Ulaanbaatar or Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia. In 1998 its population was estimated at 650,000. It is situated north and slightly east of the center of Mongolia, on the Tuul River, in a valley at the foot of the mountain Bogdo Uul.
Founded in 1649 as a Buddhist monastery town named Urga, it prospered in the 1860’s as a commercial center on the tea route between Russia and China. Mongolia first proclaimed its autonomy in 1911, and when the city became the capital of the new Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, its name was changed to Ulaanbaatar (“red hero” in the Mongolian language), in honor of Mongolia’s national hero Sühbaatar, who liberated Mongolia from Ungern von Sternberg troops, Chinese rule, and called in the Soviet Red Army. His statue still adorns Ulaanbaatar’s central square.
Ulaanbaatar has an international airport, Buyant Ukha Airport and is connected by highway to all the major towns in Mongolia and by rail to the Trans-Siberian railway and Chinese railroad systems. The city has the only university in the country. But there are number of colleges both private and public. A historical library contains a wealth of ancient Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetan manuscripts.
If you have breathing problems, be aware that Ulaanbaatar has high levels of Air Pollution. UB has a population just over a twentieth of Beijing; yet according to the World Health Organization, UB is considered the second most polluted city in the world in 2013 – behind Ahvaz, Iran. But the countryside air, away from the cities, is gorgeous.
Ulan Bator is located at about 1,350 metres (4,430 ft) above mean sea level, slightly east of the centre of Mongolia on the Tuul River, a subtributary of the Selenge, in a valley at the foot of the mountain Bogd Khan Uul. Bogd Khan Uul is a broad, heavily forested mountain rising 2,250 metres (7,380 ft) to the south of Ulan Bator. It forms the boundary between the steppe zone to the south and the forest-steppe zone to the north.
It is also one of the oldest reserves in the world, being protected by law since the 18th century. The forests of the mountains surrounding Ulan Bator are composed of evergreen pines, deciduous larches and birches while the riverine forest of the Tuul River is composed of broad-leaved, deciduous poplars, elms and willows. As a point of reference Ulan Bator lies on roughly the same latitude as Vienna, Munich and Orléans. It lies on roughly the same longitude as Chongqing, Hanoi and Jakarta.
Owing to its high elevation, its relatively high latitude, its location hundreds of kilometres from any coast, and the effects of the Siberian anticyclone, Ulan Bator is the coldest national capital in the world, with a monsoon-influenced, cold semi-arid climate (Köppen BSk, USD A Plant Hardiness Zone 3b ) that closely borders a subarctic climate and humid continental.
The city features brief, warm summers and long, bitterly cold and dry winters. The coldest January temperatures, usually at the time just before sunrise, are between −36 and −40 °C (−33 and −40 °F) with no wind, due to temperature inversion. Most of the annual precipitation of 267 millimetres (10.51 in) falls from June to September. The highest recorded precipitation in the city was 659 mm (26 in) at the Khureltogoot Astronomical Observatory on Mount Bogd Khan Uul. Ulan Bator has an average annual temperature of −0.4 °C (31.3 °F)
The city lies in the zone of discontinuous permafrost, which means that building is difficult in sheltered aspects that preclude thawing in the summer, but easier on more exposed ones where soils fully thaw. Suburban residents live in traditional yurts that do not protrude into the soil. Extreme temperatures in the city range from −49 °C (−56 °F) to 38.6 °C (101.5 °F)
The majority of visitors arrive in Mongolia through Chinggis Khaan International Airport (IATA: ULN), which is located 18 km to the southwest of Ulaanbaatar. Many locals still call the airport by its old name “Bouyant Uka”. The airport was reconstructed in 1990, and the immigration, customs formalities and luggage delivery are relatively efficient.
MIAT (Mongolian Airlines) offers direct international flights to the city from Berlin, Moscow, Irkutsk, Seoul, Beijing,Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Domestic flights from ULN to Dalanzadgad, Moron, Khovd,Bulgan Khovd, Altai, and Arvaikheer are also available. Korean Air also flies daily from Seoul to ULN. Air China flies to and from Beijing. The Russian airline Aeroflot flies daily between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar. Turkish Airlines fly direct from Istanbul.
Direct (but long) journeys are possible from Moscow, Russia and Beijing, China on the Trans-Mongolian line of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Trains also run to the Chinese border towns of Erlian and Jining 3-4 times a week. There’s also a daily train to/from Irkutsk in Russia, which can also be reached from Vladivostok at the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian.
