Uber-like apps get adopted. At least they are cheap.
How the taxis currently work:
- There are few official taxis, most are unmarked cars with random people driving them to make extra money.
- You hail a taxi by holding your arm out like a low Nazi salute.
- Random car will stop. Driver will probably speak zero English. Only about 50% of the drivers have the cognitive ability to interpret a map on your phone screen with marked destination.
- As of 2018 few drivers use navigation apps, they get lost often.
- Few taxis have a meter. The honest taxi drivers use their odometer as a meter.
- Standard rate is 1000 Tugriks/km ($0.35/km). This might be higher in extreme traffic, but it is a good rule of thumb. Use a mapping app to determine the number of km’s do your destination. Use this to determine the price you offer the driver.
- $2 gets you almost anywhere in the city.
- Drivers always urge you to get in before negotiating a price. Insist on an agreed price first. If they waste your time just step away from the car and hail another cab.
- Drivers frequently ask for a higher number than the agreed price when you reach the destination. This is why I am always explicitly clear with the price when I get in by typing the number on my phone and showing them.
- Drivers almost never admit to having change, so always carry small bills.
Digital Nomad Infrastructure
Long story short, I think it has some strong potential for the more introverted or adventurous remote workers.
I am working on an entire post on the topic – coming soon.
In Mongolia, the big foreign money is in mining. Mining is dominated by mostly Australian and Canadian companies. I met some of these workers – they make loads of cash.
If you are a young/smart/able-bodied guy, I’d recommend looking into it. See my post on working in the Canadian oil sands. It would be a smart financial move and an adventure.
While I didn’t learn any first hand information about English teaching jobs, I imagine they would be easy to get because of UB’s remote location limiting your competition. There are a lot of Mercedes on the streets, so I suspect native English speaking tutors could get paid well.
Exotic specimens worth an entire post – stay tuned, it’s coming!
- Anecdotal, but my Mongolian friend broke his leg, and according to him “Mongolian hospitals are so bad he almost died from complications that they caused.” He had to sell his business to raise the money to go to China for life saving treatment.
- Major pharmacies in the city center have VERY SMALL selection of medicines.
- Pharmacists in city center speak zero English and seem incompetent.
Daily Life/ Conveniences
- ATMs are common (I use my Schwab Investment Checking Debit Card for ZERO ATM fees)
- Card acceptance at business is 50/50.
- The largest Mongolian bill is 20,000 Tughriks ($8). So you need a thick wad of cash to carry a decent amount of money.
- It is hard to break 20,000 Tughrik notes, nobody wants to do it. Incidentally a strip club is the best place because they will happily give you as many 5,000 T notes as you want.
While there isn’t a huge variety, I enjoyed that the options are centralized. Between the following two venues, you can see damn near everything available in the country.
- State Department Store – This is the main shopping mall in the center. It is expensive, but has quality products.
- Naran Tuul Market a.k.a. “Black Market” has every possible product available in Mongolia. It is an enormous complex with good prices. It’s a bit outside of town, so it is better for a once every 2 weeks trip rather than a daily sort of market. (Note: It’s closed on Tuesday)
- Shoes – nearly *impossible* to get shoes over size 10.5US (even though Mongolians can be tall, they have small feet.
- Mongolian vendors frequently pretend they don’t have change – so you need to carry many small bills to always have exact change.
- You go pay for an item that has a clearly listed and displayed price. At the register, they charge more hoping that you won’t notice. When you call them out, they act as if it was just an accident (it was not).
- Taxi drivers will agree on a price before leaving. When you arrive they ask for a higher amount with an excuse like “there was traffic.”
- When you hand a vendor the correct amount of money, they claim you gave them 500 instead of 5000 (after already putting you bill in the cash register so you can’t prove that they are mistaken)
While much of the world homogenizes, Ulaan Baatar remains exotic and isolated.
Long term living in UB will not be for most people – too rough around the edges. However, I could clearly see that hiding out in UB could be a paradise for the right person.
I imagined myself holing up in a small apartment during the winter and enjoying the isolation and absence of distraction – a warm Mongol girl in my bed at night. After a long rest, I’d emerge in the summer to spend months outdoors roaming the countryside while meeting up with fellow travelers from around the world.
Readers, please contact me or leave a comment if you have more experience in UB and could offer any improvements to the article. Adventure Prime’s goal is to be the best adventure travel database on the net and we always look for input.