Thursday, September 3, 2015

Commuting in the Big City

View from my bus ride tonight, on the Peace Bridge
Life in a big city is something I always wanted to experience. And while Zorig tells me that UB is small, it's by far the largest city I've ever lived in and is three times the size of Colorado Springs--my last home. There are approximately 1.5M people calling Ulaanbaatar home and that's half of the entire population of Mongolia. As I prepared to depart the U.S., I thought a lot about what I would miss the most. My personal prediction was: the freedom that came with owning a car and being able to go anywhere I wanted, when I wanted. This has not proved to be true. I don't miss owning a car, paying for it, or the insurance and gas, nor do I miss the stress that accompanied driving (though I was far from a road-rager). There is something blissful in turning over the driving tasks to someone else--whether it be a bus driver or a taxi driver. (Plus--I can walk to nearly everything, if necessary.)

As you all know, UB suffers from fairly bad air quality. It's not too bad this time of year; winter is the worst. But traffic congestion is an equally troubling challenge in a city built for perhaps 500,000. To try and address the congestion, the city has gotten fairly creative. From what I understand (feel free to correct me if I have any of this incorrect), anyone that owns a car has a couple of restrictions to adhere to: (1) some part of their license plate indicates one day of the week they are NOT allowed to drive, and (2) there is an odd/even number designation for weekends--odd numbers can drive either Saturday or Sunday and even numbers the other day. Police stand on the streets and "pull people over" (how they do this without cars or motorcycles is impressive--people simply comply). I've observed it in action on the mornings when I run. I heard from a friend today that if you are caught driving on a day you aren't allowed to, the fine is $400 (or about 796,000 tugrik, MNT). That's a stiff penalty.

Some of you have asked about my commute to and from work. Our apartment is about four miles from my school. Getting TO work I share in a "taxi"....but it's more like UBER, but without the app and online account and formalities. Anyone who drives here can be a taxi driver. You simply drive around and look for someone with their hand out. You are charged for the distance, no matter the time it takes to get there. Most rides around town cost between $1-5. 

But back to my "to work" plan. A fellow teacher and I pay a woman to drive us four days a week (Thursday is her NO DRIVE day) for $7/each (or just $1.75/day). When she drives, we get to school in about 10 minutes. On Thursday, I ride one of our school buses along with the ASU students. It picks up right around the corner from the apartment. Today was my first time to do this. I got on the bus at 7:35 am and we arrived to school at 8:20 am. Yup......a 45 minute ride! I expect that will be a bit shorter next time. The school year has just begun here for the Mongolian and Russian schools (Sept 1), so everyone is adjusting. But the ride is free and again, I am not thinking about the driving or the time. It's morning, the kids are yet sleepy. After we say hello.....I sip my coffee and listen to my iPod. 

Getting home in the afternoon I most often opt to pick up the public bus (though an alternate option is to ride a school bus home--haven't tried this yet, as they just started running on Tuesday and I am staying later). As I've mentioned, the public bus costs $0.25/ride and picks up just down the street from school. Again, we are just traveling those same four miles, but it always takes at least 25 minutes, but often 30 or a bit more. But again, I'm not driving, I kick back with my own thoughts or my music. While the bus is fairly empty where I get on, it packs in pretty quickly and there is not room to read or do any work. So I watch the people getting on and off, or the people in the next bus, or people on the street. I'm still taking it all in--this new world of mine. 

I'll leave you with this picture from inside the State Department Store (across the street from our apartment). The second floor has this open space that is used for seasonal or promotional events. As you can see here, Back to School is the same no matter where you are in the world! The city is filled with shops like this selling backpacks, notebooks, pens, crayons, and all that other fun start-of-the-school-year stuff. One of the reasons I LOVE being an educator (besides an obsession with learning!) is all the cool office product stuff I get to use and be near. Nothing much beats the feel of an empty notebook waiting for my words and the colored pen that will deliver them. :)

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