Ecosystem Ulaanbaatar: Urban Liminality, Staged Atavism, and Infrastructure of Life

Urban wolf, sewer dweller, and yurt settlement in Ulaanbaatar. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Urban wolf, sewer dweller, and yurt settlement in Ulaanbaatar. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

From “urban” to “wild,” from “nomadic” to “sedentary” – a wide range of liminal states are currently unfolding in metropolitan spaces. While colonial capitalist modernity negates such in-betweenness, it also thrives on the negation of (liminal) life. Exposing and deconstructing the resulting contradictions is a first step toward emancipation from this impasse of modernity, as artist Shuree Sarantuya shows in her contribution to the “Kin City” text series, by focusing on the infrastructure of life in Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city on earth.

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In Mongolia, the migration of nomadic households to static urban lifestyles is driven by public and private sector marketing campaigns that promote a desire for modernity and avoidance of inconvenience. Here, the lure of easy access to the infrastructure of life – health care, housing, education, among other – is a key marketing tool. But the promise of a comfortable life proves deceptive at the latest when the infrastructure of life turns out to be the infrastructure of capital: housing and health care, for example, are not cultivated as common goods but traded as objects of market speculation, leading to harsh inequalities and injustices; at the same time, traditional common goods (such as indigenous knowledge about healing, learning, and living together) are perfidiously assimilated, so that alternative forms of modernity become unthinkable or even worthless.

To explore the multiple spectrums of modernity and its hybrid forms, we need to understand the complex challenges faced by sedentary Ulaanbaatarians and their struggle to achieve modernity. This struggle is reflected not least in the sedentary longing for wilderness and its staged representation, which mimics a connection to nature, but in a curated way. These interactions and mixtures between the natural and synthetic worlds allow for different versions of coexistence between human, non-human, and more-than-human life. Can one build a community without collective exclusion and discrimination against other beings who have their own liminal or hybrid version of modernity within a society that is not yet open to interpretation, not yet stable enough to hold different meanings, and not always inviting to new perspectives?

Survival in the coldest capital city on earth

In today’s Mongolia, being a nomad has a negative connotation, at least in my household. Today, being a nomad embodies relentless physical labor in harsh weather and constant financial insecurity, which contrasts sharply with the urban ideal of a warm home or shelter, especially in the coldest capital city in the world. Needless to say, this image by city dwellers who are accustomed to a certain standard of living, whatever that may be.

When capitalism was introduced to Mongolia, some people, including children, were homeless and lived in the underground sewers with heating pipes that ran under the city. Even today, these so-called “sewer people” have to endure freezing winter temperatures in these conditions. What’s more, they face hostility. The city’s xenophobia, for example, is currently directed at those who do not behave like citizens. This xenophobic image corresponds to the “sewer people.” They are considered “Orcs,” a term inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, which refers to a person in Ulaanbaatar who still has traces of outdated habits, roughly touches things, vandalizes things, gets into fights, riots in the streets, etc. There are complaints on social media with hashtags against them, and everyone wishes they would disappear from the city; the capital would be a better place.

The newly settled population of Ulaanbaatar seeks the ideal urban living space, while modern people seek natural light and lush greenery. The short Mongolian summer lures city dwellers to the countryside, where they can temporarily escape the stress of the city. Although nomadic life is undesirable, living in nature is considered ideal. Together with foreign tourists (mainly from Europe and East Asia), city dwellers revitalize the rural economy, which really only exists during the summer months.

When the long, cold winter arrives, those who can escape nature find solace in the city. Here, especially in Ulaanbaatar, the air turns dark gray from the pollution of the yurt district, also known as the ger district. Because the yurt district was not originally planned as part of the city’s infrastructure, it is excluded from the central heating system. Residents of the yurt district burn different types of fuel that the government has deemed safer and healthier.

