Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 05/29/12
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, Stuttgart, Okinawa.
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?
Houston, Texas. 18 hours of flying with bad connections.
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?
American Embassy housing is excellent. Most expat housing is great too. Almost all are apartments. Commute time for American embassy people is 10-60 minutes, depending on time of day and housing location.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
In Ulaanbaatar there are grocery stores that cater to foreigners that have most common items. Regular grocery stores are well stocked with meat, dairy, sweets, pickled veggies, beer, and vodka. Prices are reasonable except for imported fruits and vegetables but you can get them year round.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Spare auto tires. Snow skis. A mountain bike.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are currently no American fast food chains here. There is plenty of Mongolian, Korean, etc fast food. Local food is very cheap. A good, but basic, meal costs less than 5000 tugruk (currently US$4)
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
There are few foods labeled as organic/bio. Much of the local product probably is due to cost of those "enhancements". This is a tough place for vegetarians. The Mongolians are meat eaters and it is almost impossible to find a meatless meal outside of Ulaanbaatar.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not so far, but we have not done a summer here.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the embassy mail.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Between $300-400 per month, but inflation is rapidly increasing labor prices.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Embassy does not have a gym. The residents at Star have a nice gym in the complex. Running and biking in the city are not attractive from any standpoint.
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?
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Yes, cost unknown.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In Ulaanbaatar, foreigners can get away with no Mongolian. One would not be able to function in the countryside without the basics. Mongolian is a difficult language, but 2-3 months of study will provide that basics that will allow good daily interactions. One has to learn Mongolian Cyrillic to do that. Russian goes a long way with Mongolians over 35. German helps a little bit as well as Chinese and Korean.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Lack of elevators, horrible sidewalks, if they even exist, the brutal cold.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are safe and affordable. Trains are a Mongolian experience. Buses are said to be a haven for pickpockets, but very cheap.
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 rugged, high clearance four-wheel drive is a necessity if you want to gallivant about the countryside. Toyota Land Cruisers are the local vehicle of choice among the wealthy. If you stay in Ulaanbaatar, any car is fine. Our Suburu Outback has done well but we are limited by some of the river crossings and mud bogs. No experience yet on obtaining auto parts. Good snow and/or off-road tires are a must; bring extras in your household goods. Never heard of a carjacking here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, more expensive than in the USA.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phones are cheap and easy to obtain.
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 local veterinarians. Pets are becoming more common in Ulaanbaatar. Dogs are utility animals in the countryside.
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?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business suits for men and fashionable dress for women.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There is a significant element of xenophobia here. Random foreigners get punched walking on the sidewalks. Pickpockets are common and present at crowded markets and stores.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Local health care is low quality. Mongolians have a lot of health problems.
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?
Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted city in the world in the wintertime. The combination of coal-fired stove smoke from the gers, the coal-fired and unscrubbed smoke from the power plants and the automobile exhaust is horrendous. Face masks when outside and air purifiers in your home are required. Bronchitis is common. The pollution mostly clears up by April and returns in November.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Spring and fall are beautiful but variable. There is snow, but not much sticks. We have not experienced a summer yet. Winter is absolutely brutal. We had a mild winter in 2012 and it reached -35 F/C regularly in January. Makes for great skiing since it never warms up enough in the winter to create icy patches like in Colorado.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Our first grader has had an excellent experience at ISU. The instruction started out very basic, but became much more rigorous after a few months.
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?
We don't have direct experience, but have heard very favorable comments from other parents.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
ISU has a good after-school program. There are many commercial after-school programs, but some will require Mongolian language.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Expats are not hard to meet.
2. Morale among expats:
Excellent for the outdoorsy types. Low for homebodies.
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?
Some in the embassy and ISU communities.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Excellent for families and couples. There is a lot to do. Plenty of indoor kids activities in the winter like swimming, bowling, and museums. The American Embassy kids run around in packs at the apartment complex and have a great time riding bikes, at the playground or at each-other's houses. Don't know what it is like for the singles, but it would take some work to socialize. There are plenty of bars and dance clubs. The Mongolians especially like Irish bars.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Unknown but there are no overt signs of gay friendliness.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Definitely a xenophobic streak, but it is not widespread. Religion does not seem to be a big deal here. Mongolian society is traditionally male-dominated, but the opposite is true in non-traditional settings. For example, the embassy has very few male Mongolian supervisors. We don't have a great deal of business experience, but the majority of day-to-day contacts seem to be women.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Staying in a ger (yurt) at a farmstay run by a Mongolian herder. Long horseback rides across the beautiful step. Meeting the wide cast of characters that are the Mongolian people. They are unique among the Asians.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The museums are good and there are plenty of historical sites. Horseback riding is fun, cheap and a great insight into Mongolian culture. Opera and theater and good and not expensive. Shopping is okay for selected items. The ski resort in Ulaanbaatar is surprising good for its small size; very inexpensive and well run.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Airag, aaruul, cashmere, puzzles, horserides. World class vodka.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
This is a great place for folks who like to be outdoors. Some of the many things to do include horseback riding, camping, hiking, and climbing. Touring, eating, and camping are cheap if you do it Mongolian style which means somewhat basic and rough. The countryside is absolutely stunning and there are endless places to explore.
11. Can you save money?
Yes. if you do not travel outside of the country much.
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:
Sports car. Requirement for order and pristine urban settings. Fine palate. Love for soy milk.
3. But don't forget your:
Love for adventure. Air purifiers, hiking boots, extreme cold weather coats, underwear and boots. GPS.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Any of the Jack Weatherford books. He understands the Mongolian psyche and puts it into words that can be understood.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
The Story of the Weeping Camel
Story of the Weeping Camel
6. Do you have any other comments?
Mongolians remain the descendents of Gengis Khan (Chinggis Khaan). They are warriors (men and women) and are fierce, proud, rude, strong, and straightforward. They are very different from other Asian societies I have experienced. I get along with them very well, but it takes an open mind. There is a large and growing divide between the lifestyles of city and country people.