Monday, September 04, 2006

Does Mongolia have a large wealth disparity?

Mongolia has a huge disparity of wealth, and not just between foreigners and Mongolians. Unlike other countries, however, below the super rich, there is a gradual decline in capital between classes, as opposed to a huge jump. The super rich here in Mongolia tend to work in the mining industries or in banking. Their ranks often include foreigners from China, Canada and the US. These people drive around in Hummers, Lexus SUVs and Range Rovers. They have drivers.

Beneath them, however, wealth is less apparent. Here in Mongolia you can buy clothes from brands like Abercrombie and Fitch or Miss Sixty or Sevens Jeans for a fraction of what you would pay in the US, because it’s all made in China. Often, the clothes will already have their US price tags on them. And, as I’ve said before, a lot of people will spend a lot of their incomes on clothes, making attire a difficult reference point as far as wealth goes.

A lot of the restaurants here too will have graduated pricing. At the one I go to most often with people at work, Crown Restaurant, you can buy a soup and a salad, or a soup and another small dish for less than $2, which is what we usually do. Main courses start at around $3 or $4 and are aimed at a different clientele, but one that will sit side-by-side with us. Then there are other restaurants, such as Millie’s, that are priced in such a way that no one but the wealthy can eat there.

The supermarkets are more separatist. Wealthier people will shop at the State Department Store, or stores like Good Price, that offer Western goods. Middle class people who live in central UB will shop at Dalai Eej, a more local supermarket that still stocks brands like Crest. The further you get from the center of town, the cheaper goods in the supermarkets are. Poorer people will shop at outdoor markets like the one next to the train station where all the goods from China come in. Here there are large shipping crates that operate as wholesale stores, with one filled with potatoes and the next with onions. Outside, women will sell kilos of rice that they take from large 50 kilo bags.

Then there is housing. The well-paid Americans live in places like the Star Apartments, which are rentals. Many of the wealthy Mongolians are choosing to live in places like Japan Town, which are the newly-built gated communities. These houses are often located just across Peace Bridge on the other side of the river. They are totally anomalous McMansions with turrets and big windows that look out on other McMansions. They are packed incredibly tightly, and have no land whatsoever. They start at $250,000.

A lot of people, myself included, live in the Soviet apartment buildings that take up much of central UB. They are huge monstrosities that tend to be longer than they are tall, so they look like 20-story apartment buildings resting on their sides. Government officials that aren’t corrupt will live here, as will NGO workers and store owners.

As you get further out of the center of town, just past the Ring Road that circles the city, the shanty towns begin. The structures here are small make-shift houses with small dirt lawns. Some of them appear to have plumbing, others do not. These go on for a long time. They are tacked alongside windy roads, none of which are paved. Teachers at the universities may live in them, or large families just in from the countryside.

Beyond the shanty towns are the ger towns. These are where the truly poor live. Like in the shanty towns, the gers are placed on small lots next to thousands of other small lots. There is no indoor plumbing. Mangy dogs wander the streets and it’s not a safe area to walk around in at night, even for Mongolians.

Past the ger towns, the city disappears, instantaneously becoming countryside. Here, particularly upriver, wealthier Mongolians build their summer homes, or their regular houses, where they can have land and river views or mountain habitats.

Oh, and for those of you keeping track: it's snowed already in parts of Mongolia and it hit zero celsius here in Ulaanbaatur on Saturday night.


At 3:13 AM, Blogger zoloomon said...

im a Mongolian student in the U.S and yea I just stumbled up on yo page accidently while i was surfin...well yeah I like your observations! They are very percise, the wealth distribution out there is enormous just like any other 3rd world countries. Corruption is one of the main reasons why some are living lavishly. And where does the corruption money coming from? The mining companies foreign investors etc...its sad aint it? I hope with all the new gigantic mines found this current corrupted government at least will share its wealth a little with the general population. PS: Hope u aint wearing flip flops right now like some Americans do ! (even in the summer flip flops are not recommended unless u want to cut your feet badly! kekeke)

At 3:16 AM, Blogger zoloomon said...

lack of wealth distribution out there is just like in any other 3rd world countries.

At 2:48 AM, Blogger Баасандаваагийн ДӨЛГӨӨН said...

I dont think hte wealth disparity is only due to corruption. As far as I am concerned, the mindset of hte people is the fundemental cause to it.
Corruption is a byproduct of an century of mindset that people still have today. Of course we have to take account of poor moral everywhere. I believe the only visible solution to the problem is education and I know it will take long time for a change to occur. The problem is "in the long run, we are all dead." (J.M Keynes)

At 2:40 AM, Blogger jargalan said...

While I agree with your observations to a large extent, I really don't think that corruption is the root of all problems in Mongolia. There are many people who have make their money through fully legitimate ways. The mindset of the people is a very large cause because many people have not been prepared when capitalism was introduced in Mongolia. Now corruption is the favorite word of the people in Mongolia. Everybody just waves of the problems they encounter and attribute them to corruption higher up.I am not denying the existence of a vast system of corruption in the government but people who accuse the ones who are more fortunate than them and say they are corrupted just piss me off. Still, very perceptive and interesting observations. i have stumbled on your blog while randomly surfing the net

At 7:34 PM, Blogger samraat said...


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