Ulaanbaatar: The Changing Face of Mongolia’s Capital City

gateway to the new cityPhoto: Franco Alessandro Cavalleri

Ulaanbaatar. “Red hero,” in Mongolian – a remnant of the Communist era. Great, radical changes are underway in this city of over one million people which is not a city. Ulaanbaatar is changing, changing face.

One hundred years ago, it was named Ikh Khuree, the “Great Camp”, for its almost endless numbers of “ger” – the traditional nomadic tents that covered the highland (1,700 meters up) between the four sacred mountains. A city that did not actually exist. A non-city.

The concept of a city as an urban settlement that was not a seasonal – summer or winter – camp was basically foreign to the culture of a people living in gers. The tents are easy to set up, and easy to pack and move to another field, another place, another season, according to ancient rhythms dictated by the alternation of cold and rain, heat and sun, snow and winds, and the needs of animals.

Ulaanbaatar changing facePhoto: Franco Alessandro Cavalleri

The communist regime which ruled – or better, dominated – Mongolia from the early 1920s until the early ’90s has changed everything, and forever.

The new rulers gave this city a new name – Ulaanbaatar, or Red Hero – with more than just a taste of propaganda – and they gave it a new face, more urban, though not fully so. It was more like a sort of a compromise between the nomadic soul of a people accustomed to move freely about the vast, void spaces of the steppes of Central Asia and Siberia, and a regime – communism – which required workers and urban areas to submit to one imposed domain.

Today, two decades after the revolution which marked the end of communism in the country, and the beginning of a very long and often painful period of transition to democracy, UB (as it is nicknamed by the many foreigners who live in the city and also many Mongolians) is experiencing yet another transformation.

The city wants to present itself as a financial and conference center for Central Asia and the Pacific, and to achieve this goal its local council has started a project – Ulaanbaatar City Development Master Plan – which has made a clean sweep of the previous plans, no longer suited to today’s needs, and includes the complete renovation of its town planning and architecture by the year 2020.

The center of the Mongolian capital has been enriched by highrise buildings, built to incorporate the most modern architectural styles and materials and signed by some of the world’s most important architects, from Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo or Scandinavia. Many more are being built or planned – buildings characterized by sleek lines, light, and soaring towards the forever blue sky of Mongolia. The buildings seem to melt into the sky, becoming one with it.

The great amount of work being done has filled UB’s streets with workers, but also with bulldozers, crawlers, rippers, and all kinds of machines and devices used in construction sites. Walking through the streets and squares of Ulaanbaatar is not always easy. Safety standards are certainly not the same as those we are used to in Europe, North America or in any other industrialized country. Pedestrians walk where workers drill, build, dig and move rocks, soil and steel. You jump and move swiftly between trenches, only centimeters away from a worker handling his blowtorch, while another is breaking up the pavement with a jackhammer.

new residential buildingsPhoto: Franco Alessandro Cavalleri

There are not only offices and financial centers being built. The city has also turned the corner with regard to housing. Instead of the Soviet-style model, new buildings, with modern lines and features, more comfortable and livable. The downside of this change is the sacrifice of common areas like the inner courtyard, a meeting point for many families staying in those great, older buildings. The new Ulaanbaatar wants to forget any form of collectivism, no matter what form it takes.

In areas outside the city, toward the mountains surrounding Ulaanbaatar, are the first groups of terraced houses, real villages enclosed within protective walls. The first signs of differentiation of the districts according to a social base, absent in the decades of communist rule. It is a process expected to carry on to a greater extent in the coming decades.

sky department storePhoto: Franco Alessandro Cavalleri

Shopping centers such as the State Department Store (a favorite of tourists for its location in the very downtown of UB) on Peace Avenue, or Sky, in the north-east of the city, do not have much to envy of their counterparts in London, Paris, Berlin and New York. Great outdoors, music, lights, glass and mirrors and all the great names of Italian and French fashion are here. The ultimate fakes, of course. China is near.

Many tourists are to be found in these malls, in search of souvenirs and local produce. Most customers, however, are locals. And young. Especially girls. Beautiful and sexy. Stylish. Fashion addicted. And with a full wallet. They go into these stores, and come out triumphant with parcels and packages, the best examples of a shopping syndrome.

Only foreigners use credit cards. The Mongols always pay cash. And not only when they are shopping. Even more challenging economic transactions, the work of the craftsman, the provision for a business customer, are done using cash. The streets of Ulaanbaatar are characterized by their large number of banks. Small, very small, sometimes little more than a landing, with only one worker. Open 24 hours. Because in a world where everything is made only when you have got money in your hand – a sort of show-me-your-money business style – it is mandatory to have the notes you need when you need them.