I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting on my first visit to Ulaanbaatar. What I can tell you is that the reality isn’t anything like the preconceived notion I imagine most visitors to the world’s coldest capital city typically dream up. Ulaanbaatar is a city of ever-changing contrasts. Gleaming glass skyscrapers and chain restaurants sit happily alongside Buddhist monasteries filled with the spellbinding rhythmic chanting of resident monks. Effigies to Genghis Khan, who most outside of Mongolia would consider an oppressive tyrant, stand in delightful contrast to a city slowly embracing the over-indulgence of democratic capitalism. An abundance of restaurants serving up traditional Mongolian cuisine is juxtaposed by the arrival of Hard Rock Café. In most places these disparities would feel awkward, but in Ulaanbaatar they represent a city, and a country, emerging from Soviet dependence and embracing tourism with open arms.
Ulaanbaatar Top Tips
Built in 1961, Chinggis Khaan International Airport is beginning to show its age. As a result, a nice shiny new airport (New Ulaanbaatar or Khöshig Valley International Airport) is being built 52km south of the city. For now though (and given some fairly extensive delays in the completion of the new airport) Chinggis Khaan remains Mongolia’s main entry point. The airport sits 18km outside of the city center making it an easy 20-25 minute ride from most major hotels downtown (of course, that’s dependent on the sometimes horrific traffic the city endures). To get from the airport to downtown you essentially have three options; bus, taxi or hotel shuttle/car. The cheapest is obviously the bus but I would argue that it’s a pain, unreliable, and hardly worth it to save a few dollars. However, if you decide you really need to add this life experience to your bucket list then the number 7 bus departs (possibly only during the summer months) from Naadamchdym Zam, the major road outside the arrivals terminal. A much better option is a taxi which shouldn’t, in theory, cost you much more than MNT 20,000 (at the time of writing that’s approximately USD 8). Beware, taxi drivers may try a number of tricks to charge sometimes exorbitant fares. So make sure you have clear, undeniable, agreement on the fare (in the correct currency) before you head off. The final option is a hotel shuttle or car. These are typically more expensive than a taxi but it’s always nice after a long flight to have a guaranteed pickup from a trusted source!
Despite being a fairly sprawling metropolis most of Ulaanbaatar’s tourist attractions are in a fairly compact area downtown (particularly along the main artery, Peace Avenue). Therefore, and assuming it isn’t the dead of winter when you might freeze walking any further than 10 meters, walking is actually a viable option. The city is largely easy to navigate with a basic tourist map that are available at most major hotels or at the Tourist Information Center (located one road up from the State Department Store). If you’re there during the winter, or generally not a lover of walking, then your second option is to grab a bus. I’ll be honest; the buses (including the electric trolley bus that has a limited route) are cramped and the routes are confusing if you want to go anywhere other than along the main Peace Avenue route. But if you are heading along Peace Avenue then they’re a viable option. Just head to the nearest “U-Money” vendor to buy a bus swipe card. You’ll typically find stores and kiosks selling them in and around major bus stops. The third option are taxis. Taxis in Ulaanbaatar are fairly cheap, making them an entirely viable and cost effective option; particularly if you’re heading anywhere other than the Peace Avenue thoroughfare. There are a number of official taxis, the most reliable (and expensive) of which is VIP Taxi. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t find or book a taxi (and are generally a risk taker) then simply walk out to the street and hold your hand out. Ulaanbaatar natives think nothing of operating grey market taxi services and will happily pick up strangers at the side of the road (essentially an informal Uber). Just make sure you have sufficient small notes and ensure you have clearly agreed the fare in advance.
Let me be clear; Mongolia is not the place to go for a winter holiday! Touted as the coldest capital city on earth Ulaanbaatar definitely lives up to the hype when its temperatures plummet to a mind-numbing AVERAGE temperature of -25C in January. In general, that cold winter snap lasts from November to February after which spring kicks in. Another reason to avoid the winter months in Ulaanbaatar (as if you needed one) is the insane level of air pollution that has also led the city being labelled ‘the most polluted capital city on earth’. During most of the year pollution isn’t a big problem. But during the winter months the pollution, which is largely caused by the capital’s valley location and the burning of coal, wood and trash to stay warm in the winter, reaches levels 133 times the level the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe. Spring can still be incredibly cold by most people’s standards and it’s also the time when some of Ulaanbaatar’s wetter weather takes hold. Arguably, the best times to visit the capital are May and September when temperatures are livable and precipitation is minimal.
