I never thought I would be writing a blog post about plumbing, and yet here it is.
We have the olfactory magic pudding of bathrooms. The plumbing between all of the apartments in our building is connected, which means that we can be nosy neighbours without going all James Stuart in Rear Window, peering out from behind a chink in the curtains with binoculars. Instead we spy through our sink plughole. Occasionally the smell can be unspeakable, but for the most part it actually isn’t always what you would expect to be coming through the plumbing. Often, it seems, our neighbours are boiling up mutton. Someone washes their hair with apple scented shampoo. Another smokes the odd illicit cigarette.
Our hot water is not heated by a water heating unit in our apartment, or even our building. In Ulaanbaatar, hot water is a utility like others, pumped throughout the city via a network of very well insulated pipes. In summer there are rolling, fortnight long outages of hot water for each city block while maintenance work is done on the pipes. No problem, we thought, when informed by our prospective landlady that we would be have cold showers for a fortnight. ‘We’ll just shower at the gym’. That the gym might be on the same city block as our apartment was not something we considered. Fortunately the temperatures were around 30°C those weeks, so it wasn’t much of a hardship.
There are access points that ought to be covered by manholes all over the city that provide easy access to the hot water pipes. Often the manholes have been removed, making for significant fall hazards. Some of the holes look to be several metres deep. I once asked a Mongolian friend how the street dogs make it through the freezing winter. She told me that sometimes the dogs go down the manholes so that they can sleep out of the wind, warmed by the hot water pipes. The city’s homeless also sometimes need to do this to survive.
Hot water services don’t extend significantly beyond the CBD, however. A few weeks ago, I went on a tour of the ger district run by Ger Community Mapping. I was initially a little concerned that this might involve voyeuristic peering into ‘poor’ people’s homes, but the focus was quite different. Instead we were taken to see positive community initiatives, as well as being shown some of the infrastructure available to those who live in the ger area. It highlighted what individuals and small groups, with a little imagination albeit limited resources, are capable of doing for their communities. Our guide was as pains to point out that the tour is meant to be educational rather than entertaining. The tours are an adjunct to, and fundraiser for, the group’s main work, which is to create specialised maps of both the ger area and the CBD which identify particular areas of need. They have maps which show the ‘eco-households’ that grow their own vegetables (only about 2%). They have maps that show population density compared with the numbers of schools and kindergartens. And they have maps that demonstrate the level of access to water and how many households need to walk more than 500 metres to access drinkable water. They are a neat way of illustrating the point when lobbying the government for change.
Our tour started at a view point from which we could observe the breadth of the ger
district’s sprawl. The population of Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled since 2000, with much of the city’s expansion occurring without government planning for infrastructure. Putting in infrastructure such as roads, water pipes and power after the fact is very difficult, and can involve significant hardship or relocation for the people whose land is in the way.As part of the tour, we went to two water collection points. One was a natural spring which bubbles out of the earth in a small stream. On the day we visited, a number of people, mostly teenage boys, were filling up plastic drums with water. I can only imagine how unpleasant a task that would be in the depths of winter. The other collection point was located inside a small lockable shed—it looked a lot like a petrol pump. When we arrived, a man was pumping water into a huge drum that he carried on a wheelbarrow. After filling up he paid the keeper of the keys for his water. At about 1 Australian cent per litre, the cost is not prohibitive. In both cases, because the water is stored deep underground it is sufficiently insulated against the winter temperatures.
We finished the tour with a visit to Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake). Built inside a disused quarry, Nogoon Nuur is a community park for children. We were told that its creator had worked in Korea and was inspired by the theme parks there. He wanted to build something similar for the children of Ulaanbaatar. There is a shallow lake at the bottom of the quarry, with paddle boats for hire in summer and ice skates for hire in winter. It was an autumn day when we visited, and so too cold to paddle and not cold enough to skate. Only a family of ducks played on the water. In the future, however, the owner plans to build a children’s library and musical instrument collection to entertain kids in Spring and Autumn. I hope to take Matt skating there in a few weeks, once the water has frozen over. We’ll come home to thaw out with hot water straight from the tap, and I hope we’ll remember to think twice about how fortunate that actually makes us.