Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 01/03/22
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. I have also lived in Chengdu and Panama City.
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?
Home is the US. From UB, it's a 3-hour flight to Seoul and then a 11-12 hour flight to California, from there it's ~2 hours to the PNW or CO. Most trips have taken around 24 hours, although with pandemic-reduced flights, long layovers in Seoul have often made it longer. During non-COVID times, there are international flights to Japan, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Thailand (seasonal), Kazakhstan, and a few others. During COVID, it has been hard to get out of country for recreational travel.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. 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?
Housing is split between a hi-rise apartment and a gated community across the street with apartments/townhomes. We have been in the apartment building. Beautiful floor to ceiling windows on all the exterior walls have really made this housing our favorite in the Foreign Service so far. Despite all the lockdowns, the daily views of UB and the mountains has been one of the highlights of this tour. The apartment building has many conveniences: there is a Good Price shopping store in the basement, a fantastic gym, a shopping mall with movie theater and food court, and you're also connected to the hotel and its spa. Overall, the apartment itself is quite good. Drawbacks are a lack of storage and a small, but functional, kitchen. Building management is generally responsive through GSO. Commuting is about a 35-minute walk to the US Embassy or a 10 minute morning shuttle. Afternoon shuttle times are usually 30-45 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Availability is generally good. There are a lot of imported products from Korea and Germany. At the apartments, you have easy access to the Good Price, however it is more expensive than other stores and is not always well stocked. We find ourselves making a loop of grocery runs from Good Price to UB Mart to Rosewood to EMart (not all on the same day....). Rosewood Butchery has the best quality of meats. Fresh vegetable and eggs have seen fluctuations in availability throughout our tour.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
You can find most things here with a little tenacity, however I miss good cheeses. We shipped a lot of wine, although wine is generally available with good selections. Local beer is not the best. We also shipped a lot of canned tomatoes and beans, pumpkin purees, canned soups, green chili, salsas, other canned vegetables, cereals, crackers,
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Two delivery services are common - Songo and Tok Tok. If you're in the apartments, some of the complex's restaurants will also deliver to your residence. There is a small, but growing restaurant scene here. However, new restaurants seem to focus on the Instagram aesthetic rather than the quality of food. Cliff, the owner of Rosewood, is on top of the restaurant game, in my opinion. With Rosewood, La Rosa and hopefully Fat Hen soon, he is setting the bar for international cuisine in UB. There are a few great Indian restaurants. Thai food and Chinese food are horribly under-represented here and the few that are here are not that good. Many options for Korean food and some good Japanese options. Mongolian food is not/not Mongolian BBQ that we are used to in the U.S,; rather, it's hearty meats (beef and mutton), fried breads, dairy products, and few vegetables. They prefer to slaughter their animals at an older age, which leads to tough, fatty meat. The most common spices used are onion and salt.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Never seen a bug in the building.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch: usually takes 3-4 weeks. DPO has not worked well during the pandemic. Mongolia does have an established post office system, but we have no need to use it.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We do not employ household help, but it is common.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The apartments have a three-floor gym with great equipment, classes, swimming pool. It is free to the residents. There are countless gyms throughout the city. Fitness is popular here. We play squash at Encanto Sports Club and just pay the drop-in fee of 25,000MNT per person for two hours.
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?
Credit cards are widely accepted and safe to use. Restaurants bring the card machine to the table. They work 90% of the time, with only a few vendors unable to process international/American cards. Occasionally delivery drivers will only accept cash, even when you've marked that you want to pay with card.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I think LDS and Catholic services at least.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
We were told that English is spoken everywhere in UB, but that's definitely not the case. Most young Mongolians do have a basic grasp of English, which is helpful, but I have found it challenging for any interactions out of the ordinary to not have Mongolian skills. I do recommend the Post Language Program as it has been helpful to move slightly beyond the basics, though after a year, I still feel pretty inadequate in Mongolian.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Sidewalks are uneven and slippery in the winter.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We don't use them. Buses are probably safe to use, but during the pandemic they are packed. There are a few private taxi companies we are recommended to use. Street taxis are not recommended, likely due to the language barrier rather than them being "unsafe".
