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Dreams made concrete #2

by Bernard H. Wood on March 15, 2013

Trips and Tales (Part 104)

RM has been giving me an overview of his professional visits to Mongolia, ostensibly to extract and define some real-world logistics out of impressive concrete pipe-dreams born of new Mongolian wealth. It would be a simpler job if conscience permitted him and his fellows to lay out the sky-high requirements of making the infeasible, feasible and then to run for the door, cheque in hand. That’s the trouble with conscience – but long may it live. So whilst the angel on his shoulder wins out against the opposing devil, there are “issues” with the optimistic proposals that need pointing out.

For example: as beautiful as they may appear in the architects presentations – the spa’s, hotels and Centre Parcs style resorts are simply not going to fly in areas that have no reasonable access to the vast amount of water required to keep them running. That’s even if the required flow is available anywhere within piping distance in the first place. Small, huge details. Vast edifices with minuscule access for large amounts of people, leading to lumbering gridlock are another concern. The grim pay-off from such un-learnt lessons of civil engineering is already encroaching, and you have to hope that the inevitable reality-check will happen sooner rather than later.

High rise office buildings in Ulaanbaatar

Then there’s the knock on effects, like the pollution that had RM in a massive coughing fit at the airport; what was that like again. “Like walking close to a bonfire,” he reveals. “They burn car tyres, anything… There’s also five coal-fired power stations around UB!” he adds. And everything is compounded, magnified even, by the population growth. Though, to be fair RM qualifies the horror stories a little: “The pollution is only really bad in the winter,” he tells me; the Mongolian equivalent of old London smog perhaps?

The remit of the job changed then, but to be honest it had changed before RM and his companions flew out. Forewarned with apocryphal tales on the phone on the lines of “Mongolia? … are you serious?” Alarm bells were beginning to sound. Hardly a confidence builder when embarking on a new venture.

But, of course, there is knowing something intellectually, and then there’s standing outside with a shovel, knee-deep in it. So the magnitude of the task that became as much, perhaps more, about education really struck home when all concerned sunk their collective teeth into these shiny Mongolian dreams.

“We realised early on that it wouldn’t work,” RM reveals, and so it became a balancing act of tempering the ideas with reality whilst keeping the project alive. A tricky process. Reports were gathered and duly sent to the clients. He continues: “They still didn’t get the practicalities of the plans, but paid the fees.” Some good news at least. However, they did get it when the cost of such prosaic realities as “putting a digger on the ground”, the number of internal rooms required to make a structure viable, or “shipping in crews of specialist labour” – because that’s what it takes to build outside of your experience – were solemnly revealed. As RM puts it: “Ten million dollars seems rich, but you may need ten billion.” Especially in light of some of the Norman Foster-esque spectaculars that had so caught the Mongolian awe and imagination.

More next time.


[Photo by EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection]

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