Editor's Note: The following post also appears on Dave Lawrence's personal blog, Out of Mongolia.
The winter air in Ulaanbaatar is hard to imagine. It is basically a thick blanket of smoke spewing out from the stoves of thousands of people living in gers, which are traditional Mongolian homes made from wooden frames covered in felt. Raw coal is the main fuel, since it is much cheaper than wood. Traffic and power plants play their part too, but it's the smoke from the gers that makes breathing such a challenge at this time of year.
Half a million people in the city live in the ger districts. They are mostly poor; recent migrants from the countryside in search of better lives. The poorest cannot even afford coal, and burn whatever they get their hands on. Even garbage and old tires. Just think of what's going into the air.
From a distance, you can see a yellow-brown band smothering the city. Above it, the sky is clear and you can see the mountains and a bright, blue sky. But within the band, everything is swallowed in toxic darkness. Driving into it fills you with dread.
You can't blame people for trying to keep warm in winter. But what a price. Breathing that stuff 24/7 has got to be tough, especially for children. I wonder what the long-term health consequences will be. Not good, I'm afraid.
Fortunately, the issue is getting a lot of attention now. Improving the quality of life in Ulaanbaatar is a pillar of the World Bank's strategy for 2008-11, and dealing with pollution is a part of it. Let's hope it works.