If you’d rather not explore the city under your own steam, or would prefer being accompanied by a guide who can share additional context on the sights and landmarks you’re seeing, then you’ll be pleased to know that there is an overabundance of local tour companies that’ll happily offer you day tours around the city and day trips to local national parks. Many of these can booked directly through hotels, but if you’d like to do a little research or book tours in advance then I’ve included a few website links to tour companies in the ‘Additional Resources’ section below. In no way is this list exhaustive or specifically recommending these particular companies. In fact, I haven’t personally used them but came across them during my research for my first trip to Mongolia. I have however used ‘Local Friends in Mongolia’. Our vehicle was a bit more ‘rough and ready’ than some other companies but our guide was fantastic and the prices were by far the cheapest we saw.
Gandan Monastery: Also known as Gandantegchinlen khiid, the original Buddhist monastery on the Gandan site was constructed in 1809. Having survived destruction during the 1937 purge led by the Communists (which led to the destruction of monasteries across Mongolia and the deaths of 10,000-15,000 lamas) today, the Tibetan-Style monastery’s focal point is the Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (it’s the largest and most prominent on the skyline) which was constructed in 1925. The temple is home to an 87ft tall copper statue of Megjid-Janraiseg; a sage that leads men on the path to truth. There are a number of other temples and working buildings on the site that house the 600 active lamas that live there today. As one of Ulaanbaatar’s main tourist attractions and one of Mongolia’s most important monasteries this is one place that should be on your ‘must-visit’ lists. Photography is welcome for a small fee both outside and inside the Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara but not so inside any of the other temples or during ceremonies. That said, it’s definitely worth visiting during a ceremony which generally start at 9am each day.
Museums: Ulaanbaatar is a treasure trove of fairly impressive museums. But unless you fancy spending your entire trip inside museums (not my personal idea of experiencing Ulaanbaatar) then I’d suggest you might want to prioritise the National Museum of Mongolia (highlighting both Mongolian and Central Asian history), the Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum (which documents the communist purge of the 1930s), the International Intellectual Museum (a really fun museum filled with puzzles and games for both adults and kids….mostly adults in my opinion) and the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum (renowned for the works of G. Zanabazar and not to be confused with the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania). If my four recommendations don’t satiate your appetite then other options include the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery, the Mongolian Theater Museum, the Mongolian Military Museum, and the Ulaanbaatar City Museum (which, as you would expect, traces the history of Ulaanbaatar and its major landmarks). Phew, that’s a long list and even then it doesn’t even cover all of the museums in Unlaanbaatar!
Sükhbaatar Square and Parliament House: The square is pretty much slap-bang in the center of Ulaanbaatar and is basically unavoidable. So whilst it’s not somewhere you’ll probably chose to spend to long you’ll undoubtedly visit at some point during your stay. The square is named after Damdin Sükhbaatar, who played a huge role in Mongolia’s final push for independence from the Chinese in 1921. In the center of the square you’ll find a large bronze statue of him gallantly riding his horse (Mongolian’s are understandably fond of equestrian statues). Also in the square you’ll find a huge marble building with an equally huge bronze statue of a seated Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khaan as he’s known locally). For a while the square was actually named Chinggis Square, after the Khangan of the Mongol Empire; who from his birth in 1162 until his death in 1227 somehow managed to establish the largest empire the world has ever seen. As a result, he’s a fairly popular guy in Mongolia – despite most people in the west, quite reasonably, viewing him as a tyrant. Behind the statue of good ole’ Genghis is Parliament House, which is also worthy of a quick photo.
