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.
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.