All Yurts Lead to Ulaanbaatar
Becoming at Home in the Nomad’s Capital
As I stepped off of the train pulling into Ulaanbaatar station I was waiting to feel the bite of a harsh Mongolian winter. Surprisingly, the chill did nothing more than tickle my face. The ice crunched beneath my boots as I left the terminal, catching my first glimpse of the ancestors of Genghis Khan. The buildings were unsettlingly drab, all adopting a typical Soviet style of architecture. The dreariness was further exaggerated with the low hanging cloud of pollution and grey skies above. With sub-zero temperatures and an overall bleak atmosphere, what kind of tourist would be willing to venture to this icy capital?
Even during these frigid winter months, I found that Mongolia has as much to offer than if I were to travel during the summer. The only difference is that the vast green steeples are adorned with a blanket of snow. When visiting Mongolia, it is inevitable that I would be stopping in the capital. In this nomadic country, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say “all roads lead to Ulaanbaatar.” Many travelers passing through the city were doing nothing more than planning their onward trip to visit one of the many national parks Mongolia is blessed with. I made a point, however, to find the soul in this cold frozen city.
For centuries Mongolia has been a center for Lamaism and Tibet Buddhism, therefore various elaborate temples and monasteries have sprung up in the capital city. Even after the Soviets disposed of their theocratic ruler and ushered in nearly a century of Communist rule, Buddhism plays an important role in the lives of Mongolians. Unfortunately, the damage has been done and only a select few temples are still operational in the capital. The temples that are left, however, still reflect the deep connection the local population have with their Buddhist roots.
I have found that the colder the winter, the better my travels are. Even when walking from crumbling Soviet monument to lively Buddhist temple, the walks were surrounded with dramatic murals, detailed sculptures, and patriotic monuments to explore. Like many places, tourists go for the attractions but stay for the people. As a local put it, “the winter may be cold, but our hearts are warm.” I was constantly touched by Mongolian hospitality during my trip, it could be anything from needing a hot meal to trying to find a place to stay for the night. Mongolians were always ready to share what they had, and that is what made me feel at home during this numbing winter
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GO – Getting There
Other than flying directly to Ulaanbaatar, the best way to get to Mongolia is by train. Most people who visit this landlocked country are usually on a bigger trip either through China or Russia. Taking the Trans-Siberian railroad from Beijing via Mongolia and finally ending in Moscow is also a popular route.
After crossing from the Chinese border town of Erlian to Zamyn-Üüd, a train can be found leaving daily at 18:05 and arriving in Ulaanbaatar the next morning at 7:20. A hard sleeper will cost about 14 USD while a soft sleeper is around 21. Trains can also be found leaving directly from either Beijing, Hohhot, or Erlian, but there is no daily international service. The trains may be old, but they provide complimentary tea and even have flat screen TVs installed in every cabin.
From Russia, there is a train departing every day except for Tuesdays and Thursdays from Irkutsk. The total journey from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar will take around 23 hours and costs 153 USD for a second-class ticket. These trains are much newer when compared with the domestic lines. Each cabin includes extremely comfortable bedding and pillows as well as a television. During the winter months, you may even be lucky enough to have the whole cabin to yourself.
For those looking to save money and time, it is a popular option to first take the train to Ulan-Ude and then take a bus onwards to Ulaanbaatar. The trip will only take 13 hours and coast 34 USD. When taking the train most of the time is spent crossing through immigration at the border. Riding the bus simplifies this process allowing for a quicker crossing.
After arriving in Ulaanbaatar, you will find that most of the main tourist destinations are quite close to each other. It is convenient to walk from temple to museum to monument without wasting much time. There are buses that run throughout the city. After one look at the congestion on Peace Avenue and how cramped the passengers on the buses are will make you quickly reconsider ever using public transportation within Ulaanbaatar.
Do – Activities & Attractions
If one were to only visit one temple while in Ulaanbaatar, the extensive Gandantegchinlen Monastery would be it. Located in the heart of the yurt district, this monastery’s massive campus houses over 150 monks, numerous colleges, and a nearly 27-meter-tall Buddha statue. Entrance to the temple is free, but if you want to take photographs you will have to pay a fee.
A decommissioned Soviet tank greets visitors before beginning the steep 612 step hike to the summit of Zaisan hill. Monuments similar to the Mongolian/Russian Friendship Monument can be found all throughout the ex-Soviet Union. A panoramic mural depicting the group effort in defeating the Nazi army during WWII, as well as the close ties between the two countries, are displayed on the elevated concrete ring. Other than the mural itself, the top of the hill also gives visitors a great view of the city below.
For those wanting to get a true taste of what nomadic culture is like, this is the festival for you. The Naadam Festival, also known as the Three Games of Men, are several days of athletic events ranging from wrestling, horseback racing, and archery. This festival is held nationwide, from the biggest cities to the smallest villages. The largest festival, however, takes place in Ulaanbaatar starting on July 11th.
