Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 10/11/16
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?
Third overseas experience with the Department of State.
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?
Where is home these days? Our home state is TX and it's a good 24-hour trip (plus or minus a few hours depending on connections) plus the additional excitement of crossing the international dateline. Pack that melatonin and caffeine.
3. How long have you lived here?
Over a year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
My husband works at the Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We are very happy with our housing. Most embassy employees (including us) live at Star Apartments, which is a wonderful little oasis in the middle of chaotic UB. It's very centrally located (easy walking to city center, about 35 minutes to US embassy on foot).
This summer the Shangri-La mall opened literally next door and houses a movie theater (including an IMAX!), restaurants, and upscale shopping. Star apartment consists of townhouses, a few stand-alone houses, and apartments. Most are very happy with housing as it's spacious and has a back-up generator. The complex is also home to the Embassy community center, medical unit, a nice gym, playground, and greenhouse (yep, that one is definitely seasonal).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
I am really amazed with how many things we can get here. Most products are from Russia or Korea and the availability is truly impressive even in winter (although more limited). American products can be found at a steep price often Russian or European equivalents are more affordable. Sometimes there appear to be shortages (butter! cream!) so one shopping rule here is that you buy it when you see it if you think you will (ever) use it.
Yes, it's a consumable post and you will need that allotment for liquids (honey, maple syrup, olive oil, toiletries) and baking supplies as those are often hard to find and can be pretty expensive. But overall, I spend less on groceries here than I do in the U.S.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Liquids (olive oil, maple syrup, honey) and baking supplies which can easily be shipped in your consumables.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Restaurants can be hit or miss but some are reliably good such as Rosewood (US chef), Namaste (Indian), and Hana (sushi, yes, in a landlocked country) just keep in mind that the fresh seafood gets shipped in on Thursday evenings so it's best to avoid sushi after Mondays in UB.
There is an amazing smart-phone delivery system called "songo" (app) that allows you to order from restaurants online with a minimal delivery fee; the app also delivers grocery food items. It's game changer!
Then, there is also the very popular "greenbox“ an organic vegetable delivery service that fills a box with fresh, organic greens and delivers it to your front door for US$10. Cannot beat that.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
This is where the cold can be helpful as it kills insects! However, I have had plenty of ant invasions in the summer and there are tons of pesky flies in summer as well.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Embassy is pouch only (DPO to Hong Kong, then pouch to UB) so keep that in mind when you are doing your consumables shopping.
Some have sent postcards through the Mongolian mail and they arrived in the US after a few weeks of travel.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is readily available but it can be hard to find the right person (as is the case for other places as well). We have a part-time helper for a few hours every day and we pay her US$260 per month, which is the norm (perhaps a bit higher). Full-time nannies are around US$400 and up per month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Star has a great gym with sauna. The Shangri-La mall opened an amazing gym next to Star with a swimming pool but the price is a bit through the roof and unrealistic for Mongolia (around US$200 per month). There is also a new Gold's Gym close-by with similar high prices. I take yoga classes with a fantastic instructor and pay about US$10 for each session.
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?
I have not had problems using either. I know of a few ATM scams especially at the airport so something to keep in mind.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can take classes through the embassy. I took classes before we arrived and I was thankful to have an understanding of the alphabet and was able to hold very, very basic conversation (the Mongolian language is no easy feat). There is enough English spoken in UB that one can easily live here without speaking Mongolian. However, outside of UB it's a different story. Not many foreigners speak Mongolian even if they have lived here for many years.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
YES. Anyone navigating the sidewalks and streets has challenges (holes, uneven surfaces, lack of safe space completely) and once the ice and snow are on the ground, it becomes much more challenging.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Buses are not recommended due to over-crowding and pick-pocketing. There is an English-speaking Taxi service called "Help Taxi" that is a bit more expensive than local taxis but they are reliable and speak English. Overall, it's pretty cheap to get around town.
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?
Definitely SUV or something that survives off-road. Roads in UB are paved but once you leave the city, chances are you'll head off-road. Winter conditions leave terrible potholes on the few paved roads as well. Many people have Toyota's: easy maintenance for them here. Also keep in mind that diesel engines do not work in the extreme cold.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Another benefit of Star! We arrived to installed internet and since everything is pre-wired, this is a painless procedure.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring an iphone/smartphone so you can install the songo app for food delivery! Tedy center can unlock phones (although you might not want to see how they do it as it involves pulling out some wires and fusing some before they confidently tell you it's unlocked). It generally is easy-- just take a Mongolian speaker to help you translate.
Mobicom provides local sim cards and pay-as-you go plans are very reasonable (I pay about US$100 for 3G data and phone; this lasts me about a year). The Mobicom office close to Shangri-La mall employs English-speaking staff.
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?
