Mongolia is a country often overshadowed by its two neighbors, Russia and China, which it is connected to via the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Perhaps you’ve heard of Genghis Khan. Perhaps you’ve heard about the nomadic lifestyle. Perhaps you’ve seen images of the Kazakh eagle hunters living in the western part of Mongolia. But this doesn’t give you a complete picture of the proud people who worked on the harsh steppes and who are still transitioning to modern city life.
When to Go
Timing is everything when coming to Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar, nicknamed the “coldest capital city in the world”, frequently experiences temperatures of -20 to -40°C in the winter, so you’ll want to be prepared for the cold with good boots and a warm coat. However, there are plenty of special winter activities, like dogsledding and ice-skating, to keep you occupied, and there’s nothing like sitting around a warm fire after a long day outside. During the summer, the weather is fine, the countryside is beautiful, and you’ll be able to enjoy horseback riding and hiking.
A good way to decide when to come to Mongolia is by looking at Ulaanbaatar’s events and festivals calendar. The two most important Mongolian celebrations are Tsagaan Sar (the Lunar New Year) and Naadam, a summer festival that includes competitions in archery, wrestling, and more. There are also many smaller festivals throughout the year, including winter festivals and Buddhist celebrations. During festival times, you’ll see many Mongolians wearing traditional deel, and there will be plenty of buuz and khuushuur to go around.
Getting Around Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar is a city on the rise, with a mix of Western stores, restaurants, and Mongolian palaces. The downtown area is pretty compact and easily walkable. You could download a map app to your phone to help you get around. Just be sure to use a VPN service to keep your information safe. However, taxis around the city are also very cheap. In Ulaanbaatar, know that nearly any car is a possible taxi, and an unmarked car will generally charge you cheaper rates than taxis with official signs. All you need to do is stand on the side of the road and wait for someone to pull over to pick you up.
Start at Sukhbaatar Square in downtown, with its statue of triumphant Sukhbaatar, an important participant in Mongolia’s fight for independence. Here you can also see the Government Palace, with a large statue of a seated Genghis Khan. Nearby is the National Museum of Mongolia, which will tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Mongolian history and which holds many interesting artifacts. If you’re looking for traditional Mongolian food, there are a couple of Modern Nomads restaurants nearby as well.
You’ll want to make sure you see Gandantegchinlen Monastery, which was first founded in the early 19th century and is one of the few monasteries that escaped destruction by the Communist Party in the 1930s. There are many other monasteries scattered around the city, but this is one of the most impressive. Also of interest is Bogd Khan’s Palace Museum, which was once the ornate winter residence of the emperor of Mongolia and which has a collection of well-preserved artifacts from Bogd Khan’s time.
If you’re looking to go shopping, the best place to find nearly anything you could want—from souvenirs to household wares—is at Narantuul, or the black market. It has a reputation for pick-pocketers so be careful, but they have a great selection of leatherworks, cashmere, and other traditional Mongolian crafts. You can also find an assortment of goods at the State Department Store or in shops along Peace Avenue. For higher-end shopping (eg. Luis Vuitton), visit the Central Tower.
Mongolians like to get out of the city and do things, even during the winter. Bogd Khan Mountain, just south of Ulaanbaatar, is a popular place to go hiking on the weekends. Slightly further afield but still close enough for a weekend or daytrip is Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Here you can find hiking, horseback riding, cycling, dogsledding, and other outdoor activities. In the winter, there’s also downhill or cross-country skiing at Sky Resort.
Regardless of your interests, you’ll find that your time in Mongolia is never quite long enough. From the Golden Eagle Festival held in Bayan-Olgii every October to exploring the Gobi desert as the crew of the show “Departures” did, you’ll always find plenty to do here.
Whenever you choose to visit Mongolia and whatever you choose to do, Mongolia will find a special place in your heart. Whether you’ve come for the traditional culture or just as a stop between Moscow and Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, you’ll love the history, the food, the people, the scenery, and the juxtaposition of new and old in Ulaanbaatar.