Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 09/11/20
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?
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?
Midwest, United States. Travel takes a LONG time. At least 25-30 hours of total travel time with layovers in Seoul/Beijing/Narita, LA/DC.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The housing is very high quality. If you are single or a couple without kids you will live in a high rise apartment complex. This is a large, upscale apartment complex attached to the mall. These units are newer, somewhat smaller than the family apartments, but very nice and convenient to groceries, restaurants and the square.
Families with kids will live at another complex comprised of standalone houses, apartments and townhomes. Single family homes are not the norm; most will live in an apartment or townhome. The units are large and updated with new appliances and ample space. There is a large playground, tennis court and green area which serves as an ice rink in winter. Kids regularly run around outside and roam from house to house. It is really an amazing place to live if you have kids. There are many other local and foreign residents in the complex as well.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are affordable but not overly cheap. If you shop in small, local markets and stores you will save money. If you go to EMart (Korean walmart) or Good Price (western style market) you will spend the same or more. Meat in Mongolia is very cheap but varies in quality. There is not a set way to butcher meat here so sometimes you get an strange cut. Mercury Market is also popular for meat and fresh vegetables. You will be surprised at the variety you are able to find, even in the dead of winter. There is almost nothing we have not been able to find that we really want.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Powdered sugar (hard to find and low quality here), vinegar, good beer. Amazon pantry is easy to order for dry goods, no liquids. Beer, lique rand wine are available but more expensive or low quality. Some imports are available but if you like dark beer you'll wish you put it in your consumables. If you're a wine snob, ship that as well. If you like vodka, you'll be happy here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are two delivery apps available: Songo and TokTok. Both are good but TokTok is quicker because they use bikes rather than get stuck in the traffic like Songo. You can find any kind of food you want, except maybe Chinese and Mexican. Korean is widely available and high quality, Indian, European, American, Mongolian, Japanese, etc. I've been pleasently surprised at the availability of good food.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Flies in the summer in the countryside. Other than that, not much survives at -40C.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO or Pouch. Some people have used the local mail and it is pretty reliable. DHL is also good but expensive.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very affordable. Most people have a "helper" for cleaning and/or as a nanny. Expect to pay less than US $500 for full time.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Both apartment complexes have nice gym facilities. There are also local facilities available and at least one Crossfit gym. However, most local gyms do not have good air quality in the winter so exercise at your own risk.
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?
Yes. The are very widely accepted and safe to use. Most Mongolians use cards but cash is more common in the countryside and smaller establishments.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
The Morman church has a pretty large presence here.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by without the language. Knowing a few niceties will be appreciated but Mongolians do not expect you to know the language and will be surprised if you do. Many speak English and miming goes a long way. Many older people speak Russian so if you have that it'll help.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, there are no ADA standards here.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There are two reputable taxi companies that are safe to use. Buses and gypsy cabs are off limits. Pickpocketing and robbery seem common to these.
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?
I brought an old model, high clearance SUV. If you want to spend time in the countryside, which I highly suggest, an SUV will serve you well. Basically all the locals have Priuses and you'll be surprised where they take them! I feel much better with a reliable SUV. There is no roadside assistance or rest stops so bring something reliable with at least one full size spare tire, if not two. A very small percentage of roads in the country are paved so be prepared to do some serious off-roading.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. It was set up by our sponsor before we arrived. It has been pretty reliable and fast enough to stream on multiple devices at the same time.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Take an unlocked smart phone and get a local plan. It is very cheap for unlimited minutes, text and data.
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?
Yes. There is one vet that most people go to but there is more than one in UB. Kennel services may be another story. No quarantine required and very easy to import. Travel in winter may not be possible for cargo animals.
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?
Work at the Embassy, teach English, teach yoga. Not a ton of opportunities for spouses since the Embassy is small.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are some orphanages where people have volunteered.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual, formal for meetings.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Mongolia is a fighting culture. Usually there aren't issues, but if you are out late at night and wrong someone, you may get punched in the face. This is especially true for American men dating, or appearing to date, Mongolian women. More often than not it would just be verbal berating, but getting punched is not an uncommon occurance. Pickpocketing also happens regularly. Big city rules, don't walk alone at night, keep your eyes up and belongings in your front pocket and you should be fine.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Pollution is the main concern. In the summer the air is clean and beautiful but in the winter people burn raw coal to survive so it gets pretty bad. It drastically improved last winter after the introduction of a clean coal law and they hope to keep improving. That said, a pollution mask is still necessary if you're anywhere near the ger districts in the winter.
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?
Not good at all in the winter. People with respiratory issues may want to think twice about this Post.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Actually you might be ok here if you have food allergies. There have been several vegans who have been able to thrive in this meat heavy society. You would want to be more careful eating out if you do not speak Mongolian, but in general you should be ok with most food allergies here.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Winter here is real. It is extremely cold, -45C at times. It's also dark in the winter. Nothing like Alaska, but the days are very short and very cold.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Again, extremely cold. It can also get suprisingly warm in the summer. The summer/spring/fall is beautiful. If you can survive the cold winter the rest of the year makes up for it. As long as you layer up and dress appropriately, the winter is manageable.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most kids go to the International School of Ulaanbaatar as it is Embassy supported. Others to go to the French school or the American school. The French school is old but the kids seem to really love it. ISU is not particularly rigorous and reviews vary. They use a play by learning model for K-1 which basically means its daycare. They don't teach reading or math or really anything the kids don't feel like doing. I've been told it gets more like a traditional International School in 2nd. That being said, my daughter liked the school and her teacher and they had many extracurricular activities.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Most people use nannies. The French school takes kids at around 3. I'm sure there are Mongolian daycare but no experience with those.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Many activities through the school. Dance, karate, horseback riding, hiking, etc.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a small diplomatic community, but there are many Australians here with OT (mining). Lots of Australian kids at the school. Most other embassies are small with few people here. Prior to COVID morale was very high. Unfortunately, most families left due to COVID and have not yet returned. Those remaining have suffered and morale has declined. I anticipate it will go back to what it was before when COVID settles down.
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?
The Embassy does a lot of events. There are also lots of festivals around the country, lots of bars, hiking, camping, and outdoor activities available.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes. There is a lively nightlife and lots of singles here.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It's better than many, not as good as some. I have never seen or heard of any open discrimination and there was recently a pride event.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Yes, Mongolians are friendly and easy to integrate with.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. There is not much diversity in Mongolia and if you look anything but Mongolian you will stand out. African-Americans often get photographed or touched. My blonde, blue-eyed kids got a lot of loving looks and cheek pinches. Historically Mongolians do not get along well with Chinese and some of that racial tension still exists. Those of Asian decent may face more outright racism. All others seem to be more curiosity.
Gender equality is a mixed bag. Women are often professionals here but domestic abuse is extremely common and accepted.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Seeing the wild horses, camping in the middle of nowhere, hiking, riding camels, staying in gers, anything that gets you out of the city is amazing!
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The gobi gets really great reviews. I love just driving outside the city to hike or camp. COVID has limited in country travel for me though.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Cashmere is affordable and everywhere, Mongolian caligraphy is beautiful. You can have ger furniture made that is cool.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Everything you could want is available.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How expensive it is to travel to other areas in Asia. COVID has certainly limited that, but even before it was not cheap to do. Mongolia is a big country far from everything so be prepared for that.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. This place is a hidden gem. Don't be afraid of the winter. It's long and cold, but if you prepare, it's not that bad.
3. But don't forget your:
Winter clothes and sense of adventure!
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There are some cool Mongolian cooking youtubes, Grand Tour Mongolia, Alone Mongolia.