Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 02/05/11
Personal Experiences from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. It's my third expat experience.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, D.C. is my home base. It takes at least 30 hours via plane from Ulaanbaatar to Washington Dulles. There are no direct flights from Mongolia to any part of the U.S. All flights go through Seoul, Beijing or Moscow.
3. How long have you lived here?
Currently living in Ulaanbaatar; have been here for about a year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Foreign Service employee with the U.S. Embassy
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing for direct-hires with the U.S. Embassy is very nice. The city may be a dump, but it's refreshing to live in a spacious, Westernized home. Some of the homes have heated floors, Jacuzzis and saunas. Traffic is gridlocked during commuting hours; an hour to travel two miles is commonplace.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are expensive. Most items are imported from either China or Russia. Items imported from the U.S. are grossly inflated to account for shipping, customs and taxes.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Junk food (Doritos, Oreos, cereal, etc.) and salsa. But eat them fast. Since it's so dry here, everything rots super fast.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Fast food is unheard of in Mongolia. This country is too poor to sustain a chain of fast food restaurants. There are versions of fast food restaurants in the city, but they are not anything that Westerners are used to. However, there are reasonably-priced decent sit-down restaurants. Most restaurants are so well-priced that you could eat almost every day and still manage to save money. Service in restaurants is abysmal. Expect what should take an hour for two people to eat, to take between 90-120 minutes. The influx of mining companies and other Western companies has sped service up in only a handful of restaurants. Tipping is not expected, but I still tip in hopes of better service for future patrons.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
Fresh fruit and vegetables are sparse. Vegetarians are almost laughed at in this country. The Mongolian diet is very rich and meat-heavy. The land is too dry to raise crops for organic foods, fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly there are two vegetarian restaurants in the capital city. The food is good at both places and again, reasonably-priced.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Flies are common during the summer. It's too cold the rest of the year that bugs are virtually nonexistent.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I use the diplomatic pouch through the embassy. USPS mail takes so long that I've canceled my Netflix subscription. It takes at least one month for mail delivery to-and-from the States. The time lengthens during inclement weather or when flights from Hong Kong are delayed.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is readily available and relatively inexpensive. Be sure to vet your domestic help through someone else prior to hiring him or her. Finding people who cook Western dishes is not easy, especially since Western ingredients are also hard to find. Housekeepers are often referred by one expat family to another. I "inherited" my housekeeper from a departing expat.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. The main housing complex has a nicely equipped gym. There is also an over-priced gym, not affiliated with the U.S. Government, that wealthy people can use.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Don't even try it, but if you are brave, use credit cards only in major retail establishments. ATMs? Forget it about. They exist here but expats have been advised against using them.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Buddhism is the main religion in Mongolia. I don't know of any English-language religious services available. Mormons, Christians, Catholics all practice in Mongolia. There are no temples or mosques that I'm aware of.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
BBC and AFN are available in expat housing for embassy employees. The embassy bears the cost of those T.V. subscriptions so I don't know how much they cost. Bring an e-reader (Kindle, Nook, etc.) to Mongolia. You'll need it as anything written inEnglish is hard to find.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need to know basic words and numbers just to get around Ulaanbaatar. Almost everything is written and/or spoken in Russian and Mongolian.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, most definitely. Like special-needs children, physically disabled people hide in the shadows for fear of their safety. The sidewalks are very uneven and wheelchairs rarely exist. The rise in steps leading to buildings are often high and have no handrails. Elevators are a luxury in this country. Forget about trying to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act in this country. You'd have more luck with finding dinosaur bones in the Gobi.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local trains and buses are overcrowded and not advisable for use by expats. The costs to ride in local trains and buses is nominal. I think it's about $.50 to get from Zaisen to the embassy. Taxis are plentiful here. But only use taxis from a reputable taxi company. Almost anyone with a car claims to be a taxi driver. And yes, taxis are affordable. It costs about $2 USD/one way, to go from the main embassy housing complex to the embassy. Seat belts in the back seats of taxis are often hidden by seat covers. Passenger seat belts are often removed or don't work.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