Bogd Khan Winter Palace: The palace, which these days is a museum, was built between 1893 and 1903 as the home of the eighth Javzandamba Khutagt, Bogd Khan; the first monarch of an independent Mongolia. After his death in 1924 the Palace became a museum; thankfully saving it from the religious destruction of buildings by the hands of the communists in the 1930s. Housing several temples and gates and two picturesque courtyards the palace museum also presents a number of interesting exhibits (including a whole bunch of stuffed animals, some of which were previously residents of the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo. The museum also plays host to Mongolia’s Declaration of Independence from China. It’s well worth a visit and, in my opinion, is probably the most photogenic of the temples and monasteries in the city (it’s also close by to a big cashmere factory outlet, which is a bonus for the shoppers amongst you!).
Choijin Lama Monastery Temple: Sitting in the center of town opposite the Shangri-La Hotel, the Choijin Lama Temple is composed of four temples built between 1904 and 1908. It’s dedicated to Choijin (a fancy title bestowed on some monks) Lama Luvsankhaidav, the Bogd Khan’s little brother and a state oracle. Although it’s considered as one of the most beautiful monasteries in Mongolia it’s no longer an active place of worship (since 1938) and instead is run as a museum of sorts. Informal guides seemed happy to provide me with information as I walked around the temple grounds (which is a bonus). Just be aware that if you want to take photos or video that additional feed apply.
Zaisan Hill Memorial and Buddha Park: If you’re looking for the best views of Ulaanbaatar then look no further than the Zaisan Hill Memorial. The memorial (and its mural) commemorates Soviets killed in WWII and serves as a nice little slice of what essentially amounts to Soviet propaganda. If you start from the bottom of the hill you’ll find a Soviet tank with a map highlighting troop movements from Moscow to Berlin. From there it’s a fairly strenuous climb of around 500 steps to the top of the hill where the memorial is located. But for those willing to take on the climb you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views across the entire city and the surrounding valley. It’s a perfect spot to get some photos of the city at sunset. Right next door to the hill is a Buddha Park – a small, somewhat scrappy park area with an impressive Buddha statue. Unfortunately a number of high rise buildings have been built around the park recently and have impeded what would have otherwise been a great view of surrounding hills from the park; but it’s still worth quickly dropping by on your way to Zaisan.
Shopping: Looking for a gift for Grandma? Ulaanbaatar has you covered with a whole host of shopping options. If you’re looking for a one-stop shopping experience then look no further than the State Department Store. A bit of an institution in its own right, the store sits centrally on Peace Avenue and sells everything from local cashmere and souvenirs to international brand electronics. If you’re looking for a more ‘gritty’ experience then head to Naran Tuul (otherwise known as the Black Market). Although the market is predominantly aimed towards a local audience, there’s more than enough to tempt the tourists in (fur lined booties and traditional Mongolian attire, anyone?). The sprawling market can be a little intimidating at first (including reports of pickpockets and stolen goods for sale) but if you take the typical precautions (don’t flaunt your valuables and keep your money in a safe place) then the market provides a fascinating insight into local life. If your mind is a little more focused on Mongolia’s world famous cashmere then your best bet is to hit the cashmere outlets of the internationally acclaimed Gobi or Goyo (you’ll need to take a taxi to reach the factory outlets but full-price stores can also be found downtown). Finally, if you’re looking for fair and ethical local souvenirs then make sure to check Mary and Martha located in the Shangri-La Mall.
Day Trips from Ulaanbaatar: Although there’s obviously more than enough to keep you entertained in the city for at least a few days, the allure of venturing out in to the ‘The Land of the Blue Sky’ (the moniker given to Mongolia due to its often blue skies) may be too much to resist. If your trip to Mongolia is short, and doesn’t allow for a deeper exploration, then there are a number of worthwhile day trips from Ulaanbaatar that’ll have you back around the cosy fire in your hotel by early evening. The most traditional day trip from Ulaanbaatar is to the Genghis Khan Statue and Terelj National Park. You can read more about my review of this day trip HERE. A second option is to visit Hustai National Park, where you’ll not only be surrounded by the beautiful Mongolian steppe but have the opportunity to hike in search of the resident wild Perzevalski horses.
VIP Taxi Service: http://taximongolia.com/
Travel Buddies Tour Company: https://www.travelbuddies.info/
Mongolia Short Tours Travel Company: http://www.mongoliashorttours.com/
Rara Avis Travel Website: https://www.raraavistravel.com/#home
Discover Mongolia Website: https://www.discovermongolia.mn/