Ulaanbaatar. Ulan Bator. UB. The capital of Mongolia is somewhere I never thought I would visit, and it’s still a place I’m not completely sure that I would return to. But I would consider it an essential stop for anyone contemplating the Trans Mongolian Railway, because it’s not like anywhere else you will ever visit.
Our train rolled into the train station in Ulaanbaatar (that is the most common spelling by the way, although you’ll see a lot of variations) around midday. Because it was the end of April, there was still a chance for a bit of ice and snow on the ground and most of the tourist ger camps were only just beginning to open again after winter. We decided to base ourselves in UB instead of staying out in one of the national parks, a decision we were pretty happy about in the end!
How to describe Ulaanbaatar? It’s an overcrowded city, and one of the most polluted places in the world. It’s the capital of a landlocked country not widely visited by westerners, and most people only use it as a base for eco-tourism adventures. In some ways it looks like other Asian cities, but there’s also strong Russian influences. There are no huge shopping malls, and people live in gers on the edge of the city. But there’s also massive amounts of construction going on as giant apartment blocks spring up all over the place and five star hotels try to get established. People aren’t particularly friendly to tourists, but they aren’t unfriendly either. Small amounts of English are spoken, particularly by younger people, but the majority don’t speak any. It’s dusty and cold, and at times Mongolia can be a lawless and corrupt country. But it’s definitely worth a look.
Hotels in Ulaanbaatar are surprisingly expensive. We ended up choosing Best Western Gobi’s Kelso, which is a bit out of the way but was clean, comfortable and had staff who spoke excellent English. The restaurant was also pretty good, with vegetarian options and plenty to choose from – there’s also nothing else around by the hotel, so you’ll probably end up eating here. Breakfast was included in the price.
We were met at the train station by the manager, who let us know that due to a conference happening in the city a rule had just been put in place that cars could only be driven on alternate days depending on whether their license plate started with an odd or even number. This was our first warning that traffic congestion in UB would be like nothing we’d encountered before. From further reading this appears to be a common traffic control strategy in UB.
Why did this matter? The hotel had only one car, and we’d planned to go on a day trip the next day. But they wouldn’t be able to drive their car in the city centre, and although they could make alternate arrangements it might be easier to just do this trip immediately. So after 30 hours on the train we had a quick shower and then drove straight to the giant statue of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan).
This gave us a look at UB’s bumper to bumper traffic – and I mean that literally. People would actually push their cars into other people’s cars in the gridlocked traffic. Every single car was covered in scratches and dents. We saw multiple bingles during our time in Mongolia. But once we were out of the city things opened up and the traffic disappeared.
The Chinggis Khan statue was kind of strange but weirdly impressive. There was a museum of some kind inside but we were there too late in the day to see it.
The whole point of visiting the statue is to climb to the top, which is made pretty easy by the elevator inside. It was pretty windy up top, but we actually had it to ourselves. The view showed just how empty most of Mongolia is. There are some ger camps nearby, but not much else. They are in the process of building more gers, and some kind of collection of wooden horseman statues surrounding the complex.
Next we headed off to Terelj National Park for a drive around. Usually people will spend most of the day doing this and spend time with a local family – and most visitors to Mongolia go off on week long cross country tours. We are not most visitors. We were so tired that we drove around for an hour or so and looked at a few landmarks, and then asked to go back to the hotel. It was nearly 7pm by this point. What was interesting was seeing all the supposedly isolated tourist ger camps, which were concentrated in several areas of the park and located right on top of each other. Probably not the back to nature experience many people are expecting!
The next morning a taxi dropped us off in central UB. Because of the conference happening there were police directing traffic, which made things feel a lot safer – UB is not an unsafe place but it is also probably not somewhere I would walk around at night on my own. It was also absolutely freezing.
UB is a mix of office buildings and brand new skyscrapers (although not many of them!) as well as some older buildings that hint at the country’s former Soviet past. Everything is based around Chinggis Square which is where we started off.
Then we made our way to the Natural History Museum. This was a very well maintained museum with a decent amount of information in English. It was also warm inside. I would say this is a must visit for anyone heading to Ulaanbaatar, it will give you a crash course in Mongolian history.
We stopped for a very weak coffee at one of UB’s many coffee shops, and then embarked on a long and cold walk around the streets. We mainly used Google Maps and GPS My City for finding our way around, which was enough to generally work out where we were without WiFi. We managed to locate the Memorial Museum of the Victims of Political Repression which is something we wanted to visit, but a very friendly security guard told us it was now closed. I do love the contrast between the old museum building and the modern high rises around it!
Instead we checked out the Choijin Lama Temple Museum which was nearby. We were the only people there and they opened each individual temple for us to look at. No photos inside, because they like to add on an extra photography fee in Mongolia (and as we would later discover, this is also the case in Russia).
Lunch was in a small vegetarian cafe called Deeldar’s which had a choice of soup, salad or one main. I had a greek salad. Very Mongolian. We had been walking around in the cold for several hours by this stage, and we had one attraction left to visit in the afternoon. The State Department Store. We love looking at shops in other countries, and this was basically the place to buy everything. Clothes, makeup, shoes, electronics, toys, books – and the best supermarket we saw in UB. We stocked up on food for the Trans Siberian here. We had dinner back in the hotel.
Our train the next day wasn’t until the afternoon, so we ventured back into central UB for a few hours. It was as cold as the day before, and the wind was icy. To stay warm we managed to track down a few poorly signed museums – The Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery, which is hidden down a side street near Chinggis Square, and the Mongolian Theatre Museum. Both are worth a short visit, although there’s not that much in the way of English translations. We found what might be UB’s only central shopping mall which had some very quiet designer stores, and a Lavazza cafe. Who knows whether or not they really have any link to Lavazza! I ordered a latte, that thing on the right is what I received.
We then had a slow time finding a taxi to take us back to the hotel – but eventually we got one. Getting a taxi can be a bit off a challenge in UB, because pretty much every car can potentially be a taxi. We stuck to cars which actually had taxi branding on them, however these were often hard to find! We made sure to always carry a brochure or card from our hotel with us as of course there is very little English spoken here.
And that was the end of our time in Mongolia. It’s a strange place, in some ways developing into a modern country at a ridiculous pace, but then also clinging strongly to a nomadic culture. It’s lawless and wild, and yet there is a Louis Vuitton store in the middle of the city. If you are doing this trip, you should stop off in Mongolia. It’s somewhere you’ve got to experience, and it will be completely different in ten, five or even two years time.