If you are brave enough to drive here, it's best to bring a 4x4 or vehicle with a high clearance. The streets are riddled with pot holes and open unpaved roads. There are only about 1,000 miles of paved roads in this country, which is about twice the size of Texas. Car parts are not impossible to find, but can be expensive. Most car parts are imported from China or Russia. There are no local restrictions on vehicles. Actually there are no restrictions. Period. Monthly or annual vehicle inspections? haha. Good one. On the plus side, carjackings are rare in this country.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. I pay about $30 USD/month for 2 Mbps of internet connectivity. The speed is rarely ever 2 Mbps, but it's fast enough for me to watch online videos.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Buy one, buy one and did I mention, buy one? Cell phones are a must, especially when traveling outside the city. Direct-hires with the embassy are assigned cell phones and the embassy covers those costs. Cell phones not tied to contracts (unbroken) are easy to find at the TEDI building. Even if you're not with the U.S. Embassy, get yourself a cell phone. MobiCom is the largest cell phone carrier in Mongolia.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No. However, fleas in cats and dogs, and parvo in dogs is rampant. Ensure that your four-legged friend is well-vaccinated before, during and after your assignment in Mongolia.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Since this country is so poor, Mongolians will chastise you for wanting to domesticate a cat or dog. The homeless animal population is out of control. Feral cats and dogs run rampant, especially during the summer. Only the heartiest of animals survive the harsh Mongolian winters. There are a few vets in Ulaanbaatar and they even make house calls. The vet clinics are sub par but the care animals receive is excellent. The cost of veterinary care is very low. I paid $60 USD to have my cat de-clawed - and that included the anesthesia and follow-up care. There are no kennels in Mongolia. Bring cat food, dog litter and cat litter with you. All three items are available here, but for an inflated cost. Just as you drink potable water, allow your pet to drink potable water, too.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Not really. Outside of working at the U.S. Embassy, jobs aren't plentiful. Speaking Mongolian is a requirement when finding work outside the embassy. A few spouses are tutors in English, Japanese or Chinese. Local wages are meager when compared to U.S. wages.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
It's business casual at the embassy; men in dress slacks and dress shirts and ties. The dress code is a bit more lax for women. During the summer, the local women often dress like prostitutes, inside and outside of the embassy. Stiletto heels are worn throughout the year. I still don't know how women can gracefully walk on the even sidewalks without tripping. Maybe those women are born wearing stilettos?
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes. Mongolia is landlocked between China and Russia. Enough said. Aside from that, Mongolia is fortunate to have a relatively stable political climate.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Mongolia is a developing country with scarce medical services and unreliable transportation, making the provision of timely and adequate medical care challenging. Smog, not fog, also limits visibility and causes delay at the airport and health issues. Medical care in Mongolia is almost a joke. The embassy has an onsite health unit, managed by a U.S. direct-hire who has prescription-writing privileges. Direct-hire women are not permitted to give birth in Mongolia. People have been medevaced to Seoul or Bangkok for emergency medical care. If you break a bone, you'll be medavced, too. X-ray machines and the like are rare here. There is a Korean health clinic that has the latest medical equipment, but I've not been to it. Direct-hires with the embassy are eligible to use the SOS Clinic in Ulaanbaatar.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The world's worst level of pollution occurs during winter, which is from October - April. Mongolians are still very much a traditional nomadic people. Gers (gares), which look like big tents, are the traditional housing for Mongolians. Gers do not have indoor plumbing or electricity so heat is provided by coal-burning stoves. Mongolians will burn almost anything, including tires, to stay warm. The U.S. Embassy is located in a geographical bowl, with mornings being the worst; with visibility reduced to less than 100 yards. Summer is the best time to be be in this country. The air is barely polluted and visibility is at its best.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
From October through April, temperatures remain below zero Fahrenheit, and relative humidity is quite low (18% - 30%). It's very dry here. You'll need plenty of lip balm and body lotion. Ulaanbaatar has the dubious honor of being the world's coldest capital.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I don't have kids and don't have personal experience with the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU). I'm told that the school is highly accredited and the teachers are all capable.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There are no accommodations in local Mongolian schools for special-needs kids. In fact, kids with special-needs are frowned upon and cast into the shadows by Mongolians. I don't know if ISU provides accommodations for special-needs kids or not.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Again, I don't have kids, but I'm told that preschool is relatively inexpensive here. The kids learn both in English and Mongolian.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Mongolia does not have officially recognized sports clubs for kids. Horseback riding, archery and other activities, are popular outdoor activities for all ages. As with most countries outside of the U.S., soccer (the white, round ball and not the brown, oblong ball) is huge here.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It ranges between 250 - 300 people, and this includes the embassy direct-hires, mining companies, NGOs and Peace Corps volunteers. It's a small community, but seems to be relatively close-knit one.
