Ulaanbataar (literally “Red Hero”) is the capital of, and largest city in, Mongolia. It became the capital of the new Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924 and was named in honour of Mongolian national hero, Damdin Sükhbaatar, who, with the help of the Soviet Red Army, liberated Mongolia from Roman von Ungern-Sternberg‘s troops and Chinese occupation. Its population has been over one million since 2008. The city is in the north of central Mongolia, in the valley of Tuul River. It is the cultural, industrial, and financial heart of the country. It is the centre of Mongolia’s road network, and is connected by rail to both the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia and the Chinese railway system.
The city was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. In 1778 it settled permanently at its present location, the junction of the Tuul and Selbe rivers. Before that it changed location twenty-eight times, with each location being chosen ceremonially. In the 20th Century, Ulaanbataar grew into a major manufacturing centre.
Following the Second World War, most of the old yurt quarters were replaced by Soviet-style blocks of flats, often financed by the Soviet Union. Urban planning began in the 1950s, and most of the city today is the result of construction between 1960 and 1985. The Trans Mongolian Railway, connecting Ulaanbataar with Moscow and Beijing, was completed in 1956, and cinemas, theatres and museums were built. On the other hand, many of the temples and monasteries of the pre-socialist city were destroyed following the anti-religious purges of the late 1930s. After the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe in late 1989, Mongolia saw its own Democratic Revolution in early 1990, which led to a multi-party system, a new constitution in 1992, and transition to a market economy.
How to get there
Flights to Mongolia are provided by the national airline Mongolian International Air Transport (MIAT) (www.miat.com), and Air China (CA) (www.airchina.com). From London to Ulaanbataar takes 14 hours, including stopovers. Various flight combinations are possible: London-Moscow-Ulan Bator, London-Beijing-Ulan Bator or London-Seoul-Ulan Bator. Fares start from £529 inclusive of taxes. Flights increase in price in July, the peak of the summer travel season. Discounts are available in winter. The Chinggis Khaan International Airport is 20km (12m) from the city. Buses run to the city centre (journey time 30 minutes). Taxis are also available (journey time 20 minutes).
Where to stay
High End – Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace 5* (East Cross Road, Peace Avenue, www.kempinski.com), of one of the most luxurious hotel chains, is located in the heart of Bayanzurkh District, the hub of Ulaanbataar and within easy reach of shopping malls and the bazaar, popular restaurants and the Opera House. It has 102 spacious guest rooms and suites suited for both business and leisure travellers. Everything in the rooms was designed for the well-being and comfort of the guests. The rates vary between £116 and £429 per room per night depending on room category.
Mid-Range – the newly opened Royal House Hotel 3* (formerly known as Red Rose Hotel) is located in a calm suburban district in eastern Ulaanbataar (Ikh toiruu-196, 14-Khoroo, Bayanzurkh District, www.royalhousehotel.mn). Close by is the city’s largest public market called Narantuul, an interesting place for foreigners and travellers. It is full of all kinds of things including clothes, handicrafts and souvenirs. Standard single, £45 per room per night, standard double, £55 per room per night.
Budget – Zaya Guest House (Tserendorj Street Bldg 63, Apt 10,11,12, www.mongolia-travel-hostel-zaya.com). It has two locations in the city centre, and both are in modern recently-renovated apartment buildings. The place is more suitable for a person looking for a clean and calm place to sleep than a backpacker looking for a rowdy and noisy dorm. Free wireless internet is available in the rooms. Also organizes tours. Single room, £16 per person per night, double, £12 per person per night, triple, £10 per person per night.
Where to eat
Local specialities: Meat is the basis of the Mongolian diet, primarily mutton, with goat, horse, camel and yak meat dishes also on offer. Rice, flour, potatoes and onions are the other main ingredients, while green vegetables are rarely encountered outside the capital. The local cooking is quite distinctive. Traditional meals generally consist of boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour with either rice, pasta, noodles or dairy products. Boodog is the whole carcass of a goat or marmot roasted from the inside – the entrails and bones are taken out through the throat, the carcass is filled with burning hot stones and the neck tied tightly, and thus the goat is cooked from the inside to the outside. Popular in summer is horhog. This meal consists of chopped up goat, potatoes and onions slowly steamed inside a metal container. Scalding hot rocks are placed inside the container to create the steam and once extracted it is customary to pass the stones from hand to hand. The national food is buuz, a steamed dumpling filled with mutton. These are eaten in great quantities during the Tsaagan Sar (New Year) festival. Huushuur (a deep fried mutton pancake) is another popular food item, particularly during the summer Naadam festivities.