Zoljargal Purevdash’s 2023 film “If Only I Could Hibernate” (Baavgai Bolohson) tells the story of a boy living in the yurt district, challenged by the harshness of the cold winter and hoping for a better future while seeking a scholarship for a better education. The Mongolian title translates as “If I Were Only a Bear,” referring to the hardships of winter in the capital city and the whimsical desire to escape winter by hibernating like a bear.

On the coldest days, the air pollution index reaches dangerous levels, especially for newborns and children growing up there. Some households prefer electric heaters to burning fuel because of the dangers of accidental CO2 overdose during sleep. However, during the coldest months, Mongolia faces problems with high electricity consumption, resulting in high costs and electricity imports from Russia. In addition, the lowest income households in Ulaanbaatar spend significantly more on heating and food than higher income households with more secure and cheaper access. In other words, people in the yurt district literally burn their money to keep warm during the long winter.

The modern subject’s atavistic longing

Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” (1903) is about Buck, a domesticated dog, who is kidnapped into the Alaskan wilderness during the Klondike Gold Rush. Primal instincts awaken in Buck as he adapts to the harsh realities of the wild. Buck’s transformation from pet to leader of the sled dog pack underscores the untamed spirit that resides within a being that is no longer wild. The epigraph to “The Call of the Wild” is taken from John Myers O’Hara’s 1902 poem “Atavism.” This poem encapsulates the central theme as it follows dogs awakening to their innate, ancestral nature, throwing off the shackles of domestication to become wolves.

Atavism, in simple terms, is like wisdom teeth that are no longer needed, but grow anyway. Just as there are different spectrums of modernity, different forms of atavism can emerge from static lifestyles, leading to a desire to reconnect with primal instincts. Interestingly, only Buck can hear the call of the wilderness, while other dogs, mostly huskies, remain oblivious. Other sled dogs have lived in Alaska all their lives and have never felt or heard this call. Who can hear this call? If not all, how and by what criteria are the few chosen? The selective nature raises profound questions about the exclusivity reserved for those whose lives have been touched by domestication and sedentary living.

For many, camping becomes a temporary escape from the constraints of urban life. It is a curated experience where one can enjoy the beauty of nature while still being wrapped in the familiar comforts of portable technology, pre-packaged meals, and inflatable mattresses. The act of camping becomes a tangible embodiment of modern atavism. The tents pitched for a weekend retreat represent a conscious decision to enjoy the wilderness while ensuring a quick return to the predictable comforts of urban existence. It underscores a longing for a connection with nature that functions as an escapism from urban structures and synthetic comforts. Camping is a leisure activity, a retreat, or even an entertainment. While camping enthusiasts may seek the romanticized notions of primal existence, campers also desire a controlled and curated space that is not truly wild, but only staged as wilderness. This stage is even used by animals that live nearby and are accustomed to coming there to look for leftover breadcrumbs or materials for their nests.

Robert J. Flaherty’s film “Nanook of the North” (1922) is an early depiction of unconventional life. It shows life in the deep Arctic and stars the Canadian Inuk named Allakariallak. The spectacle of not living in the same modernity as the audience is an exciting part of anthropological documentaries. In zoos, museums, and carnivals, people are curious to explore and consume content curated to satisfy their atavistic desires. Bird watching, stargazing, hunting, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, or even just walking in nature could be seen in the same way. The commodification and romanticization of wilderness for mass consumption created “glamping,” “Instagram-able,” “post-able,” and “stream-able” content.

Shows like “Survivor,” “Alone,” or “7 vs Wild” entertain audiences with the adventures of individuals navigating harsh terrain and extreme conditions. While their purpose is to showcase various methods of survival in the wild, they often emphasize aesthetics over authenticity. The very environments staged as battlegrounds for survival are home to indigenous communities. Yet it tends to portray these terrains as hostile, unforgiving, and barren, only emphasizing the hardships of survival outside of urban spaces.