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
Located 50km northeast of the capital lies the largest horse statue in the world, ridden by no other than Genghis Khan himself. Immortalized in stainless steel, this colossal monument towers over the surround steeples. The base of the statue houses a small museum displaying what life was like under the ruthless ruler. The best way to visit the statue is by taxi costing at least 25 USD. The price of the ticket to enter the museum and top of the statue is 3 USD.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
For those short on time but still wanting to get a taste of rural nomadic Mongolian culture Gorkhi-Terelji National Park is the most accessible destination from Ulaanbaatar. From Durven Zam in the city center, tourists can take a public bus straight to the park which is 2 hours away and costing only 1 USD. While at Gorkhi-Terelji you will find many tourist yurt camps costing around 30 USD a night including your meals.
Stay – Accommodation
Ulaanbaatar has tons of budget options for accommodation. Many of these hostels are also tour operators which can help you organize your trip around Mongolia. Golden Gobi is one of the nicest and cleanest hostels in the area, I was told however that many guests were unsatisfied with their tours booked through the hotel.
A better option than staying in a hotel would be using Air B&B. Air B&B not only gives you the opportunity to interact with a true Mongolian family, but it will also help you get local pricing for visiting the rest of the country. My host, for example, assisted me in finding a driver for a fraction of the price of what it would have been if I booked through a hostel or any other tour operator.
Eat – Restaurants
Vegetarians will find that when traveling through Mongolia that your food choices are severely limited. Almost all of their dishes are nothing more than a plate full of various meats coming from horse, yak, cow, and lambs. These can be cooked in many ways such as in a dumpling called Buuz, internationally famous Mongolian BBQ, or simply a gigantic hunk of meat called Chanasan Makh.
Fortunately for those who can’t eat meat or who have been in Mongolia for so long that they can’t stand the sight of another plate full of mutton, Ulaanbaatar offers a more diverse cuisine. Most of the international restaurants, however, are either Russian or Korean.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Contrary to what many may think, traveling to Ulaanbaatar can be a year-round destination, it all depends on how well you can tolerate a bit of cold. Temperatures in the winter can drop down to as low as -40 degrees. During my trip, however, I never experienced anything lower than -25. Even with sub-zero temperatures, as long as you bundle up you will be able to enjoy just as much as you would during the summer. The only setback is that if you are a solo-traveler hoping to meet up with other tourists to join a tour, summer will be the best option. During the winter months, the hostels are nearly empty, only three or four guests can be found occupying the dorm rooms.
Traveling during a Mongolian winter does pose several challenges. If you wish to have a more relaxing holiday, visiting Ulaanbaatar during the summer may be the best choice. With more travellers it will be much easier to save money when joining tours. Also, during July Ulaanbaatar hosts the famous Naadam Festival which is a must-do for those wanting to see traditional Mongolian culture.
Safety – Possible risks
Mongolia is a fairly safe country, as long as you keep your wits about you and play it smart, you will run into few difficulties. Walking around Ulaanbaatar at night, especially in the yurt districts can be quite dangerous. There have been many cases of violence and theft in these areas. The main cause behind them is actually drunkenness. Many groups of men can be found intoxicated roaming the streets at night looking for nothing but to cause trouble.
When traveling around Ulaanbaatar and surrounding areas, travelers need to anticipate that their car will break down at one time or another. From my own experience and tourists I have met while traveling, it is inevitable that you will eventually find yourself watching your driver tear apart the vehicle on the side of the road. This can be especially troubling when traveling through the frigid winter months.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim to those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Day to day costs in Ulaanbaatar for things such as food or even accommodation is quite cheap. A meal can cost as low as 3 USD. Many of the entrance fees to museums and select temples are also very reasonably priced. Ulaanbaatar, however, is often used as a base camp before traveling to the rest of the country. The cost of joining a tour or hiring a driver is where the trip starts becoming expensive. Prices are also hard to find online and bargaining is key when deciding to join a tour. With the help of a local, I managed to hire a private driver without using a tour agent. A 5-day tour including food and accommodation ended up costing me only 425 USD.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Mongolians are some of the most hospitable people on the planet and little needs to be worried about when interacting with locals. The only time when you will have to abide by a few local customs is when you are staying in a family’s yurt. When first entering a yurt, it is important to step over the threshold, not stepping on the frame. There are also some Mongolians who only walk clockwise when inside their yurt, but from firsthand experience, this custom is not always practiced. Another part of Mongolian culture is to pass around snuff bottles, especially among men. When offered a bottle of snuff it is best to pretend to take a sniff and pass it back to avoid offending your host. When sitting in crowded areas such as on a bus, train, or even waiting room, if you or anyone else bumps into your leg it is customary to shake hands afterwards. Mongolians are typically very forgiving and openminded, they will be willing to explain their culture or forgive foreigners when not understanding.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Travelling through Mongolia is sure to leave you with an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. As great as a country as Mongolia is, it is important to bear in mind that this is definitely an adventure travel destination. Ulaanbaatar is no exception. The city itself reflects the modern direction the country is moving towards and the nomads being whisked along into the future. In this grand transition, the city is plagued with congestion and delays. If you are patient and maintain an open mind you are sure to have an excellent experience in the land of Genghis Khan.
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