On the cusp of every large city in Mongolia, you will find a hodgepodge of fences, wooden houses, and gers. Many describe it as a shanty town that expands for miles beyond the city proper, showing no signs of slowing its expansion. City planners were concerned about this ever since the 1960s, according to Owen Lattimore’s book, Nomads and Commissars. Urban planning, however, has not been able to cope with the rapid expansion of the capital city, and problems with infrastructure are being brought to the forefront in government, mainly with concerns about how to address the issues in the ger districts. Larger cities outside of the capital also see their ger districts swelling as people move there for a chance at a better life.
There are many problems facing those who live in the ger districts. For starters, there is no access to running water. You must get your water from wells around the district and store them in your home in large barrels or containers, to be replenished when needed. Most fenced areas (khashaa) also have an outhouse for their residents. There is also a total lack of electricity in certain parts, or access to shoddy, often times unreliable service in others. The only heating option for just about everybody is your stove. In some wooden homes, they have a warm wall that captures and retains heat from the stove, which helps keep the home warmer longer.
The problem with the stove heating is that you have hundreds of thousands of people (in the capital, at least) burning wood and coal in low-efficiency stoves, creating a toxic miasma that lurches its way across the city, choking most who live within it. Most people who die in UB do so from complications created by the pollution hovering around the city. A recent Huffington Post article describes a hazy picture of what life is like in the capital city. Recently, in Erdenet, one of the most populous cities in the country, a smoky haze has been seen lingering over the city, remnants of heating fires from the city’s many ger districts.
Another issue afflicting the districts is unemployment and alcoholism. Herders abandon their flocks, or lost them to particularly brutal winters, and set up on the outskirts of the city, hoping to find work and a new livelihood. More often than not, this proves to be more challenging than anticipated. To cope with the many stressors in their lives, some men and women take to drinking. Recently, viralnova posted an entry about the most moving pictures from the year. One is of a little boy dragging his drunken father. This picture, while I cannot say it comes from Mongolia, captures a bit of the despair a segment of the population in these districts face
There are many short and long term issues that need to be addressed when it comes to these ger districts. Those who live in the districts, however, are not all in a constant state of destitution and despair. Most are living their lives, providing for their families, and doing what they can to make themselves more comfortable. I hope that the issues surrounding the districts can be resolved, and that these solutions will help improve the lives of all they will affect.