Mongolia’s Great Migration

Why Young Families Are Flocking to the Countryside

There’s no indoor plumbing, and firewood needs to be chopped. But these former city slickers say they are all in.

Mongolia is one of the world’s largest countries by area. Yet almost half of Mongolia’s population today lives in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which forms 0.3% of the country’s area.

The story of why and how so many Mongolians ended up in the capital city starts in 1990. That’s when Mongolia abandoned socialism, became a democracy and moved to a market-based economy. As the country transitioned to this new system, an economic crisis arose and rural unemployment skyrocketed. Now, every year since, whether in search of job opportunities or better living conditions, people from rural areas rapidly move to Ulaanbaatar. As a result, the capital city faces significant challenges born of poor urban planning, heavy traffic congestion, and soil, water and extreme air pollution. In fact, Ulaanbaatar is one of the world’s most air-polluted cities.

Rural-to-Capital Migration, 1983 to 2022

In 1989, 27% of Mongolia’s population lived in Ulaanbaatar, compared to 49% in 2022.

Source: National Statistics Office of Mongolia

Recently, the country has been witnessing a wave of change as many Mongolians, especially young families, move back to rural areas. Many of them have either lived in the city all their adult lives or are recently returning after spending a few years abroad. In giving a glimpse into the lives of Tuya Tangad, Battsetseg Chagdgaa and Ulziimunkh Bat-Erdene, we are telling the stories of young Mongolians who have consciously chosen to live in the countryside. They learn from the locals, but also offer their expertise and experience. What they choose is the clear blue sky, fresh air and the luxury of time — something city comforts can’t provide.

MURUN, KHUVSGUL PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — If trees and flowers adorn a house in the Mongolian countryside, it is a well-thought-out decision. With short-lived summers and harsh winters, planting trees and flowers requires a lot of labor and capital here.

What Tuya Tangad and her husband have today is the ranch they dreamed of when they moved to the countryside. A spacious yard with a spread of spruce, pine and evergreen trees. A lawn with blooming, colorful, summer flowers. A large two-story wood house, with swings and slides neatly installed in the spacious backyard, and a beautiful terrace facing the outside. “People spend most of their time struggling to make ends meet in the city, whereas in the countryside we have ample time to enjoy life,” says Tuya, as she goes down the slide with her daughter.

Tuya, who studied law in Germany, decided to come back to Mongolia in 2013 to “contribute to the development of my country.” But after coming face to face with corruption, bribery, unemployment and an inadequate salary, she returned to Germany. After this, she lived in Austria where she met her husband, Hendrick Fischer. Once they got married and had children, Tuya was worried that her kids would not be able to speak Mongolian. In 2018, she moved back. The couple now have four children, ages 1 to 8.

A 2018 study conducted by the Press Institute, a nongovernmental organization that aims to foster independent media and offers professional training to Mongolian journalists, found that 94% of young people who have studied abroad live in Ulaanbaatar. But Tuya had a different plan. “We decided to live on the outskirts of Murun to avoid density and to enjoy clean air,” she says. It is unlike Ulaanbaatar, where both soil and air pollution are high, she says.

Every Year
People die from air pollution-related illnesses
Source: UNICEF report “Impact of Air Pollution on Maternal and Child Health Project (2018-2023)”
Of those deaths
Are children 5 or younger
Source: UNICEF report “Impact of Air Pollution on Maternal and Child Health Project (2018-2023)”

Tuya says she gets time to meditate, read books, manage her business, and also take part in volunteer work.

The same year as her return, the couple founded Fis Gis LLC, an outsourcing firm that implements layout designs for European cultural institutions and architectural firms. While they work out of Khuvsgul province, their work orders come mostly from Austria.

Besides the business, Tuya volunteers for a project to build a development center for children. In the province, like most of the countryside, there are few places for children and teenagers to practice their talents and spend their spare time. Not many parents can afford the additional course fee of between 100,000 and 150,000 Mongolian togrogs (between 29 and 43 United States dollars). Tuya expressed her desire to set up a library with more than 20,000 books, and said she’d pay for a librarian’s salary as well. “Only educating my kids is not enough. My children will be able to live in the community happily and peacefully as all children develop,” she says.

TARIAT, ARKHANGAI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — When Ulziimunkh Bat-Erdene’s wife became pregnant toward the end of 2020, the couple decided to give up their life in Ulaanbaatar and deliver the child in the countryside. It was time to prioritize the newborn and their own well-being over money. They decided to move to Ulziimunkh’s hometown, Tariat, in Arkhangai province in central Mongolia.

Their lives in the city had made them miserable. His job meant he would spend an extended amount of time sitting at the office and the rest on the road, slugging through traffic jams. He was frequently under stress, which made him overeat, and his weight went over 100 kilograms (220 pounds). He started breathing heavily, suffered from heartburn and had sleeping problems. His wife, Ninjbadgar Ganbold also experienced stomach problems, mostly because of regularly dining out.

