By Britany Robinson
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia isn’t a place that appears on many top tens or bucket lists, and for that reason to start — maybe it should be on yours.
In the middle of a country dominated by wild steppe, dotted with the white canvassed yurts of nomadic families still moving with the seasons, the capital of Mongolia can be jarring. Half of the country’s population calls this city home, and the density is evident through incessant construction, traffic, and crowds. But as the entry point to the rest of Mongolia – the most sparsely populated country in the world — and a perplexing and potentially delightful experience in and of itself, Ulaanbaatar is in fact, worth your time.
It’s a long, crumbling road to reach Ulaanbaatar, no matter which direction you enter by, so most people will arrive by plane or train.
The Chinggis Khan Airport lies just outside of the city limits, but can take over an hour to travel to and from, with stuttering traffic clogging the only route. The international airport is infamous for its precarious runway, positioned on a slope, so be prepared for delays as pilots often struggle with the challenging landscape.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is an exciting option, as the longest train track in the world and an iconic overland journey. The Moscow to Beijing route crosses the length of Mongolia and stops in Ulaanbaatar.
Once you’re in Ulaanbaatar, taxis are cheap and can be called from your hostel or hotel. They can also be flagged on the streets, but since they’re ambiguously marked and prices are unpredictable for tourists, you’re better off having a local call one.
What to see
Chinggis Khan statue
Chinggis Khan will follow you everywhere in Ulaanbaatar, from the names of hotels to their most popular beer – it’s a wonder how they differentiate anything when it all carries the name of their infamous emperor.
(It is spelled Chinggis here, not Genghis — same guy.)
He’ll follow you more literally, when you visit the Chinggis Khan statue, a monstrous metal memorial that holds the honor of largest horse statue in the world. Located an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, the 131 foot Khan straddles his giant horse and gazes across the land with a look in his steel eyes that still claims ownership to it all.
You can climb up the statue for a stunning view from his horse’s head. The surrounding park is still in the works.
Naran Tuul market (‘The Black Market’)
This isn’t the type of black market you’re probably thinking of, but the scope and manic vibe of this massive shopping experience is just as thrilling as the illegal sort.
There is a Tug50 entrance fee (about €.02), but bring plenty of extra cash for the quirky souvenirs and amazing deals you’ll find on everyday items, from camping gear to clothing, and everything in between. Get ready to push and shove with the 60,000 people that swarm the market daily, and if it’s raining, you’ll want to be outfitted with full on swamp gear as the stalls sit in a pit of dirt that turns into a mud ring at the first sign of moisture.
What to eat
Ulaanbaatar is full of restaurants that clearly target tourists with English signs claiming every categorization, without any sort of specialty, as in “Karaoke, Pub, Restaurant, Club”. You’ll see this again and again, and most of them offer some mediocre Westernized fare.
But true Mongolian food is something to experience, and your best bet for an authentic taste is at a home stay, easily booked for an afternoon or an overnight stay from any hostel or hotel in the city. Of the three million people that live in Mongolia, 1.5 million live nomadically, outside of Ulaanbaatar, and their traditional fare reflects that lifestyle. Meats are left fatty, to sustain the nomadic families during the harsh winter months, and mutton (sheep) is the popular option, eaten by itself and in soups and dumplings.
Fermented mare’s milk, called airag, is the country’s most popular beverage. It’s an acquired taste and one you might not take to, but refusal of the beverage in a Mongolian’s home is deeply insulting, so be sure to give it a try.
Meg’s Adventure Tours will arrange a trip to a Mongolian family’s home, just on the outskirts of the city, where you can experience all of the traditional fare.
Ulaanbaatar offers plenty of international, fine dining options as well, most notably the popular Hazara restaurant, located at Peave Ave 16, which serves spicy North Indian dishes. The portions are large, decadent, and affordable at around €7-€10.
Where to go out
Similar to restaurant options, the bar options are plentiful and difficult to differentiate. A dizzying spread of “Irish Pubs” and “Karaoke Clubs” line the streets. If an establishment offers karaoke, then they’re allowed to stay open later – explaining the popularity of this universal indulgence for the brave and the drunk.
Chinggis Club is a popular destination for beer drinkers in Central Ulaanbaatar. The restaurant/bar is attached to a brewery, creating and serving the country’s most popular bubbly beverage, Chinggis Beer. They also offer a food menu of German and English fare.
But the best option might be to pick a random spot with discrete signage and negligent tourism. Immersing yourself in the establishments of the locals is the best way to experience the famous Mongolian hospitality and forget the handful of construction zones you had to climb over to get there.
For great places to stay that are near the action, click here.
A final note
Ulaanbaatar is a fascinating, albeit challenging, urban experience, but its highlight might be the contrast it offers to the rest of the country. Do see Ulaanbaatar, so that you can relish in your escape when you see the rest of the country. Traffic and half-finished high rises will quickly be replaced by wild horses, camels, and cowboys in colorful robes, herding their livestock through clouds of sand – all set to a Hollywood worthy backdrop of desert and mountains.
To experience Mongolia is to experience both sides, in all their contrasts and extremes.
Author Bio: Britany is a restless writer with a passion for travel. Based in New York City, she loves adventure but enjoys exploring quirky cafes and craft breweries as much as a mountain climb or trek. Britany recently completed the Mongol Rally, driving from London to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. She shares her adventures from home and abroad on her travel blog, Stars on the Ceiling. You can connect with her on Twitter or on Facebook.
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Thanks to Francisco Anzola for the image off Flickr! Please note all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.