Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 02/28/15
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. We've also been posted to Washington, DC, Manila, Abidjan, Bishkek, Kiev and Colombo.
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?
UK. Shortest is 12 hours with Aeroflot via Moscow. Although longer, I'd recommend to transfer through Seoul, or Beijing - it does pile on another 6 hours or so, but the choice of airlines is greater that way and it usually ends up more comfortable. Turkish Airlines offers connections via Istanbul, but the dead-of-night stop in Bishkek (with de-planing) is exhausting.
3. How long have you lived here?
Over 3 years.
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 vast majority of UB's expat residents live in apartments, with very few free-standing houses. The standard of apartments varies by cost, of course, and ranges from socialist era apartment blocks to more upscale condominiums, often built during the recent boom years when mining was at its peak. Most expats live in the centre of UB, although some (including ourselves) opted to live further out of town, in Zaisan, where air quality is better. However this does make for commuting times of 30-45 minutes which is an issue for many. If one has a car, heated parking spaces are a must, and which does restrict one's choice.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Not too bad. Of late, availability of groceries and supplies has declined, and prices remain very high for imported produce, especially fruits, vegetables and other fresh produce which are at painfully raised levels. Local produce can be of decent quality, but is also not cheap, and the range is rather limited to meat, dairy and flour-based products. Basically one does need a source of imported food, and occasional food trips to places like Hong Kong are advisable. For cleaning products and toiletries there are a good selection of German products.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Good quality cotton-only bed linen. A football/foosball table for the long winters. Good quality cat litter. Muesli.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
KFC and Pizza Hut are recent arrivals. RoundTop pizza, the Californian chain, is very decent. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Caffe Ti-amo are the only international coffee chains, but with some very decent local cafes also. There is a good selection of restaurants, with some excellent South Asian and Japanese food available. Reflecting the socialist past, one can find several Ukrainian, Cuban and Russian places as well. Of late Korean food has become popular, although the quality of the many restaurants varies widely. Prices start at about US$10/person to eat out at the more basic places, to about US$30 at a fancier place, and places with far, far higher price tags.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Nothing to speak of in UB - none of the typical concerns of tropical countries like dengue or malaria. Cockroaches happily absent! Biggest problem would be gnats and mites in summer in forest and lake areas, so do bring some repellent for such trips.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
By pouch and also with the regular post, using a PO Box. Mongolian post has always been very reliable, including shipment of parcels/packages, although it's slow (3 weeks or so from Europe or North America). Items ordered from retailers like Brooks Brothers come by DHL/FedEx in 5 days or so. I enjoy sending letters by Mongolian post as they have some really beautiful stamps.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
This is not something that's really a common thing in Mongolia, unlike in SE Asia for example, and homes are rarely equipped for live-in maids, for example. It's more common to hire someone on a daily or occasional basis to do cleaning/ironing etc. Payment varies widely, starting from US$20/day - we generally paid about US$30-$40 depending on the work at hand.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, at international hotels and in many of the residential compounds.
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?
No problems. Credit cards are widely used and ATMs available around the country. I don't have concerns about fraud as I would in many other places. The other day I saw a lady telling her young daughter quite loudly and openly what PIN to enter at the ATM - generally it's pretty trusting and I just hope it does last!
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Several Christian denominations.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It helps enormously to know some basic Mongolian - this is not an English-speaking country, although many people nowadays do learn it. Even basic Mongolian skills will generate a great deal of goodwill which makes everyday transactions much easier and more pleasant.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. With the economic boom there are cars everywhere with most pedestrian zones parked over and cars competing for limited space. Also in winter the sidewalks are covered in ice and become extremely slippery. Many buildings have ultra-smooth marble entry stairs which are super-slippery and just dangerous.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Trains are pleasant and cheap and a first class sleeper car (for 4 or 2 persons) is the way to go. They are slow but the fun is in the journey itself, and it's a great way to see the diverse landscapes of Mongolia. We travelled a lot on the trains and they seem perfectly safe. As we drove ourselves everywhere, I can't comment on the buses. Taxi services are quite well organised and seem well managed - given the ultra-slow traffic speed in UB I would't worry about accidents. As for personal safety again, based on hearsay, so long as you use a good company it should be fine.
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?
This depends largely on whether one plans to travel much outside UB. For city driving a sedan or hatchback is fine, but not much use outside the capital. Mongolian roads can compete with the world's worst, and have to be seen to be believed, so a 4WD is a must if one plans countryside excursions. The Toyota Landcruiser is the most popular among Mongolians, with the similarly heavy-duty Nissan Patrol also quite prevalent. Japanese brands dominate and have official dealers with service/maintenance offered. Given the vast distances and extreme weather, reliability is a must. A 2nd gas/petrol tank comes in handy for the long distances.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, up to 15MBS. We paid about US$20 monthly for unlimited 5MBS service.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There are several good local companies offering a variety of plans and pay-as-you-go arrangements (we use Mobicom). Quality of cellphone service is very good generally, and coverage is surprisingly good even outside UB.
