Mongolia is known for its pristine nature, and its vast expanses of open land inhabited by resourceful nomads. Most would think that Mongolia’s capital city would resemble the rest of the countries features, this is not the case. Ulaanbaatar is a chaotic city that shows two faces. The first being Mongolia’s fast paced economy with posh new hotels, paved roads, and bustles of men and women in business suits dining in the local Irish pubs. The other face of Ulaanbaatar is one of incredible tradition. Locals sporting the time-honored Mongolian del as they barter over sheep at the market, Buddhist monks chant at nearby temples, and in many districts locals still prefer to live in Ger’s. Mongolia’s Capital speaks for the future of the nation, and its resilient people.
Geography and History
Home to over half of the countries entire population is Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar is situated in a small valley in the north central region of Mongolia. The city does not reside in any province.
Ulaanbaatar was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist yurt monastery. Originally known as Örgöö (palace-yurt), which was initially located at Lake Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, 47 miles directly east of the imperial capital, Karakorum. As the city grew it became less mobile, and developed into the seat for many of Mongolia’s Emperors.
Now in the 21st century Ulaanbaatar is the political and economic capital of Mongolia. This can be seen with all of the new up-scale high rises and hotels popping up everywhere in Ulaanbaatar. Money is flowing in fast to this capital and you are likely to see lots of new development.
A City of Old and New
At first glance, Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling concrete communist style looking city. The first impression you get is deceiving however. Ulaanbaatar or UB as the locals call it, has plenty of hidden gems amongst the decrepit cement buildings.
Navigating UB can be confusing, especially for the suburbs as many of the Ger districts, and streets are unnamed. If you are staying in the center, almost all of UB’s sights are within walking distance, but if you don’t feel up to walking then there are plenty of taxis. If you do choose to walk be cautious with traffic, drivers in UB can be aggressive and don’t have much patience towards pedestrians.
Eating and Drinking
There is no way around it, Mongolia is not known for its cuisine. For the most part Mongolian’s come from the countryside where flavour is more of a privilege then an expectation. Don’t be surprised the first time you eat in UB and see a local dump a bottle of ketchup on their rice!
If you are a picky eater or a vegetarian I will be quite frank with you, Mongolian dining will be your worst nightmare. Mongols crave meat. Often meat that has been hung up in their Ger and dried for weeks. They usually pair this meat with something made from milk. You could say Mongolia is the land of milk and meat.
If you are a carnivore then you probably won’t mind the food here, and if you do happen to be picky, then don’t worry, UB has plenty of international restaurants.
Buuz – Meat Dumplings
Buuz are similar to Chinese dumplings, but are filled with lamb or goat as opposed to pork. When you bite into them they usually drip with fat as Mongols love to eat the fatty bits as well. Honestly, they sound intense, but the combination of flavorful fat and exotic meat is an unexpectedly pleasant dining experience! Don’t let your first impressions fool you, Buuz are delicious, and go good with a Mongolian Chinggis beer.
Guriltai Shul – Mongolian Noodle Soup
One of the most popular dishes in Mongolia is Guriltai Shul soup, made from a meat broth, chunks of lamb/goat and thick noodles. In larger communities, they usually have potatoes and carrots in it as well. This soup is a great way to warm up during Mongolia’s chilly evenings.
Welcome to the world’s strangest drink. It’s essentially a fermented alcoholic fizzy milk beer. It can be made with cow, goat, camel or horse milk depending on where you are in Mongolia. The first time you taste it you are likely to have a sour face, but trust me after two weeks in the countryside you will grow to love Airag. Airag also has a distilled stronger brother called Arkhi. Arkhi is blindingly stronger so be careful.
Sights and Attractions
Constructed in 1809 and home to over 150 monks this monastery acts as the spiritual centre for Ulaanbaatar. Most monasteries in Mongolia were destroyed during the communist revolution, making this monastery a rare important piece if Mongolian culture and history.
The best time to visit the monastery is at dawn, as the monks will be doing their morning prayers. As you walk the courtyard inspecting the smaller buildings, juniper incense wafts through the air, and the sounds of the monks chanting captivates the atmosphere.
Inside the main monastery is a 26.5-meter-high statue of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The statue is adorned with 2,286 precious stones and is covered with gold leaves that have been placed on the statue for decades by locals and travellers alike.
Chinggis Khaan Square
In the centre of Ulaanbaatar is Chinggis Khan Square previously known as Sükhbaatar square. On the North end of the square is the government palace, which hosts a giant copper statue of Chinggis Khan (Commonly mispronounced as Genghis Khan in the west).
Families come here in the evenings to relax, play games, and meet up with friends. Chances are during your visit there will be some sort of event being held here as well. Often there is traditional Mongolian folk music, wrestling, food festivals, and fireworks on the square.
This small, but pleasant museum features countless antique outfits from the different ethnicities of Mongolia. Many of the outfits are covered in precious stones, and gold. The exhibit also features a very in depth look into Chinggis Khan, and the Communist revolution of Mongolia. The National Museum is a must see for those looking to learn about Mongolia’s rich history and culture.
Built between 1893 and 1903 this palace was the residence of the emperor Bogd Khan. Now a museum, it has survived the communist revolution and houses many Buddhist artworks including thangkas and sculptures.
The palace resembles Chinese architecture, but has many Mongolian twists. A few of the rooms also show many of the lavish possessions of the emperor Bogd Khan. The winter palace is an interesting visit as it’s placed right in the middle of UB’s new development, giving it some wicked contrast for photos!
Naraan Tuul Market (Black Market)
Naraan Tuul, the black market of Ulaanbaatar. It might sound shady as it is referred to as a “black market”, but it’s actually a very well-known place where locals do the majority of their day-to-day shopping.
Nataan Tuul is the best spot to pick up a traditional Mongolian del (long Mongolian coat) or a huruum (short Mongolian coat worn over the del). You’ll notice in Mongolia that they are also quite particular about their colourful elf looking cowboy boots. Naraan Tuul is the place where you can purchase these awesome leather boots.
The market also has a large saddle and furniture area. Mongolian saddles and furniture are very well crafted, often blending beautiful paintings and embroideries.
Author: Stephen Gollan