The Ulaanbaatar Sky


In the early 1980s, when I was working in Ulaanbaatar, I lived with my family in House 41, near the small inner-city ring road. The building was owned by the Mongolian Foreign Ministry and was provided for the use of diplomats and employees of international organizations. An Egyptian couple, who worked for the UNDP, lived there with their son, who was four or five years old. Apparently, they had previously been stationed in Ankara, Turkey, which was a city that suffered from terrible smog at the time. One day, the couple were in a bookshop and found a book called “A Land of Blue Sky” and thought, “This is where we want to live, for the sake of our child”, so they submitted a request for a transfer to Ulaanbaatar. However, the city suffered severe atmospheric pollution – particularly in the winter – as a result of the utaa (smoke) that emerged from the stoves used in the ger (traditional Mongolian tent) settlements that accounted for half of the homes in Ulaanbaatar at that time. They complained that it was no different from Ankara and were enraged that that book had misled them so.

Even now, the conditions there have not changed much and this is the biggest hardship faced by the citizens of the capital. Although the residents of the city and those with experience of living there are zealous in explaining the situation there, for some reason donor countries and aid organizations do not go as far as taking practical steps to tackle the pollution, even though they express their sympathy with those who have to suffer it; it is an intriguing environment-related field, in which measures to deal with the problem disappear in a puff of smoke. Even though the government and the city authorities have devised some measures, they are helpless to deal with the people who continuously pour into the city from Mongolia’s provincial areas. On a cold winter’s day with no wind, smog hangs around the hillside where Gandan Monastery stands, as well as the 3rd and 4th khoroolol (district) and the top of the Museum of Military History to the east; it truly looks like the foggy London of days gone by, with the streetlights blurred and the field of vision reduced to about three meters ahead of one.

In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in homes and gers being sited south of the Tuul River and in the area around the airport, so in the winter the utaa lies low on the ground and, although it looks like a bank of cloud from midair, it is actually a layer of smog lying a few meters above the ground. Consequently, even when Air China flies there, its planes sometimes have to turn around and head back to Beijing, while Korean Air does not fly to Ulaanbaatar in the winter at all. MIAT Mongolian Airlines has arranged its winter timetables in order to ensure that it lands at night, when the people of the city are asleep and no utaa is being emitted. As a result of economic cooperation with Japan, a meteorological observation radar has been installed atop the Morin Uul Hill, on the western side of the airport runway, which can be used by planes during take-off and landing; it must be rather dangerous to rely too heavily on one’s visual range during landing in the winter. There are mountains to the south of the airport, so pilots have to make decisions about landing when they are still 260 meters above the ground. Coupled with the problem of utaa, it is likely that these adverse airport conditions have an impact on winter air timetables. If the airport were located at Khushgiin Khundii, which is a candidate for the site of a new airport, it would be possible for planes to rise again even if they dropped to 60 meters above ground. I am sure that I am not the only one who is hoping that a date for the construction of the new airport will be announced as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, in other seasons, the city lies under an almost interminably bright blue sky. It has struck me that this is one reason why donor countries have failed to implement in earnest measures to deal with air pollution.

[Translated by ERINA]