Crazy driving in Ulaanbaatar

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"We drive cars the same way we ride horses," a Mongolian colleague once told me. It took me a while to process that thought. I can't say I see the grace and beauty of a Mongolian horseman reflected in Ulaanbaatar's traffic. But I don't think that's what he meant. I think he was referring to the freedom of movement that both drivers and riders on horseback enjoy.

I first experienced Mongolian traffic as a pedestrian, desperately trying to cross busy streets, surrounded by cars and in constant terror. At first, I stayed alive by waiting until a critical mass of pedestrians gathered together at the side of the road. Then, as a single body, they would surge forward into the traffic, forcing cars to stop or at least slow down. I don't know what triggers the collective decision to move forward, but somehow it works.

Now I'm experiencing traffic as a licensed Ulaanbaatar driver. My car, a Ford Everest, arrived from Thailand a month earlier than expected (shipping volumes are way down because of the economic crisis). It's strange owning a car again, especially a big gas-guzzling one. I feel slightly guilty about carbon emissions, but since our office doesn't have a car (we walk to all our meetings, even in -30°c weather), I don't lose much sleep over it.

Drivers here are completely unpredictable, pedestrians appear out of nowhere, and accidents are frequent. But to my surprise, I just plunged right in and immediately adapted. I think it's because I used to drive in Armenia, where driving habits are similar. Now I'm nearly as frightening on the road as seasoned Ulaanbaatar drivers. When I get back to Washington, I'll be a nightmare on wheels.

That said, my gas-guzzler has definitely improved the quality of my life here. When I need to go somewhere, I no longer have to stand in the road with frozen children trying to get a ride. And on weekends, I can get out of the city and enjoy the beauty of the countryside, not to mention fresh air. And having a big car with red plates helps: on Ulaanbaatar's roads, size matters.

I have to admit, I don't exactly feel like I'm riding a horse when I'm behind the wheel. But somehow, driving here makes me feel more connected to my adopted home. It's a really good feeling.

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Authors

David Lawrence

Communications Consultant

Join the Conversation

battsooj
March 14, 2009

Yes it's terrible.

It's like way too much cholesterol in our blood circulation. Is there anyway to improve our traffic problems?

norrim
March 16, 2009

A sweet ride is a sweet ride, guilt aside.

Alastair
March 20, 2009

So, why didn't you get a horse?

Solongo
September 03, 2009

Yea, I hate that stupid traffic.