Geordie Torr at large
Geographical Magazine's editor Geordie Torr, hosted by Panoramic Journeys in October 2015, writes of his experiences and the key socio-economic issues faced in Mongolia.
From my vantage point on a dusty, grass-less hilltop, the fenced-off compounds – hashas – each with a dirty-white ger or two, many with a small house, spread out in all directions like a multicoloured carpet. Dogs bark, children play among piles of litter.
This is Mongolia, the world's least densely populated country, with around 3 million people spread across an area three times the size of France. But while 30 per cent of those people live in the countryside, 50 per cent live here in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (known locally as UB). Of those, half live in the area surrounding me – the so-called ger districts in the hilly areas to the north of UB. 'The ger districts are tremendously huge,' says my guide to the districts, Shari Tvrdik, the volunteer coordinator for Flourishing Future, an NGO that works here to provide a mixture of advocacy and direct support for the ger districts' inhabitants. 'The official figure – 750,000 people living here – is old. The population has definitely increased since that number came out in 2009.'
A no-nonsense woman with an infectious sense of humour, Shari has lived in the ger districts with her husband, Troy, the director of Flourishing Future, and their four children for almost six years. 'I'm from Chicago,' she continues. 'We have slums, every city has a slum, but UB is very different – more than half of the city's population lives in the slum. And I hate to call it a slum but that's what it has become.'
And it's growing more or less continuously. 'The growth has been very fast, much faster than I anticipated,' Shari says. 'I knew it was going to be fast because a lot of herders are losing their animals as a result of the extreme change in climate, but I didn't expect to have this much job security.'
During the 1930s and '40s, UB’s population grew by 3,700 people a year; from the 1950s to the '80s, industrial and administrative growth saw that number rise to 12,000. Then, during the 1990s, it jumped to 24,000 per year and by the first decade of the 21st century, it had grown to 39,000 per year – roughly 1.5 per cent of the country's population. 'We arrived in 2008,' Shari says. 'We came to the Flourishing Futures community centre and all behind it was nothing but empty hills – my kids called it their backyard. Now, that area is completely inundated. The last time I walked up this hill, which would have been in March, that house over there didn't exist, that hasha didn't exist.'
Arguably the most important and overriding human geography story of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been the great rural to urban migration. And perhaps nowhere has this story been played out in such stark terms than in Mongolia. 'These people all came from the countryside,' Shari says. 'The people here all have stories of wanting to find something amazing here in UB, but they don't find it.'
Under Mongolian law, any citizen is allowed to claim a 0.07-hectare plot of unoccupied land simply by erecting a fence around it. They can then apply to the government for possession of that land. 'But there's no plan - they just show up and put their ger where they think they want it and think about getting permission afterwards,' Shari continues.
'The government's trying to make a plan, trying to make it less insane, but it's difficult because these are nomadic people - they're used to just doing what they want to do and going where they want to go.'
Walking through downtown UB, you could be in any moderately sized city in the world – there are shiny, modern high-rise buildings, a smattering of trendy cafes and an incredible profusion of restaurants. You'll find schools and government buildings, and your hotel will be connected to a relatively reliable electrical network and modern water and sewage systems. The same certainly isn't true in the ger districts. 'In the time we've been here, the infrastructure has got a bit better,' says Shari. 'We used to have constant electricity outages, now we only have one a week. Electricity we have; wi fi everyone has; TV we have; smart phones; but we don't have flushing toilets or running water. It blows people's minds that I can sit on the internet and talk to them but I don't have any water in the house.
As we talk, three small girls walk by, all with an identical lean to the left as they strain against the weight of a large plastic bottle of water. 'Water comes up in a big truck – it fills a big tank and people just come up with their carts, fill their bottles and take them home,' Shari explains. 'Water is cheap – a [US] penny for 60 litres – but it's difficult because of the intense cold in winter [UB is the world's coldest capital, where winter temperatures can drop below -40C]. It is a hardship. You can stand in a water line for 30–40 minutes. You want to get in line because the tank empties quickly.'
The migrants don't usually come straight to UB. 'They'll move from the countryside to their nearest city and then go from that city to UB, so by the time we see them, they're a little less used to the nomadic lifestyle,' Shari says. 'They've let that go.'
Migrants move to the ger districts in search of work and to get better access to health care and schools for their children. But of course, things don't turn out quite as they had believed. 'Everyone pulls together this temporary plan: “We'll sell our ger, get a chunk of money, everyone will work full time doing little odd jobs - picking up garbage, selling plastic bottles. This will be temporary and then we'll move from there.” But it's not temporary, so then they don't even have their ger, they have a rented ger,' she continues. 'Sometimes three or four families will move in together in a rented ger, which is a disaster. Alcohol is always introduced, which leads to domestic violence and a general inability to work. There's also a lot of sexual violence, child sexual abuse.'
'In Mongolia, we see numerous NGOs working to resolve the increasing urban issues in UB, but I believe that tourism can make a contribution to slowing down the rural to urban migration that's one of the causes of these problems,' says Karina Moreton, one of the founders of tailor-made travel company Panoramic Journeys. While Panoramic Journeys supports several environmental and social projects in Mongolia, it's becoming increasingly active itself in finding ways to help herders hold on to their nomadic lifestyle.
