by Didem Tali
During my field trips in the outskirts of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, my driver keeps playing two particular songs.
When I ask about their meanings, “This one is about the beauty of horses,” the translator explains. “The other one describes the beauty of the Mongolian countryside,” she adds.
My driver’s name is At. He has a tattoo of a horse on his left arm. When I tell him at means horse in Turkish, the grin that sits on his face doesn’t disappear for a long time, as he keeps listening to the song about horses. My translator, a university-educated young woman who was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar, gets nostalgic and starts to describe how she learned to ride a horse at the age of five.
Many Mongolians, including the urban and middle-class ones, have very deep connections with their pastoral roots and are rightfully proud of the natural beauties of Mongolia. Described as “The Land of Eternal Blue Sky” by many, this Central Asian nation is home to exquisite vast lands, deserts and taiga that has been home to nomadic communities for thousands of years.
However, due to the extremely harsh weather conditions that climate change brings, thousands of nomadic families lose their animals and livelihoods every year. Poverty and temperatures that might go down to -40 Celsius degrees force these communities to come and seek a better life in the capital Ulaanbaatar.
“I would go back to my old nomadic life herding animals in the countryside in the first chance I get,” explains Byamba Enkhbat, a manual laborer at a block factory, who came to live in Ulaanbaatar ten years ago after losing his animals during one particularly harsh winter.
There are currently over 800,000 individuals like Enkhbat, who live in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, in yurts known as “gers”.
Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital, doesn’t have the infrastructure to support almost a million urban poor residents, who have to burn tons of coal eight months of the year to keep their gers livable. The result is one of the world’s worst case of air pollution, five times worse than Beijing.
On a bright October day, the weather is -12 Celsius degrees, as I am speaking to individuals living in the ger districts about how air pollution affects their lives. Before long, my hands and feet are numb. Despite the heavy-duty pollution mask I am wearing, it feels like I smoked a hundred cigarettes and my throat is ticklish. I see the thick smoke coming from the chimneys of gers dance in the air with wind. As the day gets darker, the smoke creates a grey hue around the street lamps. The land of eternal blue sky, this is not.
“Since it’s still the warm season, the air pollution isn’t too bad at the moment,” a resident says with a shrug, when he sees that I am taking photos of the smoke. “You should come and see this around January.”
I study his face to see if he’s being sarcastic, but he’s dead serious and throws another large chunk of coal in the stove of his ger.
Didem Tali is a freelance multimedia journalist. She was funded under the summer 2017 round to travel to Mongolia to report on the escalating levels of air pollution in the country’s capital city. Her long-form article and short video was published on the Irish Times website in October 2017 and her article was also published in the print edition of The Irish Times. Visit the project showcase to read more.