A thick, blue-grey haze of smoke hangs over Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia: First Impressions

This is the first of many blog posts chronicling my time in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It is also my first ever blog post. Drop a comment below letting me know how I did and what topics you’d like to see in future.


It’s a terrible cliché—and an ancient Simpsons joke—to call a country “A Land of Contrasts”, or Extremes, or Superlatives. But there are no better phrases to describe Mongolia and its capital, Ulaanbaatar. By almost any  conceivable measure it is a far-from-average place. This theme of contrasts and extremes will flow through many of my future blog posts, but to avoid making this post too long, here are just my initial observations.

The “Land of Contrasts” notion hit me even before the plane touched down. Flying over the Gobi Desert, I found myself gobsmacked at the scale and emptiness of the countryside. Australia is often described as a wide, brown, empty land, but Mongolia has us beaten. With only 3.1 million people spread across a whopping 1.6 million square kilometres, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on Earth. But that sense of space evaporated as the plane approached the capital, Ulaanbaatar. In stark contrast (see, there’s that word) to the emptiness of the countryside, Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling metropolis, home to over 1.3 million people, or almost half the population of the entire country.

The first sign that we were approaching Ulaanbaatar wasn’t the appearance of buildings or farmland, but rather a subtle change of colour in the landscape below. The yellowy-brown of dry Winter grass gave way to an odd bluish-grey. I initially mistook this change for a smear on my plane window, but I soon realised it was an enormous plume of smoke wafting South across the plains.

A thick, blue-grey haze of smoke hangs over Ulaanbaatar
A thick, blue-grey haze of smoke hangs over Ulaanbaatar

I had read about the city’s pollution problems before arriving, a sharp contrast (see, there it is again) to the pristine nature of the countryside. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city on Earth (superlative!). It was early Winter when I arrived, but even at this time of year temperatures rarely rise above -10°C during the day and they plunge well below -20°C overnight. By February, nighttime temperatures of -40°C are not uncommon. It is so cold that fractal forests of frost grow over my apartment window each night. These forests are dispelled by the midday Sun, only to regrow in new formations when darkness falls again.

Fractal forests of frost grow over my apartment windows every night.
Fractal forests of frost grow over my apartment windows every night.

To combat these frigid temperatures, the city devotes huge amounts of energy and effort to domestic heating. The majority (60%) of Ulaanbaatar’s residents live in ger districts; these outlying neighbourhoods are so named for the traditional felt tents (gers, also called yurts) in which the residents live. The ger districts are poor areas that lack centralised heating, water, or sewerage; residents survive the bitter cold by burning charcoal in small stove ovens. The smoke from burning coal in these ovens causes the thick haze that accumulates over the city, making Ulaanbaatar the second-most polluted city on Earth, where air pollution causes 1 in 10 deaths.

Ulaanbaatar’s extreme pollution problems and the solutions currently being implemented by organisations such as XacBank, Credit Mongol, and Kiva, will be a future blog topic.

After the density of the city, the pollution in the air, and the extremity of the cold, the final thing which hit me upon arrival was the heart of the people. I have been extremely fortunate to meet some of the friendliest people since I arrived. The Kiva Coordinator for XacBank, one of Kiva’s local partner banks, has been a lifesaver. She gave me a place to stay when I first arrived, she found me my apartment, she has helped me navigate the city, held my hand through Mongolia’s somewhat nightmarish immigration processes, and she continues to be a great friend. Batzul, you rock.

Similarly, everyone I’ve met—whether local or expat—has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome and help me find my feet. I’ve mentioned this flood of hospitality to a few locals, noting that after only a few weeks I have a bunch of new friends to socialise and go out with. The typical response from the locals is to nod in agreement, but when I mention going out at night, they often give me a warning: be careful in bars and clubs, they say; when some Mongolians have a few drinks, they like to fight, and the faces of foreigners can become their favourite targets.

Like I said, A Land of Contrasts.


Upcoming blog topics will include the following:

  • Misattributed Statue Selfie: How I Became Mildly Famous in Ulaanbaatar by Being a Dumb Foreigner on Instagram
  • My Kiva Fellowship in Mongolia: Why Am I Here?
  • The Bankhar: resurrecting an ancient breed of Mongolia sheepdog
  • Ulaanbaatar, Culinary Wonderland
  • Stoves and Solar: how green technologies are fighting pollution

7 thoughts on “Mongolia: First Impressions”

  1. A great first dive into a blog with a bunch of really cool facts and an easy-to-digest presentation. I’m looking forward to the future topics as well. Since Mongolia (especially modern Mongolia) is relatively unfamiliar to me, anything on that theme would be great. :) How fun!

    1. Thanks Alex. I figure Mongolia is probably an unfamiliar topic to most non-Mongolians, so I plan to do a lot of general topics about life in the country and city, in addition to more specific topic about my work here.

      1. Grr!! I didn’t get any notification that you’d replied to this. D:

        I’m looking forward to those posts. It’s always fun to read about something completely new. Hopefully it’ll expand my world perspective. :)

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