We have had the Trans-Siberian rail passengers in our mind when writing this post, but this applies to other visitors on a short stay here as well.
If you’re visiting Mongolia for a short period or passing through, it can be difficult to get the best out of the visit. Don’t worry. SoWhyMongolia has got you covered.
So if you’re coming from one of Russia’s biggest rail networks, congratulations and thank you for taking the Trans-Mongolian line instead of the Manchurian one. Here’s how you can make your Ulan Bator stop a memorable expierence.
17.03: Arrival in Ulan Bator, Accommodation
First things first, get yourself into the hotel, hostel, yurt or whatever accommodation you booked. We know you came here to ride camels and spend a night in a ger (aka yurt), but you should explore the constantly changing capital, Ulan Bator. Also known as Ulaanbaatar. Also known as Red Warrior in Mongolian, because red was a communist color. Also known as Smog Warrior in winter, because air pollution is the worst in winter. Or best, if you’re into smog-ridden, Victorian-era winter nights.
ONE. 17.20: Sightseeing mode initiate
The city, also known as Ulaanbaatar, has a unique blend of Soviet perestroika, Tibetan monasteries, and modern high-rises. Because the city is situated between the Bogd Khan mountain and the Khentii ridge, it’s shaped like a big horizontally lain prehistoric fish, with its ampler west side being its wide gaping mouth. For us, it means traffic congestion and poor urban structures. But for you, it means faster sightseeing! Yay!
TWO. 17:30 Sukhbaatar Square
The central place of sightseeing is the main square or Sukhbaatariin Talbai. This is where the Government Palance and most high-rise buildings are. There’s a statue of Genghis Khan (aka Chinggis Khaan) at the south side of the Parliament House, but don’t be like this guy and think it’s THE Genghis Khan statue. We’ll show you where it is soon. Depending on the day, you might see an event with lots of tents and a crowd or just few people.
The Square is now named after Genghis Khan, but quite recently it was named after the commander of the Army for Independence, Sukhbaatar. (Notice how the end is similar to the capital’s name–baatar–it means ‘warrior’, the commander’s name means ‘axe-warrior’, although he never wielded an axe at the battle. It was the 1920s; guns were the lightsabers of this era.)
Anyway, for the street view above, he’s the guy who can be seen raising his hand in front of the Government Palace. When you’re at the Sukhbaatar Square, you can see the Mongolian Stock Exchange, Central Cultural Palace and other landmarks, but unfortunately this street view has tents all around that blocks it. Guess that means you should come and see for yourself. Our most unique and modern landmark is called Blue Sky Tower, which looks like what you would get if Burj Al Arab and 31 St Mary Axe had a baby.
THREE. 18.00: National Museum of Mongolia
Here’s something you should know about the two big museums in Mongolia: National Museum and National Natural History Museum. The former’s more about Genghis Khan’s military tactics and other cultural history, the latter’s all about T-Rex bones and flora and fauna. These museums had a similar name and confused tourists. The former wasn’t even listed in WikiTravels. Despite being so close to the square, it didn’t attract much attention. So, naturally a sibling-like rivalry ensued, and it all came down to Genghis Khan or a T-Rex. And of course, Genghis Khan won. The Natural History Museum, situated just north of the National Museum, shut down indefinitely, (but not before giving life to our very own Dinosaur museum!).
So you have to appreciate the tenacity and get a primer on the history of the country, from prehistoric to Mongol Empire to Communist era, combined with panoply of ethnographic collections. Here’s how you can book a ticket online.
FOUR. 20.00: Dinner–Modern Nomads Restaurant Chain
Ulan Bator has a really global cuisine and an emergent foodie community growing here–so you can find almost any kind of foreign restaurants. But if you want to get the full experience, you should try Mongolian dish, and although there are many other restaurants, Modern Nomads consistently delivers the authentic traditional taste. What sets apart Mongolian cuisine from other countries is the overwhelming solitude of meat. Yeah, yeah, almost every country boasts their affinity with meat, but we have (long description of national diet, skip if you just want the dish suggestions) beef, lamb, goat, horse, camel, yak and groundhog meat, grilled, roasted, smoked, borts-ed, boodog-ed and khorkhog-ed. And then we have scores of dairy products that we make from all said animals’s milk–except for groundhog, of course. First and foremost, we have what you Westerners call “horse milk-beer” or airag. Then there’s yoghurt, cheese, kefir, curds, butter and cream of sweet, sour, solid, frothed, white, yellow and so much more varieties. Nomadic lifestyle has made us forego table manners, so one dish is one meal and the dairy products you carry them with you and consume through the day. But that’s not to say that we don’t eat fruit and vegetables. We have berries, fruit, vegetables and grains of different kinds.)