Although camping represents tranquility, outdoor survival challenges the personal boundaries of modern commodities. On the other hand, the knowledge that they can return home grants them a temporary escape from urban spaces. This privilege of temporality, however, stands in stark contrast to homelessness in the metropolis. For people experiencing homelessness, access to basic needs, such as hygiene, is still limited to public toilets that require payment, broken and unsafe facilities, and anti-homeless service policies. Creating inclusive urban spaces is not only about access to modern amenities, but also about acknowledging and responding to the diversity of living conditions within urban landscapes.

The intersection of wilderness and urbanity

As natural wilderness is increasingly transformed into engineered spaces for human recreation, urban areas are evolving into unconventional habitats. “Urban coyotes,” observed in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, demonstrate adaptability by navigating limited green spaces and bustling downtown areas. Thus, in environments designed primarily for sedentary human lifestyles, these coyotes fit into the urban ecosystem, hunting and foraging with or without human intervention. The coexistence between city dwellers and urban coyotes is complex. Some appreciate these creatures. Others express concern, especially when there are cases of coyote attacks on children or the disappearance of small pets. But the boundaries within this relationship are blurred because some people who are fascinated by them may inadvertently contribute to domestication, where humans are seen as a potential food source.

Unlike meticulously curated wildlife preserves, the organic emergence of habitats within sedentary settlements witnesses the spontaneous takeover of wildlife and plants without direct human consent.We may deliberately prune tall trees, but what does it actually mean to pursue the development of urban ecosystems in harmony with nature? For example, in Cologne, Germany, where I currently live, large flocks of free-ranging monk parakeets navigate the busy streets. Witnessing such events, one can’t help but reflect on the resilience and adaptability of life in spaces that seem to negate that very life.

While the sight of these green birds is a spectacle, it’s important to note their status as an invasive species colonizing numerous European cities. Similarly, the native wolf population across Europe faces complex dynamics within different countries. Farmers affected by wolf attacks on their livestock often receive compensation based on regional regulations. Alternatively, farmers are advised to focus on increasing livestock protection by constructing more robust fences and barriers. At the same time, the widespread hybridization between wolves and dogs in Europe is a major concern because it poses serious challenges to wolf conservation efforts. These contradictions are also evident in Mongolia. Here, wolves are revered as forest doctors. They hunt sick or old prey and cleanse the forest of disease. But even contemporary nomadic perceptions portray wolves as a threat to property, echoing the global concerns of herders and farmers.

The line between traditional and urban wildlife is increasingly blurred, where survival is not only for the fittest or the richest, but also for those who can adapt to evolving structures that resemble stages, preserves, and terrariums.

For all liminal beings

While the transformation of the dog into a wolf is an epic story, the reverse seems natural and ordinary, implying that all wolves must evolve into dogs in order to coexist with the human world. To imagine a narrative in which wolves remain as themselves becomes challenging. By that I also mean that it is difficult to imagine such a world.

However, a wide range of liminal stages are currently unfolding before our eyes: from urban to wild, and from nomadic to sedentary. Each transition brings with it unique and equal realities involving interactions among humans, nonhumans, and more than human actors. But with mutual respect for each other’s modernity, we might finally seek to develop a reverence for the living, breathing world around us. Modernity is no longer just about possessions or privilege; we should fight for updated versions that incorporate the diverse wisdom of the land, people, and wildlife, not just defined by colonialism or capitalism.

The violence of domestication and monumentality affects us and other species that are self-sustaining from their native lands. Without the indigenous practice or knowledge of finding our food or even building our communities, we are all irreversibly addicted to a reality based on hyper-consumption that is ultimately and inevitably dystopian.

Author’s note: This article is dedicated to all liminal beings; those who exist between places, jobs, homes, dreams and realities; beings that cannot easily be placed in a single category of existence. Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Kin City” series. More information: https://berlinergazette.de/kin-city-urban-ecologies-and-internationalism-call-for-papers/

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