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From steppe to slum: urbanising Mongolia
15 July 2008 Gośka Romanowicz

The nomads we camped with on July 1st brought in their animals like any other night, while 200 km away the Mongolian capital was burning. Here in the steppe, the only fire came from the setting sun that gave a golden glow to the hilly pastures and the children playing with the horses, while the radio in the yurt was set to traditional Mongolian music all evening. Although the riots in Ulan Bator seemed a world away from this rural idyll, they did concern our hosts – because many herders like them end up moving to the capital where life is far from idyllic.

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Most yurts are surrounded by children playing

Unemployment and alcoholism plague the thousands of poor living in Ulan Bator. Many of the rioters who burned down the ruling party’s headquarters last week were young, unemployed men fueled by an explosive mix of vodka and frustration. Yet despite the problems and bad living conditions awaiting them in the city, many herders have abandoned the steppe for an urban life. The percentage of urban Mongolians has risen from 20% in 1950 to 57% today, a high percentage given the country’s level of development.

As a summertime visitor to rural Mongolia, the country’s increasing urbanization is difficult to understand: why would nomads want to leave the steppe? Here in the Mongolian "countryside" financial poverty does not necessarily mean hardship. There is no need for money when livestock provide food with their milk and meat, fuel with their dried dung, and even building material - Mongolian yurts are made of sheep’s wool compressed into felt on a wooden frame. Wood, which is considered sacred, is impossible to find across large swathes of the steppe - dried dung makes a very efficient substitute. A family’s life revolves around its herd of sheep, goats, horses, yaks and cows, taking the animals in for the night, milking and sometimes slaughtering them. The Mongolian for “how are you?” literally translates as “are your animals fattening nicely?” Ensuring enough feed for the herd is also the reason behind the nomadic way of life – changing pastures with the seasons prevents overgrazing and desertification, keeping the herders in balance with their environment.

While a herder can enjoy a good standard of living without much money, for urban Mongolians poverty means life in polluted, crowded yurt suburbs, lack of food and cold winters spent without heating. Just as we have seen no sign of alcoholism in the countryside, it is ever-present in the city and is a factor fuelling Ulan Bator’s population of street-children, many of whom run away from alcoholic fathers. Despite being home to around a third of Mongolia’s population, Ulan Bator is everything the rest of Mongolia isn’t: congested, polluted, concrete and ugly. Why would anyone abandon a nomadic life for that?

The answer may be easier to understand if visiting Mongolia in the winter, when temperatures plummet to -30 degrees C and lower. A string of particularly harsh winters between 1999 and 2001 killed off a third of Mongolia’s livestock, forcing many herders to migrate to the capital. While livestock provide everything Mongolian herders need, their loss also means they lose everything they have. There are no jobs to be had in the countryside, and with no support from the government moving to the city becomes the only option for these herders.

Some of those migrating to Ulan Bator have managed to find the jobs and better lives they were hoping for. But 47% of the city’s inhabitants still live in the slum-like yurt suburbs, either in yurts or wooden huts, with no access to running water. It is easy to understand people’s frustration, particularly in a country with great mineral wealth and mining profits controlled by a select minority. High levels of corruption further widen the rich-poor divide. The streets of Ulan Bator are jam-packed with new four-by-fours driven by aggressive, loutish nouveau-riche (we know this having spent some time cycling around the city).

Last week’s riots were sparked by accusations of election fraud (although international monitors said the elections were fair). As well as burning down the ruling party’s headquarters the rioters set the national gallery alight, senselessly destroying hundreds of artworks. Even if much of the protests were criminal in nature, their underlying cause remains urban poverty and the growing rich-poor divide in a country where nomads are leaving a productive life in the steppe for unemployment in the city. Perhaps Mongolia’s old communist rulers, who provided a safety net for herders in times of natural disaster like the Great Zud, got some things right after all.

For data on Mongolia’s demographics see the UN World Urbanisation Prospects on http://esa.un.org/unup/p2k0data.asp.

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