By now, dear reader, you’ll probably know that I’m no longer on the road. Well over a year has passed, and I’m now back in my own double bed in London, rather than lying in cramped bunk trying to type blog posts whilst avoiding dropping my phone on my face (a surprisingly common occurrence). As a result, my blog posts from now on will focus more on tips and photos than any sense of a chronological order, because honestly I can’t remember what day it was last Tuesday, let alone what I did in 2018.
Ulanbator, or Ulan Bataar, or other variations of the spelling, was a bit of an unknown for me. I hadn’t the slightest idea what it would look or feel like, and travelling through Northern Mongolia on the train from Ulan-Ude it was hard to imagine a bustling city in such a sparsely populated land.
It’s a small city, and unlike anywhere I’ve been before or since. It’s busy and chaotic, and definitely not easy for a tourist to navigate. I found it very scruffy in places, and certain areas made me feel uneasy, but it was hard to put my finger on exactly why. Ramshackle market stalls rub shoulders with new, air-conditioned Korean convenience stores, and soviet apartment blocks contrast with areas where the majority of homes are traditional ger camps, with unmade roads and basic amenities. The contrast between the wealthy and the poor is striking, the driving is terrifying and finding an ATM (let alone one that works) is a challenge, but it’s worth it to experience a city so unique, that retains centuries old traditions whilst embracing some of the trappings of modernity.
I would suggest staying somewhere central, because the bus system (although cheap) is difficult to figure out. I stayed at a family-run guesthouse called Vast Mongolia, which was an apartment in an old Khrushchev-era block, and whilst basic the family were kind and welcoming, and it was within easy walking distance of the shops and main sights.
Here’s what I got up to:
- Explored the Gandan Temple Monastery, a complex in one of the ger districts at the edge of the city. This was the area I felt the most unsafe, partly because some of the roads were so eerily quiet, so I’d recommend taking a friend or a tour if you’re a single woman. The complex is made up of one main temple with a huge golden statue of a bodhisattva inside, which you unfortunately have to pay extra to photograph (so being a cheapskate, I don’t have any photographic evidence of it), as well as some smaller temples and stupa. There isn’t a huge amount to see and it may even be *slightly underwhelming* to those who have visited big, famous buddhist temple complexes elsewhere in Asia but it is worth a visit to see the enormous statue inside.
- Looked everywhere for the Chojin Lama Temple Museum, which is tucked amongst modern office blocks and high-rises.
- Explored the collection at the Zanzabar Fine Arts Museum. I was particularly amused by the scenes in the famous series ‘One day in Mongolia’, a kind of Mongolian ‘Where’s Wally’, with some rather raunchy scenes hidden amongst more mundane, day to day scenes of nomadic life. I also learned more about this fascinating country and its people, at the excellent Mongolian National History Museum.
- Freaked out at the size of Sukhbaatar Square, a huge but (when I visited) oddly empty public space, the enormity of which could only ever have come about from a political regime that enjoyed huge military parades.
- Took a very a sweaty walk up hundreds of stairs to the socialist-modernist Zaisan Memorial, which has amazing views over the city and surrounding country.
- Marvelled at the treasures in the Winter Palace of the Boghd Khaan
- Shopped for new walking shoes in The State Dept Store, where I’m fairly confident you could buy anything imaginable, from cheap, Chinese-made tat to well-known American, European and Russian brands.
- Boarded the train to the next destination – Beijing. The Chinese built train was surprisingly new and the only one on the trip to that point that had showers. The Ulanbator-Beijing train doesn’t have the third/platskart/hard sleeper that I had become accustomed to (the kind with 60 or so beds in one carriage), so I travelled in a 4 berth cabin instead (I MUCH prefer third!). You can see below how flat and empty the countryside seemed on the journey south, and how incredibly quiet the stations were compared to the ones in Russia.
Where on earth can a vegetarian eat, in a country where meat features in almost every dish?
Never fear, because the following options were all delicious, and come highly recommend by yours truly.
- Luna Blanca, a vegan restaurant in a buddhist temple, serving up vegan versions of traditional Mongolian dishes, at bargain prices. This is right by the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum, so it’s a good lunch option before you hit the gallery.
- Khaan Deli, Ulanbator’s answer to an American diner. It isn’t quite what you’d expect if you were in, say Mississippi, but if you’re craving comfort food in Mongolia this is the place to go. I had a biscuit with eggs & cheese and a side of a hash brown and baked beans, which sadly had meat in them (only the beans, not the hash brown thank goodness).
Modern Nomads has several locations in the city, and it’s basically Mongolian food made palatable for Western tastes. They have English language menus, and although aimed squarely at the tourist market it is a good way to try local dishes, and a very nice, smart restaurant. They have a few veggie options too, like the khuushuur (fried dumplings).
I really enjoyed visiting Ulanbator but I would have loved to have seen some more of Mongolia and spent time outside of the capital experiencing the nomadic lifestyle. Definitely somewhere for a future adventure!
Pro tip for homesick Brits and Americans: Some of the convenience stores such as Circle K stock Cadburys chocolate and US candies too. They’re quite expensive, but can you really put a price on a taste of home?