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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David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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