An Insider's Look at the Mongolian Capital

The hidden wonders of Ulan Bator.

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Kevin Vanier

Kevin Vanier left shiny, pleasant Vancouver in 2010 for Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The low density city of just over 1 million people boasts one of the world's fastest growing economies. But that dazzling expansion has led to an ad hoc landscape burdened with significant housing problems and dangerous pollution levels.

Despite its many issues, Vanier found much to admire within the streets of his home away from home, an affection that shows through in his photographs.

We talked with the Canadian photographer about his time in Ulan Bator, the problems the city faces, and what makes it so fascinating:

What brought you to Ulan Bator?

I hadn’t thought of Mongolia much until a decade ago I watched the made-for-Canadian-TV documentary The Hockey Nomad. I saw the friendly people, a clear chilly day filled with people passionate for hockey, cheer, and drink. I read more about Mongolia. Years went by. In late 2010 I found myself with few ties to my current city and enough money for a plane ticket out. I arrived and started a couple of jobs quickly and stayed for two years. I had to leave because of an awful tenant I had back in Vancouver. But even if I didn’t have my tenant issues I couldn’t see myself staying beyond another six months. Ulan Bator’s a trying city.

"I was doing a photo shoot for a friend at her posh German clothing store and managed to squeeze in a few rolls of my own during the day."

Did your expectations of the city before you arrived match up with what you ended up discovering?

Definitely not. Anything you read or watch of somewhere or someone -- it’s never enough. You think you've managed your expectations but your mind has filled-in the details. Maybe I thought Ulan Bator would be greener and less chaotic; like the scene of a Hayao Miyazaki movie. It's hard to remember how I once envisioned something because my expectations are instantly erased by reality. But I do remember thinking I'd be snacking on exotic cheese every day and riding a horse through a valley on the weekend. Until recently most cheeses were difficult to find there and being on a horse for more than fifteen minutes turns out to be severely uncomfortable if you're inexperienced (like I was).

Were there things about the city that you found difficult to adjust to?

The racism and xenophobia that I encountered. There’s a movement of nationalists that have the harebrained idea of keeping Mongol blood pure. They beat up foreigners while wearing replica SS Nazi uniforms. If they spot a male foreigner with a Mongol woman, they would target her too. In my experience, nothing physically harmful would happen usually but I always left these confrontations angry and disheartened.

What were the most interesting neighborhoods or buildings to shoot in the city?

Anywhere outside of the two square kilometers of the center is excellent for shooting. You can’t really go wrong anywhere. It’s intimidating at first but I doubt there’s a more photogenic city than Ulan Bator. I found most people to be inviting and hospitable and when you start making a connection with someone, that's when you can start getting interesting photos.

"Abating smog on a frigid morning on the Eastern side of the city." 

From what you observed, what are Ulan Bator's most pressing issues and the best things it has going for it?

Two years ago WHO said that Ulan Bator had the second worst air pollution in the world. That's the city’s biggest problem. It’s smoke from burning coal and it gets on everything. When I came back to Canada my clothes had to be washed twice before most of the soot and stench left.

One of the best things about the city is that it’s a frontier. The whole country is on the threshold of being rich and Ulan Bator is the center of it all. In three directions is the vast steppe. You can buy a horse and freely roam the countryside. To the south is the Gobi desert, one of the largest in the world. The place is an adventure, including my own difficulties there but I was always grateful to be in Ulan Bator.

"Naran Tuul market. Called "Black Market" in English. It's mostly a large combination outdoor flea market, general store, and groceries. Nothing as interesting as the English name might conjure although once I bought an old military bag that had blasting caps in them."
Construction projects in 13th District."

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"Estimates say that half (or more) of Ulan Bator’s 1.2 million people live in the ger district. The ger district is located mostly on the northern edges of the city that is quickly-expanding without much formal planning. It begins only one or two kilometers from the center and moves dozens of kilometers into the countryside. Because of it’s ad-hoc building nature most of these people are without running water, access to the Soviet heating system, sewage pipes, proper garbage disposal, and some further away parts — electricity. (There is a garbage ditch seen in this picture.) Heat comes from burning coal which is the majority shareholder in Ulan Bator’s horrid winter air pollution. It’s not an unsafe place especially during the day. Most trouble comes from drunks so I stayed out of their way. Aside from a couple of troublemakers it can be a quite friendly area! Occasionally, foreigners are invited in for tea or vodka and sweets."

No one I've talked to can explain the inspiration for this Soviet transformer paint. I walked passed these buildings every day but put off photographing it for months. Finally right after I got this shot they covered these towers with enormous advertisements."

(Left) "The row of trees along Central Street in front of Sukhbaatar Square has many dudes playing chess, dudes pick-pocketing tourists, and dudes getting drunk. A couple of hammered dudes started going through my friend’s bag while he was distracted and almost got some of his cameras. I don't know where his scars came from." (Right) "

"The first and only time I’ve seen a Golden Eagle and trainer in Ulan Bator. (Wild ones can be spied soaring the edge of the city.) I’ve never been so close before and was floored to understand how big the bird is. Two meter wingspan and so heavy that this woman had to support her handling arm. The bird was visibly agitated, probably from all the people and noise. A friend sneered at me for being a part of the cruelty to the animal. I don’t disagree with her and felt some guilt with my awe."

"Couple expecting their second child."

"Often when someone has a building on a piece of land they will have adult child or parents set up a ger in their boundary to share the space." 

"Boys determined to skate."

"Mongolian lady on a road that creates the border between Ulan Bator’s city core and the ger district. As soon as summer hits the city repairs begin on its aging water networks. Rolling water shortages take place throughout the city and when it's your neighborhood's turn you've got to borrow an out-of-district friend's shower if you wish to bathe. In this particular photo I’m unsure if that piping is under repair or being installed."

All images courtesy of Kevin Vanier. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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