Ulaanbaatar (Улаанбаатар), also known as Ulan Bator or simply just UB, is the capital of Mongolia. With a population of around 1.3 million, it is the largest city in Mongolia, standing as its political, commercial, industrial and cultural hub. For business and pleasure trips alike, you will find yourself coming to the city at least once. Knowing and exploring the city properly can help you understand the countrys’ history and its wonderful people. One will often see the past and the present are still living side by side.
The city is officially divided into 9 districts with 7 of them located within or around the city area. Nalaikh and Baganuur are the two districts that have their own city infrastructure located within 138 km radius of the city. Both of these cities are located on the east side of UB and were originally built as mining towns. On any eastbound journeys, travelers will find themselves stopping through these cities. In the capital city, the four original districts are Sukhbaatar, Songino Khairkhan, Bayanzurkh and Bayangol where majority of the city population live today. Most downtown premises are located in the Sukhbaatar district.
In the history of the Mongolian people, there have been several well-known cities built as capital cities such as Kharakhorum during the 13th century Great Mongolian Empire. But none of them survived as an active capital city until the 16th century. With the active introduction of Lamaism in Mongolia from the 16th century, permanent monastic establishments started to emerge when Tibetan Buddhism flourished. The most important of such settlements was the residency palace of Mongolia’s first spiritual leader named Zanabazar or Jebtsundamba Khutuktu in the year 1649. The year is now considered as the founding date of Mongolia’s modern capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The city was first named Ikh Khuree, literally meaning “large circle” as the city was circular shaped. After changing locations in the central part of Mongolia over 20 times, it settled at its current location in the year of 1778.
Much of the modern architecture of Ulaanbaatar started to shape in the 20th century with the influence from Russian architecture. The modern day UB showcases a mix of Soviet architecture, ger settlements, Buddhist monasteries and 21st century high rises. Among Buddhist temples, most notables are the Gandan Tegchinlen Monastery, Choijin Lama Temple and Bogd Khan Winter Palace Museum .
Travelers who take the time to get to explore the city will discover a hospitable and warm-hearted people. The demographics of city are divided into two major parts. One part of the population lives in condominiums in the central part of the city while the majority of the population lives in what is called as ger districts. These districts, traditionally a home to many of the city’s blue and white collared workers, became lately a home to many migrating ex-nomads who in recent years have come to the city to find work after severe winters have killed their livestock.
Peace Avenue (Enkh Taivny Örgön Chölöö) is the main street and it stretches from east to west through the center. It’s the main shopping street and many of the restaurants are found alongside it. The street also passes by the southern edge of the central square, Chinggis Square. Tourist Information Centers are located on the first floor of Ulaanbaatar Bank Small Ring#15 and at Seoul Street.
Although summer temperatures can be over 30°C, the city shivers in sub-zero temperatures for five months of the year, with January and February being the coldest months with temps hovering between -15°C to -40°C.
Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s largest city. In 1956, it had 14.4% of total population of Mongolia. As of 2012, around 45.8% of the Mongolian total population was living in the capital. It has a density rate of 272/km2. Ger district in Ulaanbaatar city has been expanding due to income level of families moved from rural areas to the city and newly established family, and also a lack of apartments connected with centralized sub-structure. According to the statistical information, 47.2% of Ulaanbaatar’s total population were born and raised in the city without moving and living anywhere else, indicating that almost 50% of the other part have migrated to the city after 1990. About 40% of the city’s population lives in the housing districts and remaining 60% live in ger districts.
Ulaanbaatar city is a center of Mongolian political, economic, society and culture. Around 45% of total population and 65% of total companies are only in Ulaanbaatar. Therefore, majority of deposits and loans granted to individuals and companies, cars and doctors are in Ulaanbaatar city. Role of Ulaanbaatar to Mongolian economy is massive as the country’s best health, education, production and financial operations are centered in the city. 88.5% of total universities of Mongolia locate in Ulaanbaatar city and 95.3% of total students of the country study also in the city. Thus, the city is the center of social, economic, administrative and cultural activities.
Currently, the only airport for international arrivals is through the Chinggis Khaan International Airport, which is located 18 km to the southwest of downtown Ulaanbaatar. It was formerly called as “Buyant Ukhaa”, which is the name of the hill it was built upon. The airport was reconstructed in 1986, and the immigration, customs formalities and luggage delivery are relatively efficient. A facility for transit flight was recently added.
What to do in Ulaanbaatar
There are many things to do UB from exploring monasteries and museums to watching, dancing and hiking in its parks.
Theater and Performing Arts
UB hosts a wide array of domestic and international plays and performances during their fall, winter and spring seasons. Staying in tuned to the schedules and available shows, you can have very entertaining stay in the city. Mongolia’s best rock and pop performers also stage their performances at the city’s key venues during this period. Information on their schedule can be obtained by contacting the sales offices of the following venues. You can also use Easyticket.mn schedule and tickets reservation for many of these performances.
