The garbage chute in my Ulaanbaatar apartment block was a fascinating contraption. Essentially a huge metal intestinal tract running from the top floor to the bottom, it had little trap doors on each landing for inserting rubbish.

The garbage piled up in a garage-like room downstairs with big gates until the weekly collection. Often the gates would bulge open allowing stray dogs to rummage for scraps while hard-of-luck humans collected bottles and metal for a meagre income from recycling. I’d heard that people even collected glass lightglobes for the metal inside them.

Often the recyclers would walk the streets in groups of two or three calling out as they went. The magical tones of their voices echoing around the tall buildings like Buddhist chants letting people know what they were collecting. I placed my bottles in a separate bag before sending them down the chute, hoping they’d remain intact on their journey.

Occasionally the whole system ran into difficulty. If a bag got stuck inside it caused a backlog of household waste in indigestible proportions. Being a chimney sweep would be a hard job, but spare a thought for the poor soul who got to unblock the garbage chute.

The notorious Mongolian winds that tore through the suburbs, up dusty streets and between towing blocks complicated the task further. Opening the trap door was like opening the door to the underworld with an angry hurricane blowing you off your feet. Getting a plastic bag full of rubbish into that chute became a physical challenge. Eventually I discovered that throwing the bag up the chute was far easier than fighting the gale. I wondered if a whole collection of my garbage bags would be found at the top of the building by the end of winter.


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