Arriving by plane on Chingis Khaan International Airport, you will instantly experience that Mongolia is not only a wild and romantic place of nomads, horses and livestock. It is also perhaps one of the most centralized countries in the world with a rapidly growing urban population. Around half of the state's roughly 3 million inhabitants currently live in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's lively and bursting capital with its museums, shopping malls, posh bars and its growing armada of big and expensive Land Cruisers on the one hand, and its sprawling informal suburban settlements, its daily traffic jams and often terrible smog on the other. Four giant, coal-fired power plants, as well as hundreds of thousands of cars and the almost constantly burning coal-fires of the poor suburban households create massive air pollution, especially in winter. Hence, the city is nowadays often nicknamed "Utaanbaatar" ("Smoke Hero") – instead of Ulaanbaatar, which translates as "Red Hero".
Before Mongolia's socialist revolution of 1920, "Red Hero" was known as either "Urga" or "Niislel Khüree" – "capital monastery". Then, under communist rule, the city was built up with wide avenues, Soviet architecture and at the time modern panel flat tower blocks all connected to a city-wide district heating system, planned to accommodate around 200,000 people and far less cars. However, with the fall of communism in 1990, and with the economically very difficult times that followed, especially after a row of deadly cold winters around the millennium killed a great percentage of the country's livestock and ruined the livelihood of ten thousands of families, the city began to grow massively and chaotically, in a way becoming the antithesis of what Mongolia is famous for: Overcrowded, rushed, and at times even claustrophobic. And yet still thousands of countryside people move to the city every year, lured here by the diverse promises of urban life.