2. Morale among expats:
I can't speak for expats outside the embassy, but I think the morale seems to be medium to high. We have an excellent Community Liaison Officer (CLO), who has brought the embassy community, local staff and U.S. staff, for events year-round. I think the smaller an expat community, the closer they tend to be. Conversely, living in a smaller community is like living in a fish bowl. As with anywhere in the world, life is all what make you of it.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
It's entertaining to have a social life in Ulaanbaatar. Expats tend to stick together for social events. The language barrier is a big reason that locals and expats often don't do things together.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
The city itself isn't that great for families. The "countryside", anywhere outside of Ulaanbaatar, is ideal for families. If you and/or kids like to experience the outdoors, then the countryside is the place to be. Ulaanbaatar has an active nightlife, both for singles and couples.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No, not at all. During the days when Russia controlled Mongolia, homosexuals were literally sent to Siberia.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Mongolian men are territorial with "their" women. Western men have been assaulted for being seen with Mongolian women. People of Asian descent, regardless of Asian ethnicity, have been attacked in the capital city. Centuries of tension between the Chinese and Mongolians has added fuel to that fire.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Learning about a new culture and new traditions.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Interact with other Americans and expats. No, really, it can be quite fun. There is a large Peace Corps presence and many PC volunteers enjoy meeting embassy employees. Aside from the outdoor activities during the summer, there is hardly anything to do in the winter.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Felt, wool, fur and cashmere. Mongolian cashmere is said to be the best in the world.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Mongolia is heaven for people who like the great outdoors. This country is steeped in history, including finding dinosaur bones in the Gobi Desert.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, most definitely. Considering that most Mongolians make an average of $3,000 USD/year, the living is cheap, but not easy, here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, to visit, but not to live. Mongolia is a very fascinating country but at the same, it's been a challenge to live here.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Hopes and dreams. Just kidding. Don't bother bringing open-toed shoes and you don't need too many summer clothes.
3. But don't forget your:
Open-mind and ability to put your situation in perspective. It is very easy to go stir-crazy, especially during the winter, in this country.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Kingship and Ideology in the Islamic and Mongol Worlds (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization) by Anne F. Broadbridge, PhD.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
View these movies with a grain of salt:Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan; Biography - Genghis Khan (A&E); and Babies (2010).
6. Do you have any other comments?
(1) Geographically and logistically remote, Ulaanbaatar is one of the most isolated missions in the Foreign Service.(2) The Mongolian government is aware of the pollution issues and making strides to reduce its high levels. (3) I often equate Mongolia, especially Ulaanbaatar, to how the U.S. was at the turn of the 19th century. (4) Driving is manical in this country, especially in Ulaanbaatar. People will create their own lanes, make left turns from the far right lane, jaywalking is not only legal, but it's the only way pedestrians cross the street, street signs are nonexistent and traffic lights rarely work. Man hole covers are often missing. The covers have either been stolen for the metal or kids leave covers off since they live in the sewers during the winter.(5) Enjoy and keep your mind open when visiting or living in the land of Changgis Khan.