Trains from Beijing run once a week (on Tuesdays) and seats can only be reserved at the International Hotel in Beijing (a ten minute walk north of the main Beijing rail station). The journey takes about 30 hours. Packing a face mask might be a good idea as sandstorms in the Gobi desert may cause difficulty in breathing.
As there are barely any paved roads in Mongolia, the few ones that exist, lead to Ulaanbaatar. Navigating in Mongolia on a paved road is very easy because you just have to follow that ONE road (compared to driving on tracks, where there are hundreds of possibilities…).
Coming from the north the paved road starts at the Russian Border. Coming from the south (the Gobi) the paved road starts at Choir. Coming from the north-east the paved road starts at Bulgan.
Once in the country, it should not be difficult to find a bus going to UB, at least from larger towns. However, bus stops are difficult to locate, with buses usually just stopping in populated areas. Furthermore, Mongolian buses are notorious for being late and on some routes for not even arriving on the scheduled day. Domestic buses usually go to Dragon Center (СХД18-р хороо, 18072 Улаанбаатар), Teevriin Tovchoo (near Main Railway Station ) and the eastern bus station near the Botanical Gardens (the Gardens are completely destroyed, but the location is well known to the locals).
Taxis are cheap, charging around T800 per kilometer, but a foreigner will get overcharged easily. After midnight charge goes up to T1,000 per kilometer. A ride from the airport to the city center should cost you no more than T15,000, but most drivers will try to charge you a minimum of T20,000. You may get a better and more reliable deal by seeking out older drivers in their own cars, rather than the official yellow cabs, now there are new white cabs with large square meter LCD on the dash. Younger drivers can sometimes get extremely opportunistic and try to hold you or your luggage at ransom until you pay them extraordinary amounts of money. Always negotiate the fare in advance and don’t be fooled by tricks like “I meant 3,000 for each of you.”
Tip: carry a small memo of MNT amounts (500 MNT, 1000 MNT, 1500 MNT etc) and show them exactly what you are willing to pay before you get on.
Please note that no taxi drivers speak English, so it’s best to have the name and destination written in Mongolian to the driver unless the driver knows English. Otherwise, English-speaking drivers are relatively non-existent.
Buses are regular and have a fixed charge per ride. Electric trolley-buses are slower and run fewer routes. After midnight, only trolley-buses are available. But they go for only two main routes. Smaller buses (really just vans), called micro-bus, are equally accessible. These have someone who hangs out the window at each stop shouting the name of the destination in rapid Mongolian. A bit hard to understand.
Many of the city buses go out to the edge of the city. Route 22, goes southwest to the Bird Farm along the Tuul River. Catch the bus at the Ard Cinema bus stop, the Cinema has been replaced by an Anod Bank. This bus stop is located on Bagatoiruu Street, from the central Post Office walk west along Peace Ave. At the intersect with the traffic lights, cross the street and turn right (north) half a block and you will reach a small square with the bus stop.
Bus #11 and #22 go close by the Airport. Get out at Nisekh, and walk 500 mtr across the field.
As in any city, be wary of pick pockets on the buses, especially when the buses are packed.
Walking is also an option as the city center is quite compact. Having only one main Avenue, Ulaanbaatar stretches from east to west and it’s also easy to draw a mental map. but getting around ger districts can be puzzling. Get a good city map at the Mongolian Government Map shop. Located on Ih Toiruu Street. West from the State Department Store three blocks, the first intersection with traffic lights, turn right (North) about one half block, on the east side of the street you will see a yellow and blue Elba Appliance store, the Map Shop is behind and inline with the North wall of the Elba. But purchasing map from the airport would help save you a lot of time. finding specific places or offices by address is quite challenging because locals will usually tell you the places by nearest landmarks such as West Junction (supposed to be Undsen Huuliin gudamj) and Urt Tsagaan (which is Tourist Street1) and along the department store (Peace avenue) sometimes locals will not know any better than you as they too never seen some street names put on the streets. specially when you buy guide books, look for books with pictures printed so that it would help you ask locals about places rather than only showing written addresses with postal codes.
Note that most tourist sites have a separate camera/video fee in addition to the entrance fee.