Blackbox Theatre Mongolia located on the north-western part of the city hosts regular mono plays, jazz and other performing artists from both home and abroad.
The Drama Theatre at Chinggis Avenue is where full-scale plays and national folklore operas and dance shows are performed. Information about the upcoming shows can be found at http://www.drama.mn.
The Opera House at the Chinggis Khan Square hosts rich collection of Mongolian and international ballets and operas. Website: http://www.opera-ballet.mn.
The City Cultural Center at the Chinggis Khan Square hosts variety of shows, comedies and fashion shows.
Ulaanbaatar Philharmonic at the Opera House performs variety of international work throughout the year.
There are several modern cinemas that offer some of the latest blockbuster movies. Depending on which side of the city you are in. You can check for your favorite movie at one of the nearest cinemas. Most of them are also equipped with 3D screening and VIP rooms for private groups.
Urgoo Cinema is located on the 3rd micro-district shopping area, west of Gandan Monastery.
Tengis Cinema is located at Freedom Square, north of the State Department Store
Gegeenten Cinema is located opposite Bogd Khan Winter Palace museum.
Hunnu Mall Entertainment is a cinema located inside Hunnu Mall on the main road to the Chinggis Khan airport.
Events and festivals
Attend Naadam – the largest and most famous festival in Mongolia, which consists of competitions in the three traditional Mongolian sports of wrestling, horse racing and archery. The festival is an annual event and runs from July 10th to 12th.
Traditional Costume Parade. On July 13 every year, Mongolia’s national summer festival, ethnic parade is organized at the Chinggis Khan Square. People from different tribes wear their uniquely designed costumes, making it a colorful spectacle to watch.
Hike in the Bogd Khaan Uul Strictly Protected Area in the mountains just south of UB, South of Zaisan Memorial (South of Zaisan Memorial.
Look around the Narantuul (AKA Black) Market: it is an interesting place and you can get great deals. They sell pets, souvenirs, cloth, shoes, socks, meat, fruits etc. Some people claim it is dangerous but outside of a few pickpockets (as in all large markets) it is quite safe.
Sky Resort, (13 km from the city center, go south to Zaisan, then east along river, past the President’s Residence. 8am – 11pm. Downhill skiing, snowboarding, lifts, equipment rental, ski/snowboard school, restaurant. Free bus leaves from the Drama Center (next to the Grand Khaan Irish Pub) weekends 8, 8:30, 10, 11, 12 ,14, 17:30, 18, 19:30; weekdays 8:30, 12, 17, 18, 19. Check schedule to verify bus times.
Mountain Biking – Bikes can be rented in town if you have not brought your own. Head into the hills directly to the south of the city (just south of the bike shops) for some great trails and excellent views of the city.
What to buy
UB has a host of souvenir shops aimed at Korean/Japanese and European/American tourists. While the quality of the goods varies, the price tends to be high at the downtown stores but on the outskirts, you can find some good deals. Most prices are at their actual value and haggling is discouraged. You’ll likely just get a discount of 10-15%.
Traditional clothes, boots and hats, cashmere garments, jewelry, leather wall hangings, miniature gers, bow and arrow sets and paintings.
Peace Avenue and the Circus area are the main shopping areas.
The 6th floor of the State Department Store has a section with souvenir paintings, but prices are higher than in some of the smaller stores.
The Narantuul (AKA Black ) Market, known to locals simply as zach (зах), is the place to haggle over cheap clothes, toys, swords or Soviet propaganda pins. Only take a minimum of cash with you in a money belt or inner jacket pocket and leave all valuables at your accommodation, as pickpockets are common here. It’s a ten-minute bus or taxi ride from the city center. Don’t expect a tourist market though. This is primarily a huge open-air market for locals to buy clothing. Difficult to locate items of interest to tourists. 9AM-7PM W-M, closed Tuesday.
Bars Food Market, (Only a few hundred meters east of the railway station on the same side of the street). This market is the cheapest place in town to buy dry goods (rice, pasta, canned food), fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, and meat, as well as a host of other food stuffs. The vendors are all fair and charge standard prices. The meat and produce is inside a relatively unmarked building which you wouldn’t expect to be a market. Outside are a bunch of shipping containers where grains and other non-perishable supplies are sold.
Dalai Eej market, (west of the circus building). The market has wide array of western as well as Japanese, Korean and Chinese food and various spices. UB doesn’t have a fish market but a small part at it corner, sell various fresh water fish including graylings and perch. Mostly pricy items.