There are some EFM jobs at the embassy. I work on the local economy in higher education and consulting. Local rates are definitely not what they are back home but there is a chance to make a difference in an emerging country and economy.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty of orphanages, NGOs etc. Whatever you are interested in.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Mongolian women like to dress up to most events (often short skirts, even in the dead of winter). The colorful and beautiful Mongolian national dresses are popular on Mongolian holidays.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
During spring (and around holidays), there is an increase of drunk people (mostly men) who like to harass foreigners on the street. I have had a few instances of this, but never felt threatened or uncomfortable. It's just normal big city stuff. The biggest problem here is crossing the street without getting hit as well as avoiding petty theft.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The embassy medical unit is fantastic. It is staffed by a US nurse and a fabulous local doctor (pediatrician) and local nurse. That said, there are regular medical evacuations for anything beyond routine care. A new hospital (Intermed) opened last year and medical care seems to be getting better.
Dentistry here is good and cheap.
The biggest health threat is the terrible winter air pollution that is on par with (and sometimes worse than) Beijing and New Delhi during the winter months. See my article in the October 2016 edition of the Foreign Service Journal. It's one of those things you think you are prepared for until you live in i. I will never take clean air for granted again.
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?
See above. Terrible, simply terrible winter air pollution from October through March/April. Some children develop respiratory problems. Face masks are a necessity.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
If you have asthma, I would reconsider coming here due to the air pollution in winter. My son has food sensitivities and I've been amazed at the variety of gluten-free products (though expensive) available here. There are many non-dairy milk alternatives as well.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Well, we have about 6 months of bitter cold winter. So you have to make the effort to get out and exercise even if it's -20/-30F and the air is polluted.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Oh, it's cold alright! UB is one of the (if not the) coldest capital cities in the world and with good reason. That said, the summer and fall are beautiful! It's also a very dry climate all year round so make sure to drink plenty of water and hydrate your skin.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
All embassy kids go to the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU). My kids are elementary-school aged and we've been very pleased with the kids' education and their teachers. There are some logistical issues with the school administration that cause frustration (lack of communication; limited new arrival information) but hopefully the new school director (arriving Fall 2017) will address this.
2. 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?
ISU has a preschool (Pre-K 3 and 4) but the tuition is crazy expensive. That said, we sucked it up for our daughter as there are limited alternative options.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Children grade 1 and up can choose from a number of after-school activities at ISU. Local classes outside of that for sports are hard to find and often have inflexible schedules; that said, one of the Mongolian Moms organized soccer lessons at Star apartments with a (semi)-professional player and a new ballet school opened up across the street. Things are always changing here.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The embassy community seems like a close group. There are many activities and you can be as involved as you like. Morale is higher in the summer/fall than the bitter cold winter!
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Aside from embassy, the ISU PTG is a great resource as is the international women's association (IWAM). It's a small group of expats here and chances are, you'll meet all of them after attending a few events.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families with school-aged children like it here as the school is great and provides a nice community for families and children. The winter air pollution greatly limits outdoor winter activities in the city. I imagine it to be a difficult post for families with younger children due to limited activities and the winter pollution; on the other hand, nannies are readily available and inexpensive. Couples seem to fare well. I imagine it to be more difficult for single people as the expat community is small.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Amazing, beautiful countryside and landscape esp. in Gobi (looking for dinosaur fossils) and the West (don't miss the annual Kazakh/Mongolian eagle hunter festival).
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Head to Terlej park (about 1 hour drive) for horse-back riding, hiking, exploring or sledding in the winter. We even went dog sledding on the frozen river in the winter, an unforgettable experience for sure.
Hike around the Observatory or Bogd Khan mountain south of the city; go skiing and sledding at Sky Resort in the winter; spend some time at the amazing National Museum; warm up with coffee and treats at favorite coffee shops like Millie's and Code.
Or just hop in the car and drive anywhere outside of UB for a change in scenery and fresh air.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
I have never shopped so much in my life! Our house resembles little (or rather, big) Mongolia at this point. You can get anything you want: custom-made furniture & clothing, beautiful artwork, cashmere and camel/yak wool products, rugs, sheep-lined fur coats, etc.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Well, it's not a stunningly beautiful city and it has its share of problems (traffic, pollution) but you are in Mongolia!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I can't say I didn't know about the pollution ahead of time but I didn't realize that it penetrates every aspect of your life in the winter (it's in your hair, your clothes) you simply cannot prepare for it and you can't escape it unless you leave the city.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Despite the pollution, yes. It's an amazing place to live and get to know.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Heavy duty winter gear, pollution mask, and patience on the road.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There are new documentaries in production at the moment, most notably "Live from UB" and "The Eagle Huntress" (the latter having received mixed reviews).
6. Do you have any other comments?
Yes, it's cold and far, far away but this is a beautiful off the beaten track kind of posting. We extended our assignment as others have done and we'll be sad to leave Mongolia.