Though Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling informal ‘ger district’ lacks access to drinking water and sewerage, officials may struggle to coax residents to swap canvas for bricks and mortar.
“The ger is really special for Mongolians,” says Tagtokhbayar Tuvaan, 63, over a bowl of salty milk tea in his home on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. “I was born in a ger, I grew up in a ger, I got married in a ger. I have never lived in a house. I love my ger.”
Tuvaan and his wife have lived in the same ger – the circular yurts beloved of central Asian nomads – since 1978. Until eight years ago, their home was pitched in the province of Zavkhan, west Mongolia. Then Tuvaan retired from the fire service and the couple decided to move almost 700 miles to Ulaanbaatar, to be closer to their four children. Now, they live in the “ger district”, the sprawling informal settlement that has mushroomed on the edge of Ulaanbaatar.
Life in the ger district is hard, but Tuvaan likes his home. “It’s a quiet place, close to nature and the mountains,” he says. Photographs of their family in long, colourful Mongolian tunics sit on a shelf above a television.
Mongolia is urbanising at a rapid pace, but for many citizens the ger remains central to their identity. The gentle hillsides around Ulaanbaatar are peppered with dome-roofed gers covered in white canvas, like rows of miniature circus big tops. When Mongolia was a communist state, these escarpments were largely unpopulated, save the occasional herder with their flock. Now they are home to an estimated 800,000 people. Though they lack access to drinking water, proper sewerage or internal heating, many are reluctant to leave behind their unique, millennia-old way of living.
The ger district is a product of Ulaanbaatar’s rapid expansion. Under communism, just 500,000 people lived in “UB”, as everyone calls the capital. Since the early 1990s, it has trebled in size. Cranes and construction sites now dominate the skyline. People who have got rich – often through mining – can live in expensive new apartment complexes with names like Sky Tower and Bella Vista. They can inch along the gridlocked traffic in four-wheel drives, shop in Louis Vuitton and Swarovski or go to work in gleaming glass-fronted office towers downtown.
Despite a recent drop in foreign investment, property prices continue to rise in the city. “Traffic is horrible, so real estate prices in the central business district are enormous. There are only a few cities that can compare – New York, Moscow and London,” says Munkhdul Badral, also known as Mogi, who runs a market intelligence firm, Cover Mongolia.
A few miles from Chinggis Khan Square, the vast communist-era plaza that marks the unofficial centre of the city, the situation is very different. Buses flying Mongolian flags bump along badly rutted ger district roads. Stalls sell fruit and vegetables. A woman sits in front of a pile of matted goat and sheep skins bought from herders on their way to market.
Many of those who now live in the ger district are former herders, pulled into the city by the promise of a new life, or pushed off their land by desertification and extreme winter weather. In 2010, a dzud – which means “white death” – left about 10 million animals, including cows, sheep and yaks, dead. Thousands of herders left the steppe for the ger district, building hastas – small fenced enclosures – and erecting gers and tin-roofed brick houses. Week by week, the informal settlement grows. An estimated 40,000 people arrive every year.
In an office off Chinggis Square, Otgonbaatar Dorjgotov sits in front of a huge map of Ulaanbaatar. The ger district, marked in grey, covers vast swaths to the north and east of the city, but there are also bright yellow boulevards and attractive green circles and squares. “This is our masterplan for the city, approved in 2013,” says Dorjgotov, head of project and co-operation development at the Ulaanbaatar city governor’s office.
Planning has not been one of Ulaanbaatar’s strengths. Set in a hollow between four hills, the city struggles for space, but satellite towns have not been built. Infrastructure is weak and underdeveloped. New large construction projects often take place in unsuitable city centre locations, including public parks. But Dorjgotov and his colleagues hope their masterplan will change that. The proposals for transforming the ger district are bold: invite private developers to sign deals with residents and replace the gers with high-rise apartments for 70,000 families.
The city government has also introduced micro-finance schemes and begun building schools, communal houses and paved roads in the district. Across the city, a $320m (£192m) soft loan from Asian Development Bank will be spent on infrastructure over the next nine years. The idea of an underground city railway has been discussed.
Not everyone is convinced that these ambitious plans can work. Agreements between developers and residents are likely to prove elusive, says journalist and commentator Jargalsaikhan Dambadarjaa. “We cannot force people to leave like in China.”
Public officials may struggle to coax the ger dwellers to swap their felt and canvas for bricks and mortar. Mongolians’ attachment to their gers is both practical – they are warm in winter and cool and summer – and emotional.
It is not just new migrants and impoverished residents who have homes in the district. Many successful city workers live here, too. “Some people prefer to live like this because they want space. They have small gardens, plant vegetables,” says Tungalagtuya Khuukhenduu, who moved to Ulaanbaatar from the Gobi desert when she was 18, to attend university, and now works for a local NGO. In winter, she lives in an apartment in the city, but during the summer months she stays in the ger district.
But for year-round residents, life in the district can be a real struggle. The ger district is not connected to the city’s piped central heating system that runs to many other suburbs. In winter, when temperatures can drop to -40C, raw coal, rubber and even plastics are thrown onto the stove. These toxic emissions are one of the main reasons Ulaanbaatar is one of most polluted cities on Earth, according to the World Health Organisation.
Unemployment in the ger district is more than 60%, triple that of other areas. Across Mongolia, inflation is at more than 13%. As the rural-urban divide grows, so does inequality.
At the furthest edge of the ger district, where the city gives way to rolling green steppe, lives 78-year-old Baabuush. Cows and sheep roam the fields around his hasta. He was born in Uvurkhuugai province, 285 miles away. “I really miss the nomadic life,” he says. “If you came here 20 years ago there was nothing, just a few families inside the fence.”
But he is optimistic about the future – for Ulaanbaatar and the ger district. Mongolia is a young country; half its citizens are under the age of 25. And it has a system of government that, Baabuush says, gives people a voice: “Democracy gave so many good things to Mongolians. That will not change.”
SOURCE: The guardian