Gandan Monastery (Gandantegchinlen Khiid). The main monastery in the city has services around 10AM every morning. Approximately five thousand monks live here. In 1938 the communists destroyed the religious icons in this monastery and took its contents to the Hermitage where it was then regenerated into ammunitions used to fight during the siege of Leningrad. It was not until very recently that the Mongolian people were able to reconstruct the massive statue of the Buddha that resides in the largest of the temples featured in the picture on the right. Taking photographs requires the payment of an additional negotiable fee (often that for an adult is requested).
Choijin Lama Monastery, Ulaanbaatar, Chingeltrei district, Left of Central Library, 10.00am-17.00pm. Choijing Lama Temple Museum is a unique showcase of religious art and the history of Buddism in Mongolia. This museum is a gem of the historical and cultural heritage of the previous century. The monastery was active until 1938. According to the degree of the Peoples Khural, November 1941, the monastery was included in the list of historical and cultural monuments and was taken charge by the Committee of sciences in 1942. It was then turned into a museum. The museum is an ensemble of Buddhist architecture and consists of 5 temples and 5 arched gates. In the main temple there is the sculpture of Choijing Lama and the embalmed mummy of his teacher. It also contains the great coral mask of Begtse, created under the direction of protectors using over 6000 pieces of coral. Yadam temple and Amgalan temple contain rare artifacts made by the famous Mongolian artist and sculptor, Zanabazar. In total the museum has over 5000 items out of which 12 are unique and 200 are particularly valuable.
Natural History Museum (closed indefinitely), Ulaanbaatar. Behind of the Government house. 10AM-5.30PM, last admission 4.30PM. When the first national museum was established in Mongolia in 1924, the base of the natural historical museum was founded by consisting the principal sections of the exhibitions with the choicest exhibitions of Mongolian Nature. When the national central museum was put in present location in 1956, it has been enriching its exhibitions and expanded as a big natural department, which has various kinds of geographical, flora, fauna and paleontological exhibits. The government Resolution, which to classify the museums in different fields like as the developed countries, was passed and the national central museum was abolished in 1991. Since 1992, a new museum was established in the place of national central museum with the purpose of being the leader natural central museum for the further development, getting foreigners enjoyed in international level, showing the geological history such as locations of planets and earth establishment and formations and show the biology characteristics of earth central zone and named as Museum of Natural History. Natural history involves historical process of 4.7 billion years of that is very long term from the origin of the world until the origin of plant, animal and human. Thus the museum shows the briefness of these events by exhibitions and contributes knowledge to peoples mind. The museum consists of: – Mongolian geography, ancient volcanoes, stones from the volcanoes – Earth origin, planet studying meteorites – Geological history, useful resources, minerals – Ancient and contemporary botany – Land fauna /mammals, birds, fishes, insects, reptiles, amphibious/ – Very ancient plant and animals /paleontology/ – Human origin Museum colleagues always enrich their treasures, exhibitions, renovate the exhibition halls and improve the museum settlement so that the museum became a big museum, which has the capable to attract foreign and domestic visitors. The museum is one of the big museum of Mongolia that has the 40 halls with 2700 square meters, 12000 exhibits and more than over 50 thousand visitors visit to the museum each year and exhibition marshrut lasts about 1.5-2.0 hours. The museum is studying and advertising museum, which introduces natural history, its appearance movements and developments to the audiences by theoretical and objects researching. Closed summer 2013 for renovation, and may reopen elsewhere in the future. As of late 2013, items have begun to be moved into storage, as the structure of the building has been deemed unsound.