Both were born and raised in the countryside, but after graduating from the university they stayed in Ulaanbaatar, as they thought that’s where they could live a happy life. Both earned good incomes and were doing well in their careers; but they weren’t happy.

Traffic Jams in Ulaanbaatar
cause citizens to lose
Hours Daily
Days Annually
Source: State Great Hural (Mongolian parliament)
Traffic Jams in Ulaanbaatar
cause citizens to lose
Trillion Annually
Source: State Great Hural (Mongolian parliament)

In the summer of 2021, they left the city. They were afraid and kept questioning their decision. But they were amazed by life in the countryside, the purity of the air and the kindness of the locals.

The transition wasn’t easy at all. “Since we were accustomed to living in apartments, we had forgotten about country life,” says Ulziimunkh. “We were terrified of animals, and could not even place walls to build a ger.” A ger is a traditional house in Mongolia, made of a wood frame, a felt cover and strap belt, that is most suitable to a nomadic life. While struggling to find a job for seven months, the couple survived by trading meat and dairy goods.

The couple are active online and share their experiences with rural life through their Facebook page titled “Joy of the Countryside.”

Ninjbadgar works as a clerk at a school and teaches dance to local children. Ulziimunkh operates a bathhouse, which is a vital need in the area as many rural houses lack bathrooms. The typical rural house has a pit toilet outside and a small hand sink inside; to bathe, people go to public bathhouses. Ulziimunkh’s bathhouse has 10 small rooms, each with a shower and a small changing room with chairs and hangers. In addition, Ulziimunkh raises racehorses and breeds Mongolian Bankhar dogs.

Time, they say, is the biggest gain for them, because they are able to make time for their hobbies and family. “When I lived in the city, I worked for many hours and sacrificed my strength and energy, rushing everywhere trying to get my work done,” says Ninjbadgar. “But in the countryside, I still have time to work, teach kids to dance, and spend the entire evening playing with my son.”

KHANTAI BAGH, BULGAN PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Battsetseg Chagdgaa runs her fingers on her shiny, white piano and starts playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Outside the mansion, there are no deafening sounds, no brain-tiring noises, no honks of cars. The chirping of birds is the only thing that interrupts her.

Close to her house, one of Mongolia’s largest rivers, the Eg, flows by. The banks are lined with 10 identical-looking brown houses.

It has been a while since Battsetseg moved to the little town of Khantai. In 2018, her 2-year-old daughter became ill. This coincided with a time when the capital’s air pollution hit a catastrophic level, making it impossible for a driver to see any vehicle in front of them. Battsetseg knew she had to leave the city. “In Ulaanbaatar, it was very difficult for kids to breathe. My only desire was to raise my kid in a healthy environment and keep my child from getting cold,” she says.

This is when she started a Facebook group, Living in the Countryside, which grew into a nongovernmental organization called Rural Reform-Development Partnership. Since 2020, Battsetseg has been working as director of the organization to assist people migrating from the city to the countryside.

In 2021, she moved from Ulaanbaatar to rural Bulgan province, settling in Khantai at the invitation of a local herdsman who wanted young people to come and learn from each other, and to live in the beauty of nature.

Battsetseg, an English teacher-translator who runs two manufacturing, beauty and household product businesses in Ulaanbaatar, says the most significant obstacle to living in the countryside has been her own inability to adjust. When she moved here, she had to learn everything about life in the countryside, including basic things like fetching drinking water from a well, plowing, preparing firewood, lighting the stove and even cooking. Battsetseg says she was used to living a busy life in the city, filled with meetings and appointments. “Whereas here, I turned into an insignificant, weak person. Fortunately, locals eagerly support me, and I learn a lot from them.”

Since this area is full of plants and flowers, Battsetseg started beekeeping last summer and produced a lot of honey. This year she plans to train local farmers, particularly women, in beekeeping and establish a cooperative, Bayalag Khantai, to produce several honey- and beeswax-related products under a Khantai brand.

When she moved here, she started out wanting to urbanize the countryside. Her aim has since changed to focusing on how to preserve the environment as it is. “I appreciated this independent lifestyle that teaches survival skills, sustains nomadic culture, and offers us nature with pure air, clean soil, clear water, et cetera, and it would be immensely valuable to me and my descendants,” she says.

The Mongolian government has taken several measures to support reverse migration,

aimed at citizens and businesses moving from Ulaanbaatar to rural areas. Batbaatar Bayangerel, the adviser in charge of development policy and planning at the prime minister’s office, says that this reverse trend shows there is a change in the mindset of young people. Here are some of the measures:

  • 1
    The Mongolian government launched initiatives in the 2023 budget to provide housing loans with a 3% interest rate to first-time homebuyers who are relocating to rural regions.
  • 2
    The government is also providing tax incentives and low-interest loans to enterprises in rural areas.
  • 3
    Special officers have been appointed in all 21 provinces of the country to provide information by phone to people who want to come and live in the area. Additionally, to provide online information, the government launched the website