Arriving in Ulaanbaatar
I remember the first time that I arrived in Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan International Airport. The Aeroflot flight from Moscow to UB was getting near to the airport and I remember looking out of my window onto the landscape below. It wasn’t what I had imagined.
What had I imagined was high mountains around the place but it seemed relatively flat to what I had had in my mind. Sure there were plenty of hills around the place but where were these high peaks you read about?
At the airport was my first experience of going through passport control whereby security has you fill out a form detailing the hotel or house you’re staying in as well as a phone number. To my horror my mobile phone was desperately short of battery life and I had no idea about the entry into the country. I had put the details on my phone just in case but was woefully unprepared for this. And as I’ve gone out of Europe my mobile plan wasn’t working either so that didn’t help me out. The last problem was I seemed to have the meanest passport control guy they could rustle up that morning. He spoke very little English and wasn’t impressed I didn’t have the finer details of my stay in his country.
So let that be a lesson to you! If you’re about to embark on a similar journey then always take both a paper copy with you as well as an offline copy on your phone. Technology can and does fail so paper will reign King.
Car travel into the Ulaanbaatar’s city centre
The owner’s son speaks very basic English but is always willing to learn and every time I’ve met him he wants more. And as I’m trying my best to pick up a little Mongolian here and there then a language exchange is always on the cards.
But I digress. Once the airport is left behind then you start heading into the city centre. The thing that strikes you most on the outskirts is the industry and pollution from it. It’s pretty heavy and don’t be surprised if it affects you a little when you spend a few days here.
The next thing that you are likely to come across is the traffic jams getting to your hotel. We often complain about rush hour traffic here in the west but you wait until you get stuck in a traffic jam Mongolian style. Forget about proper lane usage as that goes out the window. However, this is all part of the initiation into how things work and it’s why we go on these adventures.
Just like other countries, you’ll find a range of comforts in UB hotels. From the five-star Shangri-La to more basic accommodation. As always you pay your money and you take your choice.
For my two visits, I’ve stayed in two different hotels as I wanted to get an idea of what’s on offer when it comes to getting clients to Mongolia.
In September 2018 I stayed in the Bayangol Hotel and in March 2019 my choice was the Khuvsgal Lake Hotel. Out of the two, I preferred the latter. It seemed a lot more modern and the breakfast choice was far better. There are of course a number of others and you’ll see chains such as the Best Western operating here too and most likely by the time of writing more will have popped up.
What was appreciated when I arrived was the early check-ins. I hadn’t and should have, requested this, but each hotel was kind enough to let me into my room. Certainly, after my first trip, I was very tired and needed a good bed to relax in. If I had been left to my own devices and been stuck in the hotel lobby I think I’d have gone crazy.
What to do in Ulaanbaatar?
What to do in Ulaanbaatar? There’s a lot to do in the capital of Mongolia.
Eternal Landscapes offer you the chance to take a walking tour of the capital with local guides. They ladies they employ aren’t professional guides but this isn’t a problem. They are local to the area and they know their city which is what’s important.
During the walking tour you can ask to see certain things and in my case I asked to see some of the historical buildings around the city.
Now, something you have to bear in mind is that a lot of heritage was destroyed during the era that Stalin ruled the country and as such it’s few and far between. But what is there is beautiful and well worth a visit.
Gandantegchinlen Monastery is one such place that is still, thankfully, there for us to visit. For photographers, there is definitely enough here to keep you occupied. The beautiful architecture as well as the Buddhist monks that are around the place.
What’s really nice is that you can buy a photography pass for the monastery which means you can use your tripod. And if you’ve travelled enough with a tripod then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
The interior of the temple is very low light and being to use a tripod was a must. Inside was my first glimpse of Buddhist culture and it was stunning.
What do you see? The world’s largest indoor statue of one of the Buddhist gods. During the reign of Stalin it was dismantled but a few years ago it was restored in all its glory for all of us to see and behold. And it is definitely a sight to behold.
Outside of the architecture there are the monks. You can either try and be crafty with your camera or, as I prefer, ask your guide to negotiate a small amount of time to get in a quick portrait. They’ll either say yes or no and don’t be put off if the latter option comes up as there is ample portraiture opportunities to be had during any trip to Mongolia.
The second place I’ll detail is in what is known as the ger district.
On the edge of the city centre is where you start to see the huge division of financial wealth. Gone are the high rise buildings and shops to make way for the families living at the edge. But this doesn’t mean they are any less friendly. In fact from it as you’re likely to be welcomed by curious onlookers.
But the gers aren’t what of interest here as you’ll see plenty of those on a tour into the wilderness. The interest here is a project started by one man. Ulzii N-nuur purchased the land that was used to build the central Chinggis Khan square. This old quarry is now being used as a community centre to help people learn new skills. Ulzii is doing a fantastic job and through Eternal Landscapes and the Mongolian partner company Gobi Gua Undur you get to meet him and see what he gets up to.
And the last time I was in Mongolia in March 2019 Ulzii had set up a ger in the grounds of the project to welcome guests for lunch. It’s a nice touch as it gently introduces you to life in Mongolia away from the hustle and bustle of UB.
The last place I want to touch on is the main Chinggis Khan Square. As mentioned, the stone that was to build the square came from the quarry. This beautiful central square in the centre of UB is well worth photographing. With its white stone paving stones and beautiful Government Palace you should spend a good hour or so here soaking up the spirit of the place.
During my first visit in September 2018 it was sadly covered in scaffold but by March 2019 it was free of building works and I was able to capture it in all its glory.
There are a few other places your guides will take you too such as the black market but I don’t want to say too much as it would spoil it. But needless to say you’ll be well taken care of during your tour.
Is Ulaanbaatar safe?
Now a question you likely to ask. Is Ulaanbaatar safe or dangerous? As with any major city in the world it’s as safe or dangerous as you want it to be.
If you walk around flashing your expensive jewellery and camera about the place then yes you’re going to run into some trouble if you’re not careful. That goes for anywhere in the world. But if you exercise the usual cautions then you’re going to be fine.
Eating in Ulaanbaatar
In the evening you’re likely to be hungry and want to nourish that hunger. You can find all manner of restaurants in UB catering to all tastes.
Be aware that you can find western style dishes such as pizza if you go to the State Department Store but why do you want to do that when you go local?
What about vegetarians. Can they eat in Mongolia? Absolutely! I’m vegetarian and have been my entire life. I often find it a mission trying to get something to eat but it definitely wasn’t a problem either in UB or when out on the road in the wilderness.
One of the dishes I loved was the local noodles with vegetables. But be aware that in Mongolia portion sizes can be a little bigger than at home so make sure you have an empty stomach.
Next part. The wilderness
- Use Dropbox to save your hotel details offline
- Keep a paper copy of your hotel reservation handy
- Change your money in the State Department Store
- If you’re arriving early in the morning email your hotel beforehand to ask for an early check-in
Booking.com – for hotels and accommodation. I use them for 99% of my accommodation bookings when I travel
Eternal Landscapes – run by Jess Brooks in the UK. She prides herself on running an organization that isn’t like all other mainstream tour companies.
Gobi Gua Undur – the Mongolia arm of the business run by Turuu.