Nomads to Migrants: Ulaanbaatar grapples with rural to urban migration

The contrast between Ulaanbaatar’s ger district sprawl and downtown high-rises serve as a backdrop for a young girl on the roof of the ger she just helped her mother set up.


A treasured reminder of 75 year old Shagdar Badrach’s  former nomadic life on the great Mongolian steppe hangs from the latticed wooden frame  of the round felt tent Mongolian’s call ger. It’s a shiny metal plaque that proclaims him “Best National Herder of 1986”, a Socialist-era recognition for herders who successfully raised more than a 1000 heads of cattle for the State.

While little has changed inside the ger, when he and his wife step outside they  no longer gaze on endless green steppe. Instead, for miles all they can see are a patchwork of haphazard crooked wooden fences that enclose solitary gers on little plots of land, rustic wood and brick cabins and outhouses.

The population of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city has increased by more than 70 percent in the last 20 years, according to World Bank estimates. Migration from rural areas has seen the population swell from less than 600,000 inhabitants in 1990 to more than 1.2 million today. About 40 percent of the country’s total population of three million now live in Ulaanbaatar. With no space for the new arrivals in the Soviet-era  residential blocks in central Ulaanbaatar, migrants like Badrach simply pitch their traditional dwelling in the suburbs, erect fences and make do with their new homestead.

Over the years, the areas known as the ger districts — named after the homes they brought with them — mushroomed around Ulaanbaatar. “So much so that, what was originally Ulaanbaatar is now only 10 percent of the total area of what the city expanded into,” says Badruun Gardi from the Zorig Foundation, an NGO that helps poor migrant families with documentation necessary to access social services in the city.

For many migrants, Ulaanbaatar rarely offers the relief from poverty they seek. In 2004, a UN survey on poverty and in-migration found that over 34 percent of Ulaanbaatar’s residents  live on less than 2 dollars a day and that poverty was higher among ger district residents and migrants. Poorly skilled and unqualified for most jobs, many migrants take up menial jobs, such as daily wage labourers, if they can find one, says Gardi from Zorig Foundation.

While reasons for moving to Ulaanbaatar abound, many migrants are former herders seeking new livelihoods after a series of winter disasters that Mongolians call dzud, a phenomenon when a summer drought is followed by extreme cold winters that claims the weakened animals. Mongolia’s worst dzud struck in the winters of 1999-2000 when over 14 million animals perished leaving thousands of rural families destitute. “It was after this dzud we saw the dramatic rise in the number of migrants streaming into the city,” recalls Gardi.

Visible impacts of climate change are affecting Mongolia’s nomadic herders who still comprise around 35 percent of the country’s work force. “There is strong scientific evidence that Mongolia is experiencing significant effects of climate change, especially increasing temperatures, decreasing rainfall in some areas, and a corresponding decline in streamflow observed in many areas”, says Maria Fernedez-Gimenez,  a rangeland specialist and associate professor at Colorado State University who has been observing Mongolian pastures since 1994. Based on the national water census, surface water has declined 30 percent over the last 15 years, she adds.

The explosion in the number of livestock from 15 million heads in 1990 to 45 million by 2000 according to government statistics, also spurred the winter disasters and inadvertently urban migration. “The number of animals exceeded carrying capacity of pasturelands  and the dzuds are a way of nature trying to restore the balance in a very harsh way”, says Tselee Enkhe-Amgalan from Mongolian Society for Range Management. She believes adaptation strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change call for better herding practices and management of livestock population and pastureland to help herders continue their traditional lifestyle sustainably.

However these strategies are no longer relevant for former herders now struggling to adapt to the harsh realities of urban poverty. In the winter of 2009-2010, another dzud claimed 12 million animals across the country. Badrach’s animals were among those that perished. Left with less than a 100 animals he decided to sell some and moved to Ulaanbaatar to be closer to two of  his children who found jobs in the city. He chose a plot of land on the last row of houses on a hill engulfed by settlers before him. And while he says support from his children is enough to get by,  he keeps busy tending 30 of his remaining sheep and goats. His main worry now is that  more settlers might move behind his plot and his animals would lose a portion of what is now their grazing ground.

On Canvas: Ulaanbaatar’s Ger District Life

Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling suburbs called the ger districts have been expanding at an incredible rate over the last few years as migrants from smaller towns and the countryside of Mongolia flock to the capital city in search of better lives.

Often brushed off as shanty towns and slums that have to be replaced with apartment complexes to reduce pollution, the ger districts are mostly viewed as an ugly backdrop to Ulaanbaatar that have to be removed.

But there is another aspect to life in the ger areas and in this report we introduce you to Bumandorj and Tugs-Oyun – two Mongolian artists who draw inspiration from Mongolia’s ger districts to create artwork that begs people to look a little deeper into life in the ger districts and to share their opinions about urban Ulaanbaatar and its problems.

Artists Tugs-Oyun next to one of her artworks
Artist Bumandorj next to a ger-district painting of his in his studio

Video: Ger Necessities

Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling ger-districts have given the city the oft-used moniker ‘Nomad City’ or ‘Tent City’ as thousands of Mongolians simply pitch their gers in an urban settings. Life in the ger districts is is far from plush. But for some, it is a far more desirable lifestyle and a choice over living in boxed up apartments. And also, a much more sustainable way of life provided a few adaptations are made.

Begzsuren, who prefers to be called Begz, is a librarian and IT enthusiast and he shares his view on the bare necessities of living in a ger, problems with the ger districts and what’s needed to make the ger the most natural and sustainable way of living for urban Mongolians.


Ger Necessities from Pearly Jacob on Vimeo.