Ulaanbaatar (or Ulan Bator) is essentially the only city in Mongolia. With approximately 1.2 million people, it is home to roughly half of Mongolia’s total population. The city spreads east to west along the main road, Peace Avenue, wedged between the surprisingly clean Tuul Gol River and the mountains to the north. Ulaanbaatar seems to occupy all flat land available in the area. The only way left to go is up. And there are dozens of high-rise residential buildings under construction.
Our Ulaanbaatar base would be the well-known UB Guesthouse. Difficult to find at first, the hostel is basically a converted guesthouse on the second floor of a residential block. Following old Soviet style, Ulaanbaatar seems to have many housing blocks surrounding a central courtyard with car parking, playground and gardens. Entrances are from inside the courtyard, which makes it hard to find from the streets.
With a few hours of the day left after getting off the train, we set out for a wander around. Very quickly we discovered traffic in Ulaanbaatar is horrible! There are left-hand and right-hand drive cars which all drive on the right hand side of the road which is just confusing. After crossing a busy intersection, we realized no drivers care about the green man and we nearly got run over!
Sukhbaatar Square is the central square in Ulaanbaatar and is a massive open space. Dominating the northern section is the mammoth Parliament House, complete with an awesome statue of a seated Chinggis Khan flanked by his best generals on horseback. Chinggis Khan is actually the correct name for the man more well known as “Genghis Khan”. It was he who united all of the fueding clans and founded the Mongol nation in 1206 AD. He would eventually lead the fierce Mongol warriors to conquer the greatest armies of the era and expand his empire from Korea to Hungary and India to Russia during the 13th century.
Dominating the centre of the square is a statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, who in 1921 declared Mongolia’s final independence from China. Around it, kids were rollerblading and driving toy cars against the backdrop of old Soviet era buildings.
During an epic long walk along Peace Avenue to collect our train tickets for our next train destination, Irkutsk, we got drenched by a sudden downpour and took shelter in an Irish Pub for Andrew’s first taste of local Chinggis Beer.
We eventually reached arguably Ulaanbaatar’s most famous sight; Gandan Khiid Monastery (Gandantegchinlen).
Although originally built in 1838, like most monasteries in Mongolia, the Soviet purges of 1937 saw it mostly destroyed. It has been rebuilt over time with other additions and now the monastery complex contains several temples, statues and buildings.
On our way back past the old ger districts (where the majority of locals still live), we stumbled upon Bakula Rinpoche Sum (also known as Pethub Stangey Choskhor Ling Khiid).
There was a prayer ceremony starting at 6pm, so we waited and watched the Buddhist monks (including kid monks!) getting ready while dozens of locals crowded inside.
The next morning we met Tulga, who would be our tour guide for the next 11 days. He was a young man who we instantly had fun getting to know as we looked around Sukhbaatar Square once more and wandered around the small museum inside the Parliament House.
It was a long walk (then taxi, because we gave up walking!) up the hill to the best viewpoint of Ulaanbaatar; Zaisan Memorial. Built by the Russians to commemorate ‘unknown soldiers and heroes’ from various wars, it offers breathtaking views of the city.
There’s something special about seeing a sprawling city before you completely surrounded by green mountains. Stunning.
After an even longer walk back, we dropped by the Tumen Ekh Ensemble to watch a traditional Mongolian Song and Dance performance. It is clearly popular as many tourist groups crowded inside to watch the one hour show. It consisted of several acts showcasing traditional musical instruments similar to violins/cellos, flute, clarinet, saxophone, horns, drums and harp. There was dancing, Mongolian throat singing (which needs to be heard to be believed!), folk costumes and even a contortionist girl (which needs to be seen to be believed!). Very entertaining and well worth it.
Visited 3rd to 5th August 2014.