Ulaanbaatar Mongolia in a Day

I can’t imagine what you are doing in Ulaanbaatar. It’s an extremely random place to find yourself. I can only imagine you’re stopping off on the Trans-Siberian Railway. You probably know already that Lonely Planet describes Ulaanbaatar as “an ugly scar on an otherwise lovely country.” Sadly, this is pretty accurate. Ulaanbaatar is the surplus store of cities. The Salvation Army of country capitals. Everything you see appears to be left over from somewhere else – nothing quite matches. Cars are just as likely to have their steering wheels on the left or right side. Sidewalks are non-existent and the buildings have a certain dilapidated charm that only a Soviet history can inspire. But fear not! This place can still be worth your time. You just need to set your expectations properly and keep an open mind.

Welcome to Ulaanbaatar!

Welcome to Ulaanbaatar!

Pathway Away From Gandantegchenling Monastery Towards City and Hills

Can you tell where the city ends?

An Otherwise Beautiful Country
Mongolia as a whole is shockingly beautiful. It is a dramatic change of scenery from neighboring Russia and a sea of endless hills under a blanket of lush green. The landscape is dotted with patches of life with the occasional nomadic settlement consisting of a few yurts, a herd of animals and some small lines of smoke climbing up into the sky. Ulaanbaatar sits in stark contrast to this nomadic natural landscape with its factories, Soviet apartment blocks and neglected urban infrastructure.

Things to See and Do
With only a day in Ulaanbaatar, or UB for short, you’ll want to spend most of your time walking around. The city isn’t so large and you can pretty much walk everywhere. Peace Avenue is the main drag and commercial center of the city. This is the place to start to get your bearings and set some mental landmarks for places to come back to later in the day for meals. Sukh-Baatar Square marks the center of the city and is a nice area to spend some time. Check out the Government Palace, Parliament, statue of Chinggis Khan and many of the international embassies nearby.

The Government Palace

The Government Palace in Sukh-Baatar Square

Just off Peace Avenue lies Gandantegchenling Monastery which is Mongolia’s largest and most important monastery. The name translates roughly as “The Great Place of Complete Joy” and apparently this is one of the very few monasteries that survived the soviets. It has great importance to the Mongolian people as a sign of their freedom.  Take a seat inside on the cool floor of the Migjed Janraisig and gaze up at the eyes of the giant standing golden Buddha towering 80 feet above you.  The monastery also offers an opportunity to see just how beautiful Ulaanbaatar’s surroundings are. The city occupies a valley between four holy peaks. From this elevated position you can look out at the hills surrounding the city, green and untouched.

The Migjed Janraisig at Gandantegchenling Monestary

The Migjed Janraisig at Gandantegchenling Monestary

Things to Eat
Don’t be afraid to try a true Mongolian restaurant.  You may not be able to read the signs or menu, but it’s worth trying to muddle your way through with mimes and pointing.  I had dinner at one place that I was totally helpless in but a wonderful bilingual Mongolian man came to my rescue and helped me order.  Be sure to try khuushuur which are fried mutton pancakes and buuz which is a soup filled with meat dumplings.

Siberian Fried Dumplings - Khuushuur

Siberian Fried Dumplings – Khuushuur

Mongolian Dumpling Soup with Buuz

Mongolian Dumpling Soup with Buuz

Mongolian Barbecue
On Peace Avenue you are sure to spot BD’s Mongolian Grill. This obvious tourist trap lured me in with its English menus, bright signage and promise of “Mongolian food” that met my preconceived expectations. In truth, what we consider “Mongolian barbecue” is a total sham and not at all Mongolian. “Mongolian barbecue” was actually invented in the 1950’s by Taiwanese restaurants in downtown Taipei. It has nothing to do with Mongolia at all. Restaurants like BD’s claim the concept is based on soldiers of the Mongol Empire gathering large quantities of meat, preparing them with their swords and cooking them on their overturned shields over a large fire. Also it’s worth nothing that BD’s Mongolian Grill is actually an American company that opened a location in Ulaanbaatar seemingly as some sort of joke. The only other place I have ever seen the restaurant is in Denver, Colorado.

Mongolian Grillers at BD's

Mongolian Grillers at BD’s

Mongolian Grill Lunch at BD's

Mongolian Grill Lunch at BD’s

Be Careful!
The people of Ulaanbaatar are very friendly and eager to engage outsiders in conversation. But beware a much more obvious danger while out on the street – the streets themselves. Ulaanbaatar has barely any sidewalks, instead favoring piles of rubble on the side of the road. Even more treacherous is the abundance of missing manhole covers. Be extra careful when walking around at night where there are no street lights. You could easily find yourself in a Mongolian sewer!

Try taking a leisurely stroll down this sidewalk

Try taking a leisurely stroll down this sidewalk

Watch Your Step!

Watch Your Step!

Ulaanbaatar is incredibly cheap. The small apartment/hostel I stayed in cost me only $6/night. A huge meal at an authentic Mongolian restaurant that was easily enough food for two cost only $4.60. Even an all-you-can-eat lunch at tourist-centric BD’s was only $10.

The Great Ger Yurt

The Great Ger Yurt at Gandantegchenling Monastery

Day Two?
If you have more than a day in Ulaanbaatar I would recommend going outside the city and staying over in a yurt (or “ger”) camp.  I actually spent three nights in Ulaanbaatar, but if I could do it again I definitely would try to experience a bit of the Mongolian countryside as well.

Have you actually been to Ulaanbaatar?  If so, please let me know.

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4 Responses to “Ulaanbaatar Mongolia in a Day”

  1. Andrew Osborn
    March 19, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    The line from Lonely Planet is misquoted.

    • StyleHiClub
      March 19, 2014 at 8:41 am #

      Hi Andrew. The quote is from Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway 2nd Edition page 257 – bottom right. The full quote is as follows: “By no stretch of the imagination could Ulaanbaatar be called pretty. In fact the preponderance of jerry-built Soviet apartment blocks, polluting factories and general urban sprawl make it an ugly scar on an otherwise lovely country.”

  2. Guest
    March 21, 2014 at 1:55 am #

    Ugh. Truth hurts. “surplus store of cities” – Dave! Funny, but still hurts. I’m a Mongolian from UB. And I agree, nothing matches. I wish our supplier had better taste though. We import pretty much everything from China and they are some tacky people and it shows through their products! Sure they have nice stuff, but not where we shop nor is it economical for us. And UB is where the Japanese used cars come to die. UB used to be the cutest cleanest little city when I was growing up. But we’ll catch up with the rest of ya’ll one day. You try fitting 1 million people in a city that was designed for 5 times less. Also, the politicians gotta get rich first before they have to build sidewalks. Ugh! We have to get out of our soviet obidience and start learning to demand our basic rights – safety in public places and the food we eat! We can’t always pay 3 times more for American grocery than the Americans.

    • David DiGregorio
      March 21, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

      Thanks for reading and I appreciate the comment and you being light-hearted about my critique of UB. In truth, I really enjoyed the city despite it’s shortcomings. It’s an interesting place and must be an interesting place to be from. Next time I really want to get out into the countryside too though.