Ulaan Baatar - the Capital City
You'll probably arrive here first, either via plane or train. Ulaan Baatar's (UB) neat little airport was renovated a few years ago. Once you arrive in UB you realise that the scars of the Soviet years run deep. Much of the writing is still in the Soviet Cyrillic script, imposed in 1944, although written Mongolian is making a steady comeback. Romanised script is also, but there is hardly any Chinese despite the proximity. Japanese and Korean characters are also in evidence, mainly promoting restaurants and bars.
Known locally by many as simply "UB" Ulaan Bataar at first appears rather a mish-mash. With a population of about 750,000, the city is made up of a combination of the urban sprawl of gers, ugly Soviet blocks, and some inspired architecture. The worst blot of the landscape is the immediate view of the two huge chimneystacks either end of UB that provide much of the power, again provided by the Russians. However, these are the only blots on what turns out to be a charming city so give UB a chance and it is a great place to relax and chill out while planning your trip out to the "countryside" as Mongolians, with great understatement, tend to refer to all of the rest of the country.
You can visit most things of interest in UB in a couple of days. By far the best things to do are visit The Winter Palace, a collection of Mongolian artefacts. The Gandantegchinlen Khilid (better known as the Gandan Monastery) sits neatly above UB; it boasts one of the tallest Buddha's in the world. The Dalai Lama occasionally visits, Mongolian Buddhists regard him as their spiritual leader.
For the best view of UB, go to the Zaisan Memorial. The memorial, Russian built in commemoration of fallen comrades, is now run down, but the view from the monument is magnificent, and let's you see all of UB in one swoop.
The short summer brings out the best in UB. The markets quickly fill with vegetables, and other produce. Seats are placed outside every bar and restaurant. Bizarrely, pool tables are brought out on to the streets, for budding pool sharks to bask in the sun. The more wealthy Mongolians metamorphose in to a nation of campers, and head for the countryside with their tents.
UB is centralized around the massive Sukhbaatar Square, home of the government, museums, and with the main drag of Peace Avenue (Enkh Talvny Orgon Choloo) running across it's southern face. Walking along Peace Avenue will bring you into contact with many of the relaxing bars, restaurants, and ultimately to the massive State Department Store where you can pick up anything from fly fishing gear, to tents, tv's and microwaves. There is a good souvenir and arts and crafts section on the top floor. Everyone shops here, and pretty much all of UB is centred around this area. There are many guest houses, small hotels and larger hotels all in the vicinity you can just turn up and sort it out as you go. Travel companies and tour groups all advertise in the many coffee shops and guest houses so you can source your guide easily enough.
Sukhbaatar Square has also undergone a recent renovation with the facade of the Mongolian Parliament Building getting a complete face lift. Chingghis Khan himself is seated in the center, overlooking the country he once proudly ruled. To one side of the square are a variety of banks, restaurants, the General Post office and the stock exchange, and the other houses the cultural center and the State Opera House. Mongolia's Natural History Musuem, with some excellent dinosaur fossils and a full sized T-Rex is just to the left of the Parliament Building and up a block as you face the statute of Chingghis Khan.
Ulaan Baatar's Opera House was built by the Soviets in 1963, and remains an active center for the performing arts, and welcomes well known, mainly Russian singers and musicians to its programme each year. The first performance when it opened was Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin" which is still in the repertoire. Classics such as the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are regularly performed. The 2011 season sees a full programme of many Italian operas, some being premiered in Mongolia for the first time.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT
For eight months of the year Mongolia faces sub zero temperatures fuelled by the Siberian wind. The summer months between June and September are however pleasant and temperature can reach 30c+. It will however get cold at night, and remember that it can suddenly snow at any time of year. Prepare with t-shirts, sun-hats, sun-cream (it is a strong sun and Mongolia is one of the sunniest countries on earth) as well as jerseys and jumpers for the evening. Like the Boy Scouts motto be prepared. For gear, most of the tour companies will have tents, sleeping bags and blankets and even provide cooking utensils and food as well, but obviously if you have your own it means you don't have to rent them.
Both MIAT, the Mongolian State Airline, and China Air fly from Beijing to UB. The daily flight takes 90 minutes and costs @ US$250 one way. The other way to travel is to get the train from Beijing to UB. Frequency, type of train, and prices vary depending on the time of year. The journey takes around 24 hours.
CURRENCY / HOTELS
(pdf of Togrog here)
The Mongolian currency is the wonderfully named Togrog. One thousand Togrog is worth US$1.10 Dollars and Togrog are exchanged in equal measure, and dollars are readily acceptable almost everywhere.
If you are only visiting Mongolia for a short time, you will need a good travel agent to help you plan your trip. There are many agents, but essentially you get what you pay for.
Luxury hotels have yet to discover Mongolia. The best hotels in UB are four star and somewhat
of mediocre quality. Hotel accommodation throughout Mongolia is at best variable and unfortunately pricey. By far the best bet is to stay in tourist Ger camps, where the gers are cosy and clean, and the food is good. Gers sleep up to eight people and are the traditional way to spend time out in the countryside.
A FEW WORDS
The Mongolian language has famously been described as like listening to two cats fighting, and is generally difficult to master. Phrase books and dictionaries are readily available in UB, however here are a few words and phrases that may help you get around:
Hello : Sain Baina Uu
How is your family ? Tanai ger bulliinhen sain uu ?
Do You Speak English: Ta angliar yairdag uu ?
How can I get to
.? (place name)
.ruu bi yaj ochikh ve ?