Genghis Khan, the famed Mongolian ruler, and his many descendants once ruled over the largest contiguous empire in human history. Gifted with such large expanses of land, the Mongolian's nomadic tendencies remained in the people's cultural DNA for centuries. Even today, at its much reduced size, the country remains four times as large as Germany—and contains fewer than three million inhabitants. In today's cramped and crowded world, such ample space would seem to offer the hope of continuing these long-practiced customs.
Yet a boom in the mining industry—sparked by a rush for resources like coal and gold—have radically changed the economic and cultural complexion of this once traditional country. Over the past decade, Mongolia has been transformed into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Not surprisingly, this wild material growth has come with an attendant rise in inequality and even more strikingly, an increasingly urbanized lifestyle. Whether for those at the bottom, or those few at the top, Mongolia is no longer defined by its wide open expanses but by its dangerously dirty and crowded cities.
These trends are most evident in the capital city, Ulan Bator. The city was originally founded as a movable Buddhist monastic center. It changed location some 28 times (over the course of 100+ years) before the city could settle on a permanent location. Today, it is hard to envision these humble origins amidst the booming development. In just the past decade, the number of inhabitants has almost doubled (from 700,000 to 1.2 million) and soon, half the country's population will be packed in there. Over this time, the prevalence of cars has increased three-fold. As a result, the city experiences some of the worst recorded levels of pollution anywhere on Earth.
Again, imagine Germany. The country has 80 million people. Now cram 40 million of them into one city, Berlin, and imagine how empty the rest of the country would feel. Expand the size of Germany by four but keep everyone crammed in that one city. That is Mongolia today. Such cramped, crowded, polluted conditions hardly offer a recipe for wide-ranging nomadism. The country has fundamentally changed largely within the span of ten short years.
During the extremely harsh winter of 2010, nearly one-quarter of all farm animals died and the price of meat doubled. In the city, prices for everything are constantly on the rise. The loss of green pastures as a result of the tough winters, coupled with the shortage of water caused by mining, has forced even more nomads to migrate to the capital. Two-thirds of the population live on the outskirts in massive yurt (tent) districts, the most infamous is known as the Ger District. Countless coal-burning stoves pollute the air, representing an enormous health hazard. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow unabated. And each day, the number of homeless people increases as more people flock to the city. As a result, unemployment remains high but many recent arrivals have nowhere else to go.
In short, this is the "Mongolian Disco"—a party, a struggle and a nightmare, all at the same time.