Did you ever consider that there is nothing but flat grassland from Eastern Mongolia all the way to the North Sea?
The Mongol peoples knew this fact well and became the most feared invaders of the entire region for centuries. Ulaanbaatar, the booming capital of Mongolia, lives the legacy of this all-conquering past.
Mongol warriors first became known in Europe when the fearsome Huns pushed the Goths, Alans and Vandals into the remnants of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. For decades, the Huns led by their King Attila, were the scourge of the West.
Ger! It’s cold outside!
In the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism flourished throughout the Mongol areas that had formerly been mostly Muslim. In 1649 Ulaanbaatar was born as a nomadic Buddhist centre with a mobile monastery based in Gers (A Ger is a specifically Mongolian type of tent more generally known as a ‘Yurt’). During the 20th Century, Ulaanbaatar came successively under Chinese, Russian and then Soviet rule before becoming independent after the fall of the USSR in 1990. Today, Ulaanbaatar is a boom-city of over 1.5 Million inhabitants and a cultural melting pot of rural migrants, foreign developers, international chefs, popular entertainers and adventurous tourists. Interestingly, the city is demographically split into two parts, one side living in modern apartments and high rises while the other side lives in Ger districts. Wealthy ex-nomads often keep a modern apartment and a Ger to enjoy their heritage.
You’ll probably fly into Chinggis Khaan International Airport. It is located 18km from downtown and is best reached by marked taxi. There are convenient connections from Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and other larger international hubs in Asia. Touring around the city is best by bus as many attractions are located close to Peace Avenue where you can easily hop on and off.
Here’s a Pro-tip: Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the world. While summertime can be quite comfortable in the 20Cs, the Winter typically sees temperatures of -40C. So, take my advice and visit during the long summer days when the refreshing breezes blow beautiful fluffy clouds across an endless sky!
Ulaanbaatar is beginning to be dominated by modern high-rise skyscrapers but that doesn’t mean you have to look hard to find history and culture. Here are my recommendations of must-see sites:
- Mongolian National Museum– This is the best place to learn about the history of Mongolia and the Mongol empire. The museum is very well presented for visitors so you can see the history chronologically from the ancient to modern times.
- The Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts– The museum exhibits collections of fine arts from the 18th to the 20th century and works in cooperation with UNESCO. It is renowned for the works of G. Zanabazar (1635-1724) and has 12 exhibition galleries to explore.
- Sükhbaatar Square– This is a great landmark for locating your bearings in the city. This site is where, in July 1921, Damdin Sükhbaatar declared Mongolia’s final independence from China. You can view the equestrian statue of him in the square.
I think I Khan, I think I Khan…
- Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue– Locally known as “Chinggis”, the great conqueror boasts the largest equestrian statue in the world which allows visitors to observe the wonderful vistas from an observation deck in the horse’s head.
- Beatles Monument– Although the Beatles never visited Mongolia, their music was inspirational during the Soviet Period in the 1970s because the boys from Liverpool represented freedom and rebellion. Youths would gather in this area and listen to outlawed music and this is commemorated with the monument.
- Gandan Khiid Monastery– This roughly translates to “the great place of complete joy” and it is one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia. Over 150 monks reside here and it’s a great place to witness fascinating ceremonies in a beautiful setting.
No Monk-keying around here!
- The Winter Palace–built between 1893 and 1903, this palace is where Mongolia’s last living Buddha and last king, Jebtzun Damba Hutagt VIII (Bogd Khan), lived. It consists of six temples and the complex is now a museum that houses artworks, sculptures and collections that were owned by the king and queen.
- Terelj National Park– Breathe in fresh countryside air and view the rolling hills and forests of this national park. The Park has a beautiful landscape, many rock formations for rock climbers, hiking, and exciting activities.
-Stay in a traditional Ger. Your Ger camping experience can be completely up to you. You can opt for all the western amenities you need or have a wilder, more traditional experience without electricity.
– Horseback riding is a tradition that dates back centuries. Mongol warriors were famed as the best riders in the world and could shoot fearsome compound bows with devastating effects while retreating from battle.
- You can take a horseback journey from Bogd Khan Uul National Park, ride through the countryside and see traditional nomadic herders. You can enjoy a day trip or choose a horseback tour of 3 to 7 days.
International chefs have opened trendy spots throughout the modern portion of the Capital. Mongolian cuisine is known for its heavy, meat and dairy-based dishes but the city and capital can cater to all sorts of diets and tastes. Here’s where I recommend you dine:
- Modern Nomads – This restaurant is now part of a chain. It serves traditional dishes that are presented in a modern dining style. The Mongols are rightly proud of their culinary heritage and love to show it off.
- Hazara– This restaurant was the first Indian cuisine to arrive in the city in 1997. It serves delicious traditional Mughlai dishes with herbs, spices, and lots of dry fruits and cream to emphasize the flavour This is the perfect spot in Ulaanbaatar for yummy curries, kebabs and naans.
Yurt gonna love the food!
- Hutong– Located in the cool Shangri-La Hotel, this restaurant offers up excellent and authentic Chinese cuisine, with top chefs and amazing views. Their Beijing (“Peking”) Duck is truly excellent!
Ulaanbaatar has an exciting nightlife that, for some reason, prominently features Irish (“Oirish”) Pubs and bars. There are more than 40 Irish pubs in the Capital! Here are my favourite non-Irish nightspots:
- Fat Cat Jazz Club– This intimate underground jazz bar offers live performances of local and international talent. Apart from the amazing sounds, the venue looks like you’ve stepped into a vintage speakeasy club in 1920s New York City.
- Tumen EkhCultural Show – I really love cultural dinner shows! This national song and dance group do an amazing job of highlighting Mongolia’s traditions through performances. This venue offers a great opportunity to hear the unique Mongolian throat singing (khöömii). Traditional instruments, costumes and much more adorn this colourful shoe which is truly memorable.
- Habanos– This authentic cigar lounge is a pretty cool spot for relaxing with a Monte Cristo or other favourite smoke. This a great venue to have a drink and sink into their comfortable leather armchairs.
Don’t worry that the only accommodation you’ll find is a Ger. The city has many beautiful and comfortable international hotels. Here are my favourite locally-owned places to rest in Ulaanbaatar:
- The Blue Sky Hotel & Tower– This 5-star hotel is housed in the most modern and tallest building in the city. The upscale rooms have breath-taking views of the capital that spans for miles. The hotel also features an indoor swimming pool, sauna and spa for relaxing and recovering after a day in the saddle.
- Narantuul Hotel– This traditional hotel is simple yet perfectly located in the centre and offers tremendous service. Breakfast is a delight as there are so many options available. The hotel’s cute restaurant appears like a colourful greenhouse but you can even opt for breakfast in bed.
- Terelj Hotel & Spa – If you don’t fancy staying in a yurt would you rather stay in a palace? This is one of the best hotels in Mongolia, with stunning surroundings and views, opulent and elegant furnishings, and amazing facilities. This hotel is pure luxury in the wilderness.
The sky seems bigger in Ulaanbaatar!
So, conquer your scepticism and enjoy a trip to booming Ulaanbaatar! You’ll love the cultural experience and leave with a new-found respect for this ancient and noble culture.