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?
We used 'UB Vet' who offer medical and boarding services of a good standard.
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 limited at present, although the labour market does tend to depend largely on the state of the dominant mining sector, which currently finds itself in a severe downturn.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are a few opportunities with local NGOs, although without a knowledge of Mongolian, one will be very limited in the ability to work with local colleagues.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Certainly quite formal and Mongolians do dress up, especially on national holidays and ceremonial occasions. This is a place where dressing down is generally not admired, even very remote regions. Scruffy appearances are a no-no.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Mongolia as a whole is a pretty peaceful place, and crime is very mild by developing country standards. I've yet to hear of a carjacking, for example. There are some scams like pickpocketing of phones, and then asking for a reward to get it back. Violence against foreigners seems to be closely correlated with drunks at night, so - knowing these factors - one can manage risk. I walk pretty much everywhere in UB and the biggest danger are the undisciplined drivers. I'd say that the biggest security concern comes with travel outside UB and not being prepared, given the long distances and extreme weather - go well prepared (with plenty of water) and preferably a satellite phone. People in the countryside are extraordinarily helpful if you do get lost, but one can drive for hours without seeing a soul!
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Water quality can be poor so care is needed, and always travel with good stocks of bottled water. Hepatitis C is widespread, with many medical workers infected.
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?
Seriously bad in winter - according to WHO the worst air quality of any capital city. Half of the population lives in traditional tents, using coal for heating. The result is heavy smoke that gets trapped in the valley which UB finds itself in, and which functions as a natural windbreak. Heavy duty air purifiers are essential, as are regular excursions outside of UB for a breath of fresh air. Air quality in summer is fine.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Hayfever is a problem in summer, given the grasslands, so come prepared. On food allergies nothing particular comes to mind.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very cold winters - UB holds the proud accolade of the world's coldest capital. However, with good clothing it's perfectly manageable. Summers are pleasant and quite hot. Spring can only be described as moody, with massive swings in pressure, temperature and precipitation in a matter of hours.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU), sadly, was our only really negative experience in Mongolia. Low teaching standards, an abysmal management more focused on building new facilities than children, poor discipline and questionable ethics are the unfortunate hallmarks of ISU. The American School of Ulaanbaatar, in contrast, gets positive reviews from parents - despite the name, the curriculum is actually Canadian. There is also a new British School of Ulaanbaatar, but it's still in formation, and hard to assess, although the signs are promising.
2. 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?
No direct experience, but there are plenty of private kindergartens available. Some expats put their children into Mongolian pre-schools and are happy.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, but not that organised as in many other countries, and a great deal of detective work and follow-up would be needed. Information management and marketing is not a Mongolian forte. Horse-riding comes to mind.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It varies according to the state of the mining sector, and with the downturn the current expat numbers are substantial, but not high. With mining-related personnel making up the vast majority of foreigners, morale is also closely correlated to that industry's fortunes. Given the major backlash in Mongolia against mining (due to concerns about environmental damage, conflict with the nomadic lifestyle, corruption) this can be expected to continue. Several mining executives have been prevented from leaving the country recently pending legal proceedings, and this had a major impact. For the diplomatic community, morale tends to be good.
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?
Dinner parties, picnics, visiting the theatre, opera, hiking.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
For singles and couples I would say it's fine. For families, the key will be the choice of school, and one needs to give real priority to this important decision: I would hesitate to recommend to bring older children to UB at present given the paucity of choice, and the impact that lost time may have in their academic career down the line.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Should be fine I would think.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not pronounced but there are some pockets of misogyny and racial prejudice, with some minority extremist political parties occasionally causing disquiet.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Travelling to some truly spectacular places around the country, incredible monasteries, landscapes in one of the world's last nomadic societies.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Mostly travelling around the vast country which is highly diverse.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Endless cashmere, camel hair and yak wool items. Beautiful coats, hats, gloves. My personal favourites are the cashmere sleeping bags we picked up (at US$60 each!).
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Touring for sure - Mongolia is really unique, with a fascinating culture, history and amazing diversity of landscapes (forest, desert, mountains, steppe) plus flora and fauna.
10. Can you save money?
Yes, but one shouldn't do so at the cost of one's comfort in what can be a difficult post, given the climate and pollution. Mobility is important, but this doesn't come cheap. Mongolia is a vast, diverse country and it pays to explore the place, but this does take time and money.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How bad the International School would be.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, but we would be careful on the choice of school and steer well clear of the International School.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Tropical diving gear and flip-flops.
4. But don't forget your:
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, "The Lost County" by Jasper Becker.