Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 01/15/09
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?
Not my first expat experience.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I work at the U.S. Embassy.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
There is a non-stop flight from DC to Beijing. The problem is getting out of Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. Air China is the most unreliable of the airlines that service UB. Unplanned stays of more than 24 hours in Beijing are common if you fly through there. It is also possible, but more expensive, to fly through Seoul.
Plan on at least 2 days to get to UB from the U.S. Plan on at least 1 day to get to UB from Europe. There is a train from UB to Moscow (5-6 days) and from UB-Beijing (30-36 hours). Assume a minimum airfare of US$1K to leave Mongolia to go anywhere; average airfare to the U.S. (if you buy it far enough ahead) is about US$2K-2.5K. There are about 8 or 9 flights a week out of the UB airport; international destinations are Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, and Berlin.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Many Embassy employees (not all) live at Star Apartments, a nice complex. The traffic congestion results in commutes varying from 30 minutes to 60 minutes from Star to the Embassy.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and household supplies are very expensive. Almost everything is imported. I try to avoid buying Chinese vegetables and fruits, but it is difficult. Groceries, when available, cost about 3 times what they would in DC. If you see something you want, buy it! You may not see it again. Finding fruits, vegetables, good cheese, seafood, and good coffee beans is the greatest challenge. If you like mutton, you will be very happy with the food here. If you are eligible for a consumables shipment, use it to the fullest. The Mongolian diet is meat-heavy and very bland. Pack your spices and salsas!
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Good coffee beans. Dried fruits. Dried beans. High-quality flour and corn meal. Nuts, salted and not.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
No fast food. There are a few restaurants that offer decent food. Average cost per meal in those restaurants is between US$8-10. The best restaurant in town is Hazara, an Indian restaurant.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes in summer. Avoid small mammals (like marmots) that have fleas that carry bubonic plague.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Right now, the Embassy has an FPO address.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Available and inexpensive.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a good gym at Star. Other apartment complexes sometimes have gyms and/or pools. There are also some private health clubs/gyms.
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 do not use them here. There are a few ATMs around the city. Some stores accept credit cards, usually Visa.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is an RC church as well as a non-denominational Protestant one. There is also a large LDS church. If you are interested in practicing lamaist Buddhism, there are some temples and the monasteries.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are two English language newspapers. Each costs about a dollar. The UB Post is usually better than the Mongol Messenger. On TV, there is CNN-Intl, BBC, and AFN channels.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Any amount helps alot and is greatly appreciated by Mongolians. You do not strictly need it if you stay in an expat bubble, but it helps.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Trains are generally safe. Buses are jammed and have pickpockets. Buses are privately owned (by each driver)who tries to maximize the number of fares on each bus. Few buses are well-maintained. Taxis vary as to safety and are generally cheap (i.e. less than US$5).
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?
A front-wheel drive car is fine for the city. If you want to drive across land in the countryside when there is not a road, bring a 4WD vehicle. There is a Ford dealer and a Chevrolet dealer, as well as Toyota. Windshield wipers/blades are frequently stolen from your car when you park on the street. Both right-hand-drive and left-hand-drive cars are used here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Really high-speed is not available, but you can purchase speeds between 264K, 512K and 1MB. Prices range from US$20 to $150 per month. It helps a lot if your apartment has a back-up generator as there are frequent brown-outs.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The U.S. Embassy issues cells phones to its employees. Purchase a calling card to call the U.S.; they are cheap. I use Vonage to telephone the U.S.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are a few vets.
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?
Very, very few.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business dress at work. Casual in public. Mongolians, especially the women, are very sharp dressers. Expect to see stilettos all winter, no matter how deep the ice.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Horrible in winter. Very good in summer. It is horrible in the winter because of what people burn to heat their gers. Ulaanbaatar was designed for 300K-350K people; current population is about 1.1M.
2. What immunizations are required each year?
3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pickpockets and traffic accidents. Hostility toward Chinese. Rampant inflation and high unemployment have increased the rates of robbery.
4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air quality is very, very bad during the long winter. If you get seriously ill, you will need to leave the country to go to Seoul, Bangkok or Singapore for acute care.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It is very cold and dry during the winter (November through May). The summers are warm. Rain occurs during the summer, and the amount varies a lot. The spring is windy, dirty, and brown.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The school is very good through sixth grade. The new building for the ISU is very, very nice.
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Football (soccer), basketball.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
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?
Mostly going out to bars/restaurants/others' houses.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Varies. For families with teenaged children, the school may not be challenging enough. Families with young children tend to like being here. For singles, it varies enormously.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. I am one of two people at the Embassy who are gay or lesbian. Mongolians do not think kindly (understatement) about homosexuality; the most educated Mongolian will keep their face still and tell you that it is a private matter not to be discussed. There appear to be more gay men than lesbian women in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolian women, especially those younger than 45, exhibit stylized hetersexual behaviour, especially in fashion. The traditional culture is very, very gendered.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. Black people may have problems. People of Chinese descent may have problems. Women who are feminist are rare. The society is very family-oriented, and the definition of family isheterosexual.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visit the remaining monasteries that Stalin's thugs did not destroy. Go to the opera. Enjoy the beautiful countryside, especially camping, fishing, hiking, and horseback riding. This is a wonderful country if you love being in the outdoors!
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Cashmere. Wool felt. Carpet slippers. Carpets from Erdenet carpet factory. Furs (if you so that). Horsehair fiddles & bows. Bows & arrows. Deels.
9. Can you save money?
Depends on whether or not you plan to travel outside the city. Buying food is expensive, as is gasoline and auto parts/repair. If you decide to leave the country, you will spend a good bit of money.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Swimsuits, unless you plan to travel to Thailand or Bali.
3. But don't forget your:
Wool socks. Long underwear. Camping gear. Fishing gear. Spices. Salsas. Coffee beans. Sturdy down coat (long).
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Genghis Blues (documentary).
7. Do you have any other comments?
If you can enjoy yourself without a lot of external stimulation except for the outdoors, this is a good place to be. The outdoors is a glory. Most Mongolians who live in the city despair of their government and complain bitterly about corruption and inefficiency. The support for the government increases in the rural areas (which Mongolians call "the countryside"). Inflation gallops along and unemployment is high. The failure of the government to rationally use the country's considerable natural resources (i.e. mining) has harmed Mongolia a great deal.