Chinggis Square, (Chinggis Square). The big open space in the center of the city was renamed to Chinggis Square from its old name Sukhbaatar Square. It has an equestrian statue of the 1921 revolution hero Sükhbaatar, and seated statue of Chinggis Khaan and their sons and 2 military generals (Urlugs). edit
Bogd Khaan Palace Museum, Khan-Uul district, Chinggis avenue Bogdo khan winter palace museum Ulaanbaatar. This palace known as The green palace was built between 1893-1903 during 10 years by Mongolian masters and dedicated to the YIII Bogdo gegeen, the head of lamaist religion & last khan of Mongolia.In 1911 there was formed The Bogdo khan state and the YIII Bogdo gegeen assumed political authority over Mongolia as the Bogdo khan or “Holy King” and continued to govern as a constitutional monarch from the time of the Mongolian People’s Revolution in 1921 until his dearth of illness in 1924. After Bogdo khan death in 1924 it was turned into museum Bogdo khan palace was founded as the first National historical museum of Mongolia. In 1954 was founded The state central museum and the Bogdo khan palace museum became the branch museum. Since 2000 the museum is activiting as Bogdo khan palace museum.Now the Bogd khan palace museum consists of seven Summer Prayer temples and the winter palace. The collections of the museum include unique and valuable objects related to Mongolia’s political, religious, and artistic history from the 17 to early 20-th centuries: bronze castings, silk paintings, mineral paintings, and paper icons made by well-known artists and artisans of the period, among others the first Bogdo Javzundamba Zanabazar and his school; as well as objects owned and used by the YIII Bogdo Javzundamba and his wife queen Dondogdulam, including royal clothing and equipment, gifts from domestic and foreign guests or representatives, and items purchased by the king for his own diversion. The collection of the museum is consists of a great number of original objects and works of art from the Bogdo khan palace and is divided into 12 parts: sculpture, scrolls paintings/thangka/, applique, wood carving, religious objects, clothes, furniture, decorative arts, collection of stuffed animal, special collection, support collection and architecture.. Also all exhibits is divided into: high level category, valuable category and original category. Nowadays we have 68 exhibits of high level category and 23 exhibits of valuable category. The number of these categories will be increasing. Exhibits of high level category includes gilded bronze sculptures made by the famous master Zanabazar and school of Zanabazar, thangka paintings from the XIX-XX centuries, the painting shown the capital city of Mongolia 1912 made by Jugder, original paintings made by founder of Mongolian modern painting B.Sharav and expensive clothes of khan and queen.
Central Market or Black Market (Naran Tuul) Khar Zakh. The notorious black market on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar is a large, crowded flea market which sells a huge variety of items. Suitable for the adventurous traveller, it is patronised mainly by local people.
Zaisan Memorial. A huge communist-era monument located on a hill in the south of the city. It represents the Russian and Mongolian heroes who fought together during WWI and WWII. Nowadays it is a popular viewpoint where you can see over the whole city. There’s also a huge buddhist statue at the bottom.
International intellectual museum, Ulaanbaatar, Bayanzurkh district,in front of East Center, Mongolia.. From Monday-Saturday 10.00 am-18.00pm. The museum’s collection includes many Mongolian puzzle toys and world famous, rare and precious exhibits. The museum is a manufacturer of Mongolian puzzle toys, logic games, hand crafted products and souvenirs and it exports most of its products abroad. The museum has exhibited over 80 international exhibitions and fairs in 50 countries.
The Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, Ulaanbaatar, Chingeltrei district, Barilgachdin Square (Two blocks west of the Government House). 10-6. The collection includes items from the Stone Age to 20th C. Particularly interesting is the collection of Buddhist art beginning in the 17th Century.
Nobody travels to Mongolia for the food, but Ulaanbaatar has a good range of Western, Asian and Mongolian options. No other city this side of Beijing has close to a comparable selection. Even better, meals here are quite reasonable. You can get perfectly reasonable pizza for $3, even a night out at a fancy French cafe shouldn’t pass $20. Consider splurging on a couple good meals here, especially if headed out for a long trek into the country. Be aware that fresh vegetables, especially in winter, are hard to come by and expensive.
Korean (solongos khoolnee gazar) and Chinese restaurants dominate the city. As Asian restaurants in America tend to tailor their menu to the American palate, so in Ulaanbaatar do the East Asian restaurants tailor their menu to the Central Asian palate.
Nowadays, budget accommodation in Ulaanbaatar tends to give the best deals for a traveller. Usually a bed in a clean dormitory costs about $5-10 and a double room should be under $30 a night. Good mid-range options are sparse. Note that during the annual Naadam festival it is almost impossible to get any kind of accommodation in UB without prior reservations.
Guest homes may not respond to email (only 2 of 5 responded to us). Be Aware that in August 2009 the government passed a law requiring domestic transactions to be priced in the Mongolian currency (MNT). Some guest homes attempt to charge more than the price on their website saying their website is out-of-date. Some may change the price (higher) from the price you have agreed to pay from your on-line reservation, citing that the exchange rate has changed. Many guest homes operate also as Tour Guide/Operator/Agency and be more interested in selling a tour and devote less attention to the guest house facilities in room size/space, limited number of bathrooms/showers relative to the number of beds, internet WiFi service shut off at 22:00h and turned on at 09:00h, and so forth.
Budget private rooms are often located in rented apartments in complexes away from the main guesthouse. Guesthouses rent these from nomadic families during the summer peak season and return them when the family return to the city for the winter months. Dark and dirty stairwells are the norm in Ulaanbaatar.
All pictures by the author
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