Ulaanbataar and beyond

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June 9th 2017
Published: March 18th 2019
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R: We awoke to see a golden sunrise across Mongolia. The landscape was still peppered with yurts but now the buildings were getting more dense as well as we approached Ulaanbataar. We pulled in on time at 6am. We had booked a hotel in the station district to make things easier so this was just a short walk away. The staff at the hotel were great and offered us a free breakfast - the room was also ready already! It was great to have a shower and a refresh - our first night in a hotel with a shower for 6 days.

As we had just 2 days off the train in Mongolia, I had pre-arranged a driver for the day. The distances in Ulaanbataar to things you would want to see are quite far and would be quite an effort by public transport. Our driver for the day was Haji - he spoke great English as he used to live in the US. He wasn't really tour guiding us per se, more just facilitating our wish list - which I had meticulously planned! First of all we headed to Gandan Khiid - a Buddhist Monastery. It was a bit
Gandan KhiidGandan KhiidGandan Khiid

hard to get to - as the streets were busy and crowded here. We pulled up just nearby and were able to get through the masses. The monastery complex is made up of several buildings, some old, some new. Most of the buildings were brightly coloured, and there were lines of prayer wheels that were very much in use. The main building had a service in progress which we were able to observe from the outside. It was crowded withing and the monk was leading the congregation in a chant and cymbals and drums were plentiful. The were several cauldrons in the complex with fires and incense which led to a gentle smoke drifting across the square. There were also some lovely cooling fountains. We had a good explore including into a building containing a large Buddha, before heading on to our next destination. This certainly was going to be a fast paced day.

Next up ; the Zaisan memorial. Haji took us to a park to observe the memorial to start with - it is on a steep hill just outside the city. The park also contained a large Buddha which is said to contain books of the Buddha hidden within it. The memorial is a soviet built construction that celebrates unknown soldiers of various wars. The view from the top was also great - giving you a view over the city sprawl and all the new construction. Ulaanbataar, Haji tells us, is growing at an alarming rate, as young people give up the nomadic lifestyle in favour of the city life. There are jobs here and a growing economy so people are moving in. Though this hasn't stopped some people bringing their Yurts to the city - we saw one district of town where empty streets had been constructed so the yurts could be placed in a sort of "estate". The top of the memorial was populated by hawks, and more worryingly, Vultures, so we headed on before we got picked off. We had a quick stop for coffee at a smart, air conditioned coffee shop. We sat outside on the terrace which led to a slightly unpleasant, persistent experience with a homeless man - a reminder that Ulaanbataar is a relatively poor city. We also took the opportunity to change some more money in a much more official bank type setting this time!

Next stop was the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan - the palace where a Mongolian Buddha and the last king of Mongolia lived. The Russians turned it into a museum which lives on today. We weren't allowed to take photos here though, so what I have was not taken at particularly good angles. It was made up of several colourful temples with many deity icons. It also had random things in a museum - like stuffed animals - which had very little explanation for us English speakers! Then, onto the Choijin Lama Temple Museum - a small squat temple that had been swamped by the large skyscraper construction around it. It even included a Tantric temple, which Richard and I looked around without discussing in much detail...

At this point, Richard was feeling the fatigue of the journey and we asked Haji to drop Richard back to the hotel. We were now in the centre of town, so I continued on foot. I walked to the Sükhbaatar Square, which is the centre point of Ulaanbataar. On one side is the Government House, which is huge, recently renovated and sports a large Ghengis Khan statue on the outside front. Around the
Buddha Park and Zaisan MemorialBuddha Park and Zaisan MemorialBuddha Park and Zaisan Memorial

(Memorial on the hill behind!)
other sides were the theatre / cultural palace - a wonderful soviet looking block and next door, the opera house which was bright pink. Glass skyscrapers surrounded this including the very distinctive half moon shaped "Blue Sky Tower". I paused for a while on a bench in the centre, just to take in the fact I was actually wandering around Ulaanbataar and was joined by a local artist. It thought he was just being friendly to start with, then I thought he was selling something, so I started to hold my distance. Then I thought I was being too suspicious so tried to suppress my British distrust and then realised, he was actually selling something. I found it a bit hard at this point to get away, but thankfully a friend of his passed by and he turned to speak to them. When he turned back around, I was gone! (Ninja skill). As I looked around, I could see many people having similar "conversations" with the art sellers, so I decided against sitting down again for a while.

I continued to wandered about, dodging the crazy traffic. I managed to visit the state department store - like Goom in Moscow, but much more low key and it even had a "Next"! This was quite entertaining for a while, seeing the kind of things middle class Mongolians might buy and I looked for some kind of souvenirs but came away empty handed as I didn't want part of a sheep or camel really. I was starting to feel a bit hungry so I sought out a bit of street food. The Lonely Planet came through and directed me to an area of Shashlik stands so I sat on the side of the road with a Beef Shashlik and a Ghengis Beer and doing a bit of people watching. I headed back to the hotel to pick up Richard - this was a reasonable walk, but I didn't want to take a taxi. The wind had gotten up and I got whipped by a mini sandstorm as I walked down one of the main boulevards - a reminder of how much sand is present in Mongolia. Along the way, I encountered a memorial to the Beatles where they were depicted in brass for some unknown reason.

As I got home - music was pumping out of the hotel. We were
Choijin Lama MuseumChoijin Lama MuseumChoijin Lama Museum

(Surrounded by skyscrapers)
told later there was a wedding going on and feared the worst. We headed out for some food. As I mentioned, our hotel was closer to the train station than the main city square so we headed to a well-reviewed Mongolian hot pot restaurant. This was an easy day time walk, and we stuck our heads into a bar along the way (before quickly leaving), but we decided we would get a cab back. We were sat at a table with a personal hotplate and given a menu. We decided to play it safe and order a few meats, but avoided the "Bull's testicles" - we both agreed on that at least! We were brought pots of steaming broth to place on the burner, and then plates of veg, meat and noodles to boil in the broth. It was all delicious and washed down with some Ghengis beers. Then, we asked them to call us a taxi, wishing to make the most of having non-moving beds for the night.

We got in the taxi after a brief interaction with some locals who were sitting on the wall outside. They seemed to know something of the taxi. (On reflection, this might have been a bad thing). When it arrived, we got in and were taken home. Along the way, I noticed the meter was turning alarmingly quickly. It turned out to be a scam taxi who tried to double charge us for the ride. The ride (brace yourselves) cost us about £5! It should have been £2.50. Outrageous! I managed to negotiate this down to about £3-4. Out of interest, we asked the hotel staff when we went inside how much it should have been and they were also outraged! We then had to wait for a while while they called the taxi company and tried to reclaim our cash, though we weren't that bothered really. The manager came along to personally apologise for this, and we ended up chatting to him about the history of Mongolia for quite some time. Mongolians are very keen to engage with the tourists and extremely friendly - we learnt so much from talking to people like him in such a short bit of time. A quick Mongolian beer was had in the bar while we watched the staff clear up from the wedding which had now finished before heading to bed. The next day we were heading into the open country.

(Scroll down for more photos of this fascinating city).

Additional photos below
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Gandan KhiidGandan Khiid
Gandan Khiid

Prayer Wheels

21st March 2019

Thanks for such detailed blogs. We'll be heading that way in the next couple of years and we'll be able to use your experience to assist us on planning. Glad everyone is friendly.
21st March 2019

Hi - I enjoy writing them as well, and I look forward to being able to look back on these in years to come. It really is a great trip - if you can take more time over it, then I would recommend it. We fitted a lot in the time we had, but it might be even better at a slightly slower speed! Thanks for reading!

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