The more than two years that I have spent in Mongolia’s capital since the mid-1990 have to a large extent been in the company of a group of underemployed men and women from a working class and ethnically mixed Mongolian-Russian background.
Until 1945, what is today a polluted city of some 1.5 million inhabitants basically consisted of a handful of Buddhist temples, government buildings and foreign representations, as well as, scattered in all directions, semi-nomadic townships of by yurts and wooden houses enclosed behind fenced compounds (hashaa).
Between 1945 and 1990, Ulaanbaatar was turned into a model communist city with Revolutionary Square and leafy boulevards in the centre and ring-roads around, and thousands of concrete apartment blocks to accommodate all the new workers (however, hundred of thousands of rural migrants remained settled in peri-urban townships encircling the city many of whom were not registered as urban residents).
By 2010, more than half of the city’s inhabitants lived in five-to ten-km-thick belt of peri-urban on the slopes north of the centre, many without access to running water and therefore formal entitlement to the plot of land on they were making a living.
For my urban friends and many other Ulaanbaatar residents, including the hundred of thousands of rural migrants who have given up their nomadic livelihood due to natural disasters and escalating poverty, life in the ‘age of the market’ has involved a daily scramble for food, water and firewood in the sprawling shantytowns of fenced slum compounds that are encircling Ulaanbaatar’s Soviet-built centre to all sides.
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