Riding the bus in Ulaanbaatar


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Ulaanbaatar city bus I ride an Ulaanbaatar city bus to work almost every day. This is unusual for someone in my position. Most people would expect a driver to pick me up in large, black Toyota Land Cruiser with diplomatic plates. Yet I ride the bus. Everyone thinks this is weird.

I’d like to say I do this because I’m deeply concerned about climate change, and eager to reduce my carbon footprint. But the truth is much simpler. In Mongolia’s bitter-cold winters, the bus is much easier than driving. Our office is too small to have its own car and a driver, and driving myself is a chore. My car is locked in a garage 300 meters from my house, behind heavy doors which scrape noisily against concrete and ice when opened. Then I face gridlock traffic, bumpy roads, horrific drivers, and kamikaze pedestrians. In the evening, after being outside in subzero temperatures all day, the car is freezing cold and difficult to start. Not fun at all.

But riding the bus is easy. For 300 tugriks, which is about $0.20, I can jump on a city bus right by my housing complex. I never wait more than five minutes. Three stops later I’m a short walk from the office. The bus, being massive, can plough itself through the traffic, scattering the Land Cruisers and other high-end SUVs which otherwise dominate the roads. I don’t have to do anything except sit. 

I like to watch other passengers as they ride. In winter, I can do this discretely, since it’s hard to tell that I’m a foreigner when I’m bundled up from head to toe. There are students from the Agricultural Institute, which isn’t far from my home. Some are office workers, probably from the many government offices in the city center. Others are very poor; carrying large sacks of scrap wood they have collected to keep warm in winter. Their lives are very different from mine, but on the bus we all pay the same fare and bounce along the same bumpy roads, sharing a common experience. I like having this connection with citizens of Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolian entrepreneur wood So why is it so odd that I take the bus, given how convenient and cheap it is? It’s all about status. In Mongolia, you only ride the bus if you can’t afford to drive. My neighbors, who are well-to-do Mongolians, wouldn’t be caught dead on public transportation. When I mention that I take a bus, I usually get a confused look and am warned about pickpockets.

My wife, a Ukrainian girl who grew up in the Soviet Union, has the same view. When I started to take the bus she was horrified. Her greatest fear is that I will be recognized by someone while getting on or off the bus. She still doesn’t like it, and will probably kill me if she finds out I blogged about it.



David Lawrence

Communications Consultant

Join the Conversation

December 10, 2009

Not surprising at all, many cities in the world have much more efficient and cheaper public transit systems than US. In fact, driving is not a good solutation in most of these places.

December 12, 2009

Good point about status .... I've worked with

a UK environmentalist who turned her nose up at the idea of taking a train to a meeting

a colleague at UN-Habitat who got her Indonesian security guard's sympathy 'for her being so poor' because she cycled in to work

Angolan government counterparts who had to arrive at meetings in Oxfam 4x4s - even if the meeting was only 200 yards away

A Filipino colleague who wanted to wait 30min for a taxi in Melbourne - instead of taking the tram 2 stops (and arriving in 5 min)

Perhaps we should bring these wonderful elites for some capacity building in Stockholm or Singapore ... 'poor countries where everyone has to take public transport - or even, god forbid, cycle ...'

You need a decent congestion charge in UB !

Steven Vance
December 30, 2009

I like the first paragraph about people expecting you to get picked up in a Land Rover. I feel it's also safer to ride the bus. As long as it doesn't fall off the edge of a cliff, the vehicle will survive the streets.

Neil Barker
June 26, 2010

Interesting post. That green bus in the photo looks like the same kind used here in Seoul, South Korea. Public transportation here isn't looked at so unfavorably, mainly due to congestion in Seoul. Great blog by the way, I'm interested nowadays in the Mongolian economy.

July 19, 2010

Interesting observation and indeed good blog. I applaud your willingness to reduce your carbon footprint. But you never mentioned about the uneasiness of being squeezed in the crowd and being unable to move around, even when the time arrives to get off the bus. Maybe the line you use is the one less crowded…but mostly it is the fact that we find hard times to get on board. That's why I prefer driving…

And plus, with the budget deficit the UB bus authority fails to service many communities stretched out of their limited service territory. Not all the homes and work places locate conveniently next to the bust stations. I have no idea how we improve this situation in addition to already a pile of troubles.

November 01, 2012

We are a charter bus company in South San Francisco, California. We are currently under federal law to reduce our emissions on our buses....By 2014, our buses need to be fully compliant with strict emissions control.
Most buses made after 2008, are compliant with Federal law. The only drawback is the emissions control systems are very expensive!