Bayanzurkh market, (On the eastern outskirt, just south of the Indoor Wrestling Palace). While no fish is available here, the meat and other basic food items are reasonable priced
There are number good stores for finding books in the city. The bookstore on the 6th floor of the State Department Store could be looked for some books. Internom book store, located behind Ulaanbaatar Hotel has a corner as well. Az Khur, a large bookstore opened not long ago, has one of the best collections of English books. The store is located in the first floor of Munkhiin Useg publishing house, located opposite of the Mongolian Railway History Museum.
Librairie Papillon. If you want to find very high quality books about Mongolia or the Mongolian language in European languages (French and English mostly), this place has a very large selection. They are located on University Ave., just past the main Mongolian National University building. The atmosphere is very nice, and is almost like taking a little break from Mongolia and entering France. They also have a large selection of European-language classics if you would like reading material for your journey.
What to eat
The old notion of “nobody travels to Mongolia for the food” might change soon as more and more good quality restaurants are opening in Ulaanbaatar, offering a good range of Western, Asian and Mongolian delicacies. You can get perfectly reasonable pizza for $3, even a night out at a fancy French cafe shouldn’t pass $20. Consider splurging on a couple good meals here, especially if headed out for a long trek into the country. Fresh vegetables, especially in winter, are hard to come by and expensive. Korean (solongos khoolnee gazar) and Chinese restaurants dominate the city. As Asian restaurants in America tend to tailor their menu to the American palate, so in Ulaanbaatar do the East Asian restaurants tailor their menu to the Central Asian palate (meaning more meat!).
You’ll find numerous restaurants of just about every persuasion you would find anywhere in the world. You will immediately notice that both the restaurants and coffee houses (including the restrooms) are a magnitude cleaner that most anywhere else on the continent. For many that is quite a pleasant surprise.
Restaurant foods are made fresh so expect to enjoy eating here.
There is also very little litter on the streets and the tap water is safe for sanitation purposes, even for brushing your teeth. Absolutely clear and without odors or tastes.
What to drink
Nightlife in Ulaanbaatar is surprisingly wild but is best not experienced alone — try to get a local to join you. Most of the nightclubs play Trance, Techno, Electronic and House music, a few clubs play hip-hop music. The small clubs in the 3rd district and the Sansar micro district are best avoided. Be sure to apologize if you hit someone or step on his or her feet accidentally, because some Mongolians can be offended by it. Beer in clubs costs about ₮3500 (less than $2), other drinks such as vodka depend on measurements, for example a 100 g Vodka costs about ₮4500 ($2.25) The club life is very active on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. On Fridays, it is very hard to find a seat in a club. According to state law, all clubs and pubs (bars) must be closed after midnight, but some clubs run until 4:00 AM. On the first of every month you can’t buy any alcohol, be it in a shop or in a bar. Never go alone in the dark, especially on Fridays. Also never walk by yourself when you are drunk, or you may be arrested and end up in the drunk tank, not a pleasant place to be.
Wi-Fi – Most guesthouses, hotels, cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and pubs have free Wi-Fi. When you are in the downtown area, look for a free Wi-Fi coverage under the name of Tourism_UB
Internet cafes – might be a good option if you are in the outskirts area which cost around ₮400-800 per hour.
The crime rate in Ulaanbaatar is “very high” compared to most Asian cities. Pickpocketing and violent muggings are a higher risk in the capital than in rural areas so it is advisable to avoid walking alone after dark. Street lighting is unreliable and visitors will occasionally come across drunks and stray dogs. The places where pickpocketing is the most frequent are buses and the Narantuul market (alias Black market), especially the entrances of them. The bus stops close to the State department stores are hot spots for this activity. If you’ve been attacked or pick-pocketed, please take time to make a deposition at the district police station and to notify your embassy if you have one.
Unfortunately, xenophobia is rampant, and violence towards foreigners happens often. Violence is part of everyday life in Mongolia and especially in the capital violent crime rates are among the highest in Asia. Alcoholism is a huge social problem and Mongolia. Do not acknowledge or approach any Mongolian man under the influence of alcohol. Nearly all foreigners who go to bars / clubs at night report assault and general aggression.
Walking at night in company shouldn’t be too great of a concern; it isn’t for the locals. But stick to areas where you can see lots of locals (especially women). Coming out of bars late at night is a little dangerous if you are alone; try to have several males in your group.
There is a train that originates in Ulaanbaatar and departs for Moscow twice a week, taking 94 hours to make the trip. Another weekly train departs Beijing for Moscow, passing through Ulaanbaatar. There are two trains weekly originating in Ulaanbaatar and terminating in Beijing, and a further weekly train that passes through Ulaanbaatar on its way from Moscow to the Chinese capital. Daily trains leave to Irkutsk in Russia, Hohhot in Inner Mongolia and Erlian, just over the Chinese border, from where there are further rail and bus connections.