A small but growing outpost of modern civilization in the sea of remoteness that is Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is the place where your Mongolian adventure will begin and end most likely, and it is an important place to stock up on all the essentials (and maybe some trailside luxuries, like Mongolian-made vodka) before heading out into the nomadic wilderness.
As the capital of Mongolia, it is where the nation’s affairs are organized, and as such, its treasures and history is also detailed here within its museums and cultural sites. If you crave any of the usual Western culinary delights, grab a bite of them here, as the challenging cuisine that nomadic herders subsist on will likely be all that’s available for weeks on end.
Since you’re on a trip of a lifetime though, don’t let that thought scare you … Mongolia’s epic scenery and people will more than compensate for that challenge, as this city provides a small taste of what’s to come in both areas, as the mountains within a short distance of the city are breathtaking, and the festivals (especially Naadam) will get you excited for what will shortly follow here.
The first place you should see in Mongolia’s sole city is Gadan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar’s (and arguably Mongolia’s) most significant temple. It is a Buddhist hall of worship that is home to over 5,000 monks who had many of its treasures converted into ammunition fodder. A Buddha statue that was scrapped by the Soviets was recently restored to its former glory, and proudly sits within the grounds of the temple once more.
Ulaanbaatar’s second most important temple is Choijin Lama Monastery, which was a functioning Buddhist temple until 1938, after which it was converted into a museum. It has assembled religious art and other Buddhist relics from all over Mongolia, including the mummified body of the teacher of Choijin Lama, the coral mask belonging to Begtse, and sculptures and other art created by the famed Mongolian artist Zanabazar.
World War II exacted a heavy toll around the world, even in Mongolia. The Zaisan Memorial commemorates the sacrifice and courage of Soviet and Mongol troops that fought side by side to defend this territory from a Japanese advance in 1939. The memorial itself is made of concrete, with a suspended ribbon that features elaborate murals on the inside depicting wartime battles, as well as peacetime collaborations that included the Soviet space program.
If you can, plan your trip to Mongolia for early to mid-July, as a colourful festival called Naadam takes places at this time in Ulaanbaatar. A UNESCO recognized cultural tradition, this athletic festival is comprised of three main events – Mongolian wrestling, archery and horse racing. If you are not that into the sports themselves, the opening ceremony, much like their Olympic contemporaries, is a colourful and unforgettable display of pageantry and artistic prowess.
While the market of Naran Tuul (literally meaning “black market” in English) has a bad reputation for pickpockets, don’t let it stop you from checking out this intoxicating mix of merchants, elaborate goods (hand-woven and modern), and various foodstuffs, all coming together in one of the largest markets in Asia. Just remember to not take anything here that would devastate you if stolen, and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
South of the city are the mountains of Bodgkhan Uul, giving one much to look forward to upon the start of their trekking adventures into the Mongolian backcountry. You can get a jump on the festivities though by hiking these peaks, which provide an amazing view of the city of Ulaanbaatar thousands of feet below.
To get here, take the #7 or #33 bus out of town to the end of the line (yes, they have buses in Ulaanbaatar). Head down the road to the Bogdkhan resort, and upon entrance to the resort, walk downhill to a parking lot where a ticket booth sells tickets to enter the protected area beyond. Pay the person there and head off on a scramble up the peaks on a leisurely hike that will take up much of the day, as it is 10 km each way.
Finally, if you happen to be in Ulaanbaatar in the colder months of the year, the Sky Ski Resort allows you to do something you likely never pictured yourself doing in this life: shredding powder in Mongolia. The Rockies or the Alps this isn’t, but with long months of unrelenting cold and snow, it is a badly needed distraction that should provide some entertainment, should you be here during the winter, whether you are an English teacher, NGO worker, entrepreneur, or if you are a touristic masochist (winter temps get down to -30c regularly, so nomadic trekking is extremely difficult when it is even possible to leave the big city).