Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/03/22
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?
My previous expatriate experiences have been in Nairobi, Kenya and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I also used to live in Zuunmod, Mongolia.
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?
I am from Washington, DC in the United States of America. There is a 12 hour time difference between Ulaanbaatar and Washington, DC. Transportation includes flying from Ulaanbaatar to Seoul (approximately 3 hours) and then taking another flight from Seoul to Washington, DC (approximately 12 hours). The layovers in Seoul can be as long as 12 hours as the flights do not line up well.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
I have lived in Ulaanbaatar for 1 year 8 months.
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Work at the U.S. Embassy
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I live at the Starr Apartment complex a few blocks away from Suhkbaataar square. The complex includes apartments, townhouses, and a few standalone houses. My husband and I live in a 3 bedroom apartment, which is more than enough room for ourselves and our dog. The complex includes a gym, basketball/tennis court, greenhouse in the summer, and ice skating rink in the winter. If you are a member of the U.S. Embassy community, you can also access the Community Center which has space for events, a playroom for kids, and a small library with a piano. The grounds are well maintained and are beautiful in the summer - grass fields, flowers, and trees. The compound is only a 30 minute walk away from the U.S. Embassy.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can generally find what you need; however, you may need to go to different stores or wait a few weeks for things to come back in stock. Grocery items are generally less expensive than comparable items in the United States as long as you are open to local or third country brands. The exceptions is that some fruit (blueberries, strawberries, etc.) are more expensive in the winter and imported cheese is more expensive most of the time. However, its relatively easy to avoid those items and have relatively inexpensive groceries.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Grocery items that you have brand loyalty with. Alcohol can be expensive and there generally is not a good selection. If there are particular beers or wines you like, I recommend including them in your consumables (if applicable).
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are many restaurants that are popular amongst expats, including but not limited too: Hazara, Namaste, Rosewood, La Rosewood, Fat Hen, Hutong, Ikigai, Bluefin, Stokholm Sushi, Nazca Restaurant and Lounge, Veranda, Hoba Pizza, and Millies. Many of these restaurants offer take out or delivery through the Songo app.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
As part of the U.S. Embassy, I receive mail and packages through the diplomatic pouch. It usually takes 3 weeks for an item to arrive; however, it can take much longer depending on if the border is closed. Using the local postal facilities, it can take months for a letter to travel from Ulaanbaatar to the United States.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We hire two women to come to clean our apartment one morning a week. It was very easy to find and employ them. Other families have found household help and/or nannies easily as well. The cost of our employees is approximately $25/week and we are very happy with that.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Starr Apartment compound includes a gym that is free for residents. It includes cardio machines, free weights, weight machines, and a small sauna.
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 at supermarkets and Western restaurants. I have never heard of problems using either credit cards or ATMs locally.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
While living in Ulaanbaatar, you can largely get by with English but using Mongolian niceties is greatly appreciated. Once you leave the capital, many people do not speak English and you need to use basic Mongolian language. Free Mongolian language classes are available to both employees and families members at the U.S. Embassy.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, Mongolia does not have many accommodations and I think it would be very difficult to live in Ulaanbaatar with physical disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The local buses are cheap, very crowded, and pick pockets are common. Taxis are generally safe and affordable; however, I recommend using taxi companies recommended by the RSO. Most people only use the train if they are on vacation and it is not fancy but relatively safe.
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?
Bring a 4-wheel drive car that you don't mind being dinged up.
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?
Cats and dogs do not need to be quarantined upon entry into Ulaanbaatar. There are a few vets that pet owners have said are good. If you have a dog, note that Mongolians are generally afraid of dogs and they are required to wear a muzzle on the street. However, there are a few good places in the city to walk them, in addition to the hills that surround Ulaanbaatar. Star Apartment had space to walk your dog but no enclosed dog park.
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?
U.S. Embassy/Ulaanbaatar currently has 5 full-time EFM positions and 6 part-time EFM positions (EPAP HR Associate, RSO OMS, RSO Investigative Assistant, GSO Assistant, 2 CLO Coordinators, 2 Security Escorts, and 3 Consular Assistants). Depending on the interest of the EFM community, Human Resources is willing to change positions between full-time and part-time as needed. The availability of EFM positions vary based on the year. During my first year, there were many EFMs applying for each opening and not enough positions for all the EFMs who wanted to work. However, right now we have more positions than EFMs who are interested in filling them. So, it will depending on the timing and if other EFMs want to work! As many of the positions are relatively low level, the U.S. Embassy has been talking about creating more professional opportunities by requesting additional EPAP positions or CA-AEFM positions. However, as of today, these efforts have not been able to move forward. I'm hopeful that with the current leadership, it will be able to move forward soon! At this time, at least 3 EFMs work outside the Embassy with companies in the United States. In the past, many EFMs have worked on the local economy as English teachers. I think there would be other opportunities to work on the local economy, but you may need Mongolian language abilities.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual is the typical dress code at the U.S. Embassy. However, suites are required for some events or external meetings.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The only health concern that I have is that there is terrible air pollution in the winter. The private hospitals that the U.S. Embassy work with are very good with doctors who speak English.
2. 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?
Good in the summer; very bad in the winter.
3. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
While Mongolia is sunny in the winter, it is difficult to get outside due to the cold. As such, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing in Ulaanbaatar.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The summer has beautiful weather (80F) with regular short thunder storms. The winter can be very cold (-40F) and only snows a few times a year.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expatriate community in Ulaanbaatar is pretty small and consists largely of English teachers, mining workers, NGO workers, diplomats, and the occasional entrepreneurs. Many of the long term expatriates are married to Mongolians and don't interact with the U.S. Embassy often. The U.S. Embassy has over 50 USDH employees and the morale is very high.
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?
Going to restaurants, breweries, theater, or concerts. Inviting people to go hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter (I hear there are Facebook groups). Attending the "balls" that NGOs and organizations put on in the winter. The Expats and Mongolians are very friendly and its easy to meet people here.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a great city for couples because there are many things to do - restaurants, bars, concerts, theater, hiking, skiing, camping. If you are over 30, most of the Mongolians you meet will have children but they are overwhelmingly welcoming to couples without children (even if they are a little confused).
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Overnight dog-sledding trip in Terelj National Park.
Attending Naadam both in Ulaanbaatar and Nalaikh (small city outside of Ulaanbaatar).
Visiting the lower Gobi Desert (Eagle Valley, Flaming Cliffs, Singing dunes, and visiting nomadic herders).
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hustai National Park is an amazing place to visit! The area is beautiful and you can see Takhi (the only truly wild horse in the world), red deer, and the fattest little marmots. Its only a 3 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar and there is a comfortable ger camp that you can stay at.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Embroidered Kazakh wall hangings are made in the Western regions and are really beautiful. The Union of Mongolian Artists sell amazing paintings which are generally pretty affordable. Cashmere is relatively inexpensive and easy to find in Ulaanbaatar.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Accessible to Mongolian countryside less as soon as you leave the city limits.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The winter is very bearable as long as you get warm clothing, good boots, and avoid long walks. Most building in Ulaanbaatar are overheated and its easy to get warm. Don't let the winter scare you off this amazing country!
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, I would absolutely come back to Ulaanbaatar.
3. But don't forget your:
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Story of the Weeping Camel (movie); The Cave of the Yellow Dog (movie); Babies (movies); The Eagle Huntress (movie); Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (book); Wolf Totem (book); Tracking the Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond (book).
5. Do you have any other comments?
If you are in the U.S. State Department, I highly recommend bidding UB!