Regional drinks: Suutei tsai (salty tea with milk) is very popular. Mongolian vodka and Chinese and Korean beers are widely available.
Best places to eat:
Rosewood Coffee House (Embassy Street, Midtown Office) is very popular among the Ulan Batorers and travellers. It serves a Western style breakfast. The menu is predominantly Italian: paninis, sandwiches, coffee, soup, pasta, spaghetti etc.
BD’s Mongolian BBQ (Sükhbaatar District, Seoul Street 9, on the right side of Ayanchin Outfitters). The food is cooked to a very high standard and works as an interactive buffet: diners select ingredients from an open buffet and give it to the grillers who cook it on a traditional Mongolian style grill and add a dash of one of the chef’s many tasty sauces. All ingredients are sourced locally and the menu reflects the franchise’s BD’s Mongolian Barbeque moniker. Its unlimited “Create Your Own Stir-fry” features fresh vegetables, meats, sauces and spices.
Sakura Restaurant is on the second floor of the Kempinski Hotel and is an authentic Japanese Restaurant. The meals are prepared by a Japanese chef. Highly appreciated by the Japanese, it also known as the best Japanese restaurant in town and reinforces the strong historical relationship between Japan and Mongolia.
What to see
Gandan Monastery, the main monastery in the city. It is one of the few monasteries in the country that escaped the communist purges during the 1930s.
Choijin Lama Monastery, a unique showcase of religious art and the history of Buddhism in Mongolia. The monastery was active until 1938, and in 1942 it was 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 a sculpture of Choijin Lama and the embalmed mummy of his teacher. It also contains the great coral mask of Begtse, made from over 6000 pieces of coral. Yadam temple and Amgalan temple contain rare artefacts made by the famous Mongolian artist and sculptor, Zanabazar.
Sükhbaatar Square, the big open space in the centre of the city with an equestrian statue of the 1921 hero Sükhbaatar, and a seated statue of Chinggis Khan and their 9 Heroes (Urlugs).
Zaisan Memorial, a huge communist-era monument located on a hill near the city. It represents the Russian and Mongolian heroes who fought together during both world wars. Nowadays it is a popular viewpoint over the whole city. There’s also a huge Buddhist statue at the bottom.
There are also a few museums to visit in Ulan Bator: International Intellectual Museum, exhibiting Mongolian puzzle toys, logic games, hand crafted products and souvenirs; Natural History Museum; Zanabazar Museum of Buddhist Arts, whose collection includes items from the Stone Age to 20th C; National Museum of Mongolia shows off Mongolia’s most prized archaeological finds and historical treasures.
The national currency is the Mongolian Tugrik (MNT). Credit cards are accepted by the main commercial banks, large hotels and a few shops and restaurants in Ulan Bator. ATMs are available in Ulaanbataar and most Mongolian provincial capitals. Both Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted. Traveller’s cheques are accepted, although credit and debit cards remain faster and more convenient. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller’s cheques in US Dollars. Traveller’s cheques can be difficult to exchange outside the capital. There are no restrictions on the import of local and foreign currencies, provided they are declared on arrival. Local and foreign currencies can be exported up to the amount imported and declared. Official organisations authorised to exchange foreign currency include commercial banks in Ulaanbataar, and bureaux de change found along the streets and in hotels. Rates vary slightly and are likely to be lower in hotels. The easiest currency to exchange is the US Dollar, followed by the Euro and the Russian Rouble.
Exchange rate at the time of writing:
1GBP – 2,094.87 MNT, 1USD – 1,330.00 MNT
UK citizens require a visa. A passport valid for at least six months is required. Visa costs start from £40 depending on duration of stay. Processing of visa application takes 2-5 working days. Please visit the website of Mongolian Embassy in London for further information: http://www.embassyofmongolia.co.uk