If you want to see Mongolia, you are almost guaranteed to spend some time in Ulaanbaatar (UB). The capital city is the major hub for the entire country in every way – political, healthcare, education, logistics, transportation, and so on. Most tours to the countryside depart and return from UB.
To be honest, we really didn’t have high expectations of UB and we weren’t looking forward to spending too much time in UB since we were more drawn to the beauty of the countryside. UB is quite a walkable city and what we liked is there weren’t too many touristy things to do, so we didn’t feel obligated to pack a lot in each day. In fact, we did most things we wanted to do in one day. We relished in the downtime after very busy days while on our tours!
Here’s a map of the places listed below:
- National Museum of Mongolian History – This has the history of Mongolia from the Stone Age up until today. The most interesting exhibits to us were the traditional clothes of each of the 21 ethnic groups that make up Mongolia and the overview of the Chinggis (not Ghengis as we’ve learned in school) Khaan regime.
Choijin Lama Temple – Very beautiful 17th century temple nestled