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?
High-clearance is definitely recommended outside of the city, however you wouldn't know it judging by all the Priuses you see out there! We have a Rav 4 and I would recommend something with even more clearance, as we have had a few times where we bottom out in off-road tire grooves.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. Internet is already installed in the building and it is good enough for streaming and video games.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Use a local provider Mobicom.
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?
Many work at the embassy and some telework. I don't think it's possible to work locally.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I think so at some orphanages.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
During winter, you just dress to stay warm and business casual is fine at the Embassy. Outside events are suit and tie or black tie for some events.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Generally a very safe city, however alcohol is a problem in Mongolia and it can lead to aggressive confrontations. Crossing the street is quite hazardous as cars don't stop and sometimes ice will prevent them from doing so. Streets and sidewalks are very slippery.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is generally okay. Few private clinics that have been able to respond to emergency situations.
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?
Terrible in the winter, however, I find that even though the AQI is horrible, I would take Mongolian air pollution over Chinese air pollution any time. The spring, summer and fall here are absolutely beautiful and the AQI is almost always healthy. The winter is when they burn coal and it is quite bad near the embassy (the pollution really depends on which part of the city you are in). However, it usually clears up in the afternoon and because it's always sunny in Mongolia it doesn't have the same effect as living in Chengdu.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
It's a dry environment, which can be bad for seasonal allergies. Without the language it can be hard to know what exactly is in your food - for example, vegetable soup almost always has meat in it...
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
SAD can definitely be an issue. Watch your alcohol-intake here.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very dry year round. Extremely cold, but dry, winters. Beautiful, comfortable summers. Falls and Springs are short, but comfortable with the correct gear.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small since the pandemic. Normally there would be more foreigners with the mining companies. Morale is generally fine.
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?
House-events, events at the Star Community Center, hiking and outdoor groups, sports events.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it's good for everyone.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
We have been able to make a few friends. I think it's generally easy. Some parts of Mongolia can be a little ethnocentric and nationalist. There can be some anti-Chinese sentiment, but now many Mongolians have studied in China, so I think that is decreasing. I am white and I feel like I don't stand out as much here as I did in China. I think BIPOC Americans may also feel like they stand out less here than in China.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Generally yes. There is a growing LGBT scene, with one NGO working on advocacy and visibility. It's still a fairly traditional society, but younger Mongolians, especially those with an outward focus, are more accepting.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Mongolia has a few ethnic minorities and I haven't noticed much ethnic/racial prejudice, although I'm sure it must exist to a certain extent. Mongolian society has a sense of being more gender equal in the sense that many white-collar office workers are women and traditionally the men stayed home to care for the herds. However, when you still look at C-suite positions, as well as the make up of parliament, governors, and other political leaders, they are dominated by men.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Stunning beauty, friendly people, interesting culture and such a contrasting society to its two neighbors. Trips to the Gobi.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Get out and camp. UB is a big city, but once you're just a few kms out of it, you are in vast, beautiful spaces. You can literally go wherever you want.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Cashmere, cashmere, and more cashmere. The Mongolian Quilting Society also has some great textiles. You can also buy bows, instruments (Moriin Khur), deels, and other items.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Its proximity to nature. UB also has excellent cultural offerings: theater, ballet, opera, philharmonic, art etc.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Mongolia is more than Genghis Khan, it has a vibrant young civil society. Lots of exciting work going on here.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. But don't forget your:
Parka, long underwear, hats, gloves, sense of adventure, tent, 4WD, sunglasses (it's literally always sunny!)
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"Birth of an Empire" by Conn Iggulden (historical fiction)
"The Mongolia Special - Survival of the Fattest" episode of "The Grand Tour"
Art Ger folks on Youtube
"Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East" by Aubrey Menard
5. Do you have any other comments?
Bid Mongolia. It is a special place and has its challenges, but it is so rewarding. It is a beautiful place.