Although I consider myself a bit of a country bumpkin, I do love exploring new cities when I get the chance. There’s always something to see and do, enough to keep you busy for weeks! At least, that’s what I thought until I got to Ulaanbaatar.
I rode the Trans Mongolian from Irkutsk in Russia, we crossed the border at midnight (after arriving at 9pm…) and celebrated with beers and a shot of vodka. After a surprisingly good night’s sleep I woke up to a pink sky over the dusty outskirts of a sprawling city, finally we had arrived!
Arriving into the city
Most hostels will pick you up from the train station free of charge which makes life so much easier when you don’t have to try and reason with a taxi driver in a foreign language. I stayed at Mongolian Vision Tours, a small but lovely hostel (breakfast included) south of the city centre with a really good ramen noodle bar around the corner. They book tours here, most places do, but make sure you shop around before you book anything.
Another very popular hostel, and the one I booked my tour through, is Golden Gobi Guesthouse and Tours. A great location, very helpful staff, they also had the best prices for tours and are busy enough for solo travellers to easily find a group to go with like I did.
Say hello to The Horselords! Jay, Marsha (Mongolia’s best driver), João, Steve, myself, Sebastian, our wonderful guide Jarra, and Antoine.
In the city centre
While there are a few points of interest to see in the capital it’s easily done in a day or two so don’t waste too much time in the city. The point of visiting Mongolia is the see the countryside!
At the centre of the city, you’ll find the massive Sukhbaatar Square and its Ghengis Khan statue. A block to the east is a small but interesting modern art gallery, tickets cost 200T (7p). To the west is the National Museum of Mongolia, where you can learn about the ancient history of Mongolia and some more recent events, with a section dedicated to Ghengis Khan and another displaying costumes from different tribes across the country. Tickets cost 8000T (£2.30). Another block west is the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum, displaying some ancient objects and artwork, tickets cost 8000T for adults and 2500T (75p) for students, no proof needed.
It wouldn’t be Asia without a few temples to explore, and Ulaanbaatar is no exception. To the south of Sukhbaatar Square is the Choijin Lama Temple museum, but it’s small and quite run down, tickets cost 8000T for adults or 3000T (90p) for students. Further out of the city, but still walkable, is Tasgani Ovoo. Ovoos are sacred stone heaps used as altars or shrines in Mongolian shamanism, usually located in high places, and from this one you get a nice view of the surrounding city and ger districts. Not far from here is the Gandan Monastery. It’s free to walk around the grounds, but you need to pay 3500T (£1) to enter the main temple.
South of the centre
Far to the south of the city is Zaisan Memorial, located on top of a hill that gives you a wonderful view of the city and the hills around it, when it’s not too smoggy. Good luck seeing anything in the winter when the smoke from thousands of coal fires fills the air. This spot is usually included in the Gorkhi Terelj national park day trip, so you don’t need to walk there if you’re going on that tour.
I did all of this in the two days before I left on my tour, and I ended up spending five here when I got back, waiting for my train to China. I spent those days sleeping, drinking and eating some very good food which is a real treat after two weeks of mutton. My favourites were Hashtag Cheese and Beer for anything chicken, Oriental Express for cheap Asian food, and Le Bistro Francais for delicious French food, I recommend the raclette burger! If you need to buy anything in preparation for your tour then you can head to the State Department Store, or to the Black Market (but be very wary of pickpockets).
Well… That’s it. Ulaanbaatar is a strange city. It’s huge but the centre is small. While it’s busy during the day, it never seems very busy at night and it does not feel safe at all. The few times I walked alone at night felt sketchy and even walking with others seemed dodgy. Nothing happened to me personally but the feeling was there and we heard some bad stories. Just be safe out there and leave your valuables locked up in your hostel if you go out in the evening.
If you think I’ve missed out anything wonderful, let me know in the comments below.
You can view the full album here.