One day I plan to come and do a long extended tour of the Mongolian steppes, but I would like to do it with the hubby, and he is wildly underwhelmed with the idea of gers, hiking, no showers, and long days in rickety vehicles. Until I persuade him, I am making do with a lightening visit to the wonderful Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
I must confess that my planning has been rather poor in this case. While I am now an expert at global flight connections, currency conversions, and general travel prep, every now and then I do something inordinately dumb. In this case I forgot to take a look at the temperatures, and it turns out the weather forecast was for between minus 30 and a high of minus 8. Hmmmmmf! and I was coming from Polynesia where I have been living in shorts and singlets. Oh well, at least wearing all my clothes there was nothing left to carry in the bag.
The first introduction to Mongolia was the plane flight from Hong Kong. Check in was a heaving mass of humanity, and almost everyone was travelling in an enormous family group, grand parents, parents and lots of kids running around screaming. They all look delightfully friendly, big warm smiles on wonderfully chubby faces, however they all seem to have the evil queuing instincts of the french or the mainland chinese, seriously everyone from the 5 year old to the 80 year old tried to cut me off in the check in queue. The plane was a similar experience, but I just can’t helped but be charmed by these chubby smiley people…., especially the kids, the most amazing pinchable cheeks. I am assuming that given the temperatures everyone here wisely carries a few extra pounds to ward off the freezing blimmen cold.
Ulaanbaatar is definitely modern, packed with coffee shops and malls funded by the brits, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. I was expecting Tashkent and I got a cleaner version of Almaty. Modernity offset by the gers/yurts clustered around town – unfathomable how they survive winters at minus 40 in a tent
Given the limited time, I had prioritised the very best there was to see in Ulaanbaatar, and recommend these sights as a minimum:
Things to see
- First stop Gandan Khiid/Gandantegchinlen a.k.a. ‘the great place of complete joy’, which had unbelievably beautiful standing Buddha statue (no photos allowed – you will have to come check it out for your self). I couldn’t find anyone to buy a ticket from but the taxi driver sent me off to a few side buildings as he mimed monks chanting. I found my way through the curtain into a small incense filled room with monks chanting and drinking tea, I am assuming it was a ceremony as the room was crowded with worshippers but they could have equally been having breakfast. Oddly, given the religious nature of the event, it was more like being in a rock concert with people pushing and shoving to get in and out, I guess I am used to my buddhists being a bit less physical. After getting elbowed in the tit for the third time I beat a retreat. I sat outside enjoying the view of people spinning the prayer wheels until I lost all feeling in my fingertips (approximately 3.2 minutes) and hustled back to the cab
- Next stop Chinggis Khaan square….. a desolate space surrounded by ultramodern buildings. Suspect old Chinggis would be less that impressed by his nomadic countrymen settling down in bricks and mortar
- Then, i had less luck at the chojin lama palace which is incongruously set against the high rises of downtown Ulaanbaatar, as it was closed on Monday. I asked the security guard to let me in for two minutes and he said sorry, security camera and pointed to the 5 cameras surveilling him, sometimes I miss the days pre cctv when a small gift would have definitely gotten me access. Oh well, one to visit next time
- The winter palace of Bogd Khan (home of the last king) was spectacular, even more so given it wasn’t over renovated. Some consultant had clearly given them pricing advice as while the tickets were $3, it cost $20 to take photos but you were still not allowed to take photos inside the buildings. I managed a couple of photos, and really enjoyed the zen atmosphere and watching the icicles drip water on the Chinese tourists
- Final stop a nice climb up the Zaisan monument for stunning views over the town. I lost feeling in my fingertips and my phone died of shock from the cold after about five minutes but it was worth it. Apparently Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst smog in the world, but not today. The mountains and plains around town are a tiny taste of what the rest of enormous country looks like, and I am itching to come back and go for some long runs up and down these hills
- I stayed at the Hotel Khan Palace Kempinski – recommended as the nicest hotel in Ulan Bator, and at a reasonable $100 a night that felt like a good deal for me given the gym, sauna, wifi, toto loos and free breakfast
- I rented a taxi for the time I was there. At $10 an hour, it was good value and made sure I maximised the time I had to get around to see everything Taxis to and from the airport are $20.maximum. I used safety taxi. My taxi driver was adorable, and pointed out all the sights, pulled my hat on for me and even offered me his gloves as he didn’t think mine were good enough – he was right and I should have taken his. It was definitely the best way to get round town in March, as my original plan of walking everywhere would have had me hypothermic within 20 minutes.
Thank you Mongolia, I will be back
Ulaanbaatar, March 6, 2017
P.s. A random fact that I love about Mongolia – women here go to school longer than men, as the men tend to be needed to look after the animals, whereas women need to be better educated to look after the household finances. As a result 70-80% of the skilled jobs in Ulaanbaatar are held by women