Despite the terrifying-sounding statistics, a rapidly growing number of foreigners are permanently settling in Mongolia, particularly in Ulaanbaatar (dubbed “UB”).
A third of the country’s population of about three million people live in UB. Of them, approximately four to five thousand are expatriates.
There are few concrete studies on the future demography of the country, but many current expats believe the number of foreign residents could rise significantly in the next five years, with some predicting the figures will reach as many as 50,000 by 2017.
But what attracts foreigners to Mongolia?
There are many factors that draw adventurous souls to Mongolia, a country rich in culture and history, sandwiched between two geographic giants — Russia and China — but one of the main attractions lies in the prospects of the country’s rapidly developing economy, more specifically in mining.
Plentiful resources of sought-after minerals such as copper, tin and gold are driving large-scale industrial development, which is set to make Mongolia increasingly rich in the coming years.
Skilled workforces of foreign engineers, miners and mine managers are needed to run multiple massive projects such as the “Oyu Tolgoi” or “Turquoise Hill” mine in the south of the Gobi Desert, which is the largest mining project to have been undertaken in Mongolia’s history.
With such vast quantities of valued natural minerals lying deep below the Mongolian soil, there has naturally been an influx of interest and investment in the country.
Foreign banks are setting up offices in the city center, high-end luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Armani have stores on the main avenue and up-market Western-style restaurants are popping up all over the city.
The IMF has predicted growth in Mongolia’s economy to average 14 percent a year between 2012 and 2016, and the wealth is beginning to show.
Hummers with blacked-out windows careen down the wide avenues, designer-clad youths drink and smoke in the many token Irish bars and the number of chic hotels is on the up.
However, as well as foreigners who work in the banking, retail and mining industries, there are many who reside in Mongolia to teach English at schools and universities, to work in environmental research companies or to volunteer with organizations such as the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD), the British Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) and the American Peace Corp.
Despite the new-found wealth, Mongolia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia; one third of the population lives below the poverty line and there are many social problems, particularly with rising unemployment levels among city dwellers.
The Hummers are juxtaposed with old Ladas, and the swanky hotels and shopping malls with crumbling and decaying buildings. Poverty and the divide between rich and poor is unmistakable, with foreign aid and volunteers being heavily relied upon in sectors such as employment, education and health.
Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia offer more than employment opportunities for foreigners and the potential to make a fortune, however.
Retail therapy can be enjoyed at the State Department Store, while a variety of international films (shown in both English and Mongolian) can be seen at one of the mammoth cinema complexes. As in practically any capital city, there are ice-skating rinks, bowling alleys, and a number of excellent theaters, museums, art galleries and old monasteries to visit.
But the real entertainment lies beyond the city. Mongolia is renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty, and when it all gets too much in the busy metropolis, weary city-dwellers can head to the vast steppes of the countryside, stay in a traditional nomad yurt, or ger, and marvel at the clear skies and abundant wildlife.
The expat community is tight-knit. Everyone knows each other and newcomers are welcomed into the fold. Group outings, cinema trips, excursions to the countryside and the weekly trivia night at Hennessey’s Pub are not to be missed.
One AYAD volunteer from Sydney described living in UB as “fantastic,” while another English Teaching Assistant (ETA) from Texas said he much preferred Mongolia to other parts of Asia.
While there are inevitably also those expats who have negative comments — common complaints concern pollution and the crushing volume of traffic in the city center — there seems to be something about the place that draws people in, and most expats positively preach about it, from the cheap cost of living (a survey compiled by ECA International found UB to be the least expensive city in Asia for expats) to the vibrant nightlife, and of course the endless list of activities that can be pursued outside of the city, from wolf hunting to ice-fishing to hiking to skiing to horse riding: The possibilities are endless.
What exactly is the special something about the place that elicits such enthusiasm among visitors? Perhaps it’s that despite the heavily polluted city air, the sun is always shining. Maybe it’s the Mongolian dry sense of humor or tremendous hospitality, or even the aroma of freshly steamed mutton dumplings, called buuz.
Whatever the reason, a distinct sense of fondness for this fascinating country is palpable. Miners, investment bankers and volunteers alike seem to share a common appreciation.
For a country that was relatively cut-off from the world for most of the 20th century, Mongolia is enjoying a new era of prosperity and it seems that is could see many more foreigners relocating to the aptly named “land of blue skies.”
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