'Over the past seven years, we've been working with three families, two of whom are now dealing directly with guests and building up their own businesses,' she tells me. 'At first, we approached families who were located in places that we knew that tourists would like to visit, but now that we've observed how much our guests enjoy the experience of living beside a nomadic family, we've had the confidence to select two regions in which to work that aren't a pull in themselves – in effect bringing tourism to non-touristy areas.'
Both of these new areas are relatively close to UB, regions to which families will typically first move so that they're close enough to the capital to be able to send their children to school. 'These are the families that are most susceptible to then making the decision to relinquish their nomadic lifestyle: they're away from pastures that they know well and their outgoings have increased,' Karina explains.
Karina hopes that by providing these people an extra source of income, they can convince the herders not to give up their traditional way of life. However, the experience they've already built up working with nomad families has made them aware of the potential pitfalls. 'In the past, our approach was to see a need and then get on with meeting it,' Karina says.
'But we've learnt that a more measured and strategic approach is necessary. We're lucky to have Anna Butler on our team now, who has a Masters degree in sustainability, specialising in Mongolia. She's using needs assessments and resource mapping to make sure that we're selecting the right families, rather than just going with our gut feeling.'
In November last year, Anna took part in a trip to find new families for Panoramic Journeys to work with and new areas to work in. 'Driving from the city towards Gun Guluut Nature Reserve, we came across a number of families who were obviously quite poor,' Anna says. 'They said that they had struggled in the past few winters and they didn't have very many animals. So we flagged that up as a possible area in which to work.'
As part of a different project, she also visited the local school. 'We met a few of the local herders' children, who were living in the dormitories and from my experience of working in orphanages, I saw that a lot of them were malnourished and very small for their age,' she says.
The company then sent out two of its local staff to scout the areas. They visited about 20 families and identified a number who might be suitable for hosting tourists – three of whom I stayed with, with my partner and two young children. These families were all relatively prosperous, but by building a relationship with them, and establishing a presence in the region, Panoramic Journeys is laying the groundwork for starting to work with families in greater need of assistance. 'We're hoping to get to know the community better and once they're confident that we're in it for the long run, they'll hopefully open up for us more and perhaps identify community members that need a bit more help,' Anna explains.
'Having “foreigners” visit also helps us to assess the families and communities, because it allows us to ask questions in a more casual way than if were to just go in with a questionnaire,' Karina continues. 'We want to get to know them - to learn about their lives and their needs - without being invasive. A friendly chat and a cultural exchange, we've found, is a great way to do this. It also helps us to build friendships and trust.'
Karina's past experiences have impressed upon her the negative impact of being seen as a cash cow. 'Depending on the needs assessment and the family's resources and goals, we can offer a wide range of assistance, including everything from the loan of a ger and furnishings to training and advice, match funding, work experience, introductions to guests and tourism professionals, and assistance in dealing with bureaucracy,' she says.
Anna's now working on a new project - an attempt to actually reverse the rural to urban migration, working with Flourishing Futures to identify people who might want to move back to the countryside. 'It's really in the beginning stages – we don't even know if it's possible,' Anna says. 'As Sheri was saying, a lot of families have sold their gers. We don't want to just give them one, so perhaps, during the summer season, we could lend them two or three gers so they could host tourists for us while they're getting back into the swing of countryside life. Then, hopefully, at the end of a season or two, they will have made enough money from hosting tourists to buy a ger of their own.' Panoramic Journeys does have some experience in this area upon which it can draw.
'Naraa and Bujee had to move to the city after their ger burnt to the ground twice,' Karina explains. 'They both found jobs in the city, but wanted to return to their roots in the countryside. We gave them support and hands-on experience of hosting guests in our gers.' The couple, with whom my family and I also stayed, now have their own tourism business near Terelj National Park but are able to live as nomads, using the supplementary income they gain from hosting tourists and leading horseback treks to help pay for their children’s education.
'We're also supporting three of our guides who've returned to their home province to set up their own tourist accommodation,' Karina adds. 'They, in turn, are employing the students in their locality with the best English, which makes them good role models going forward.'
Because of the nature of nomad life, where communication can be difficult, those who live in rural areas are often unaware of the reality of life in the ger districts. In an attempt to rectify this, Panoramic Journeys is working with local people on a short film about life in UB. 'We're planning to show this film to groups of nomads and to open up the debate about the pros and cons of nomadic versus urban living,' Karina explains.
Panoramic Journeys' guests can also have an impact in this area. 'A few of our host families have told us that conversations they've had have led them to question their belief that moving to the city is the way to succeed,' Karina says.
Obviously, given the scale of the internal migration taking place in Mongolia, these projects can have a relatively limited impact, but Karina firmly believes that tourism has an important role to play. 'If we can change the lives of a few individuals and families for the better, we'll consider it a good achievement,' she says. 'If we can come up with a model that has this impact and can be used further afield, it will be a great achievement.'
If you are interested in learning more about how you can get involved with the projects that Panoramic Journeys are involved in, please get in touch.