So, what you should order are Ikh Tamir soup for starters, get a tsuivan for main course and finish it with a dessert of some aaruul, all the while washing everything down with some airag.
FIVE. 21.00: Entertainment–Concert at Mongolian Ensemble
After meal, the recommended course of action is to see the concert of traditional folk music–It’s okay if you prefer a modern source of entertainment, but we advise you to try it out once, just so you have an idea of what it is. Because our throat singing ethno-folk bands have been featured in Netflix’s Marco Polo and made waves in the finals of Asia’s Got Talent.
National Ensemble offers shows that best represent the traditional music, with some surprisingly high number of international visitors reporting feeling touched at the soul and moved, so having a handkerchief is maybe a good idea. But then again, maybe you should lower your expectation to get the full package. In any case, here’s their website.
SIX. 22.00: Clubbing
You can try out some of the night scenes, but we’ve lost touch with the clubs, so can’t recommend any specific place. Also, clubs and pubs galore in UB, so you’re welcome to explore on your own. Just remember to get some sleep, as we’ll pick up the next activity from the morning.
SEVEN. 07.00: Hiking out to Bogd Khan Mountain
Nothing beats doing a quick hike to a green mountain, smelling firs and pines in the fresh air. Namesake with the monarch of the 1910s Autonomous Mongolia, Bogd Khan is the oldest national park in the world, and it’s the city-folks’ pastime to climb the Tsetsee crest in the morning.
There are five hiking trails for this mountain, with marked paths leading you to 2,268 meters of peak, where you can take in the whole panorama of the capital city. Plus, the lodges at the base of the mountain offer you meal, so you can get your breakfast from there.
EIGHT. 11.00: Drive to Terelj National Park
For the best eye-popping experience of Mongolia’s diverse landscapes in a ridiculously short amount of time, Terelj is the ideal place. It’s another national park, famous for its picturesque granite cliffs and otherworldly shaped mountains, that is one hour smooth drive to the East from the city center. There are many tourist camps offering different services as well, but you’d need a car with a driver to get there and travel between the camps, as they’re distanced a bit. But once you’re there, you can start off with:
Bonus. 12.30: Selfie with an Eagle
First thing that welcomes you is a group of vendors with eagles, vultures and camels to take a picture. And your mission is to get a selfie with one of the eagles. Let’s face it. Taking a selfie is an important proof that you actually went to the cool parts of Mongolia (you didn’t, you’re only here for 24 hours, remember?), but also actual eagle-hunting is too dangerous (have you seen their claws?) and time consuming (take it from us, bonding with a bird of prey is awkward and strenuous).
NINE. 13.00: Lunch inside Genghis Khan Statue
The 40 meter tall statue of Genghis Khan is in the vicinity as well. For the record, this is the big Genghis Khan statue that everyone’s been talking about. (This guy seemed to have mistaken Sukhbaatar for Genghis Khan) Inspired by the Statue of Liberty, this place also has a museum with sundry Mongol Empire collections, a restaurant for you to have lunch and souvenir shops as well. You can go up the elevator, pop up from the saddle of the Khan and gaze at the valley. Here’s how the whole thing looks like.
TEN. 14.30: Horseback riding
This should be the essence of your visit to Mongolia. From way before the times of Genghis Khan, our history has been inseparably fused with horses. We ride horses, we race horses, we watch horses, we speak in horse metaphors, we have way more words to identify horses than the Eskimos have for snow. There is a wonderful house and resort called Taliin Sondor, where you can rent a steed with proper gear for only $5 per hour. Also, we get famous visitors for our horses.
Bonus. 15.30: Gliding
What better way than getting an aerial view to finish your experience. There’s actually a glider service in Terelj, which lets you run a compact aircraft and travel around the national park for quite reasonable price. From the air, you can see the camps of yurts, houses, forests, lakes, mountains, hills, all shrunk into miniature models, so that you can put things in perspective and cherish that traveling feeds your soul, your very existence is meant to be free–aaand, you’re late for your train.
16.30: Drive back to UB
You can actually catch the train in Amgalan, the easternmost train station of the city. But if you can’t make it, it’s not the end of the world, just all the more reason to explore Mongolia further.
Like what you read? Let us know your feedback on the comments. Stay tuned for guide for a longer stay.
Natso Baatarkhuu lives in Mongolia and writes in English. His works have appeared in Cracked.com and The UB Post, and he started this website. He dreams of publishing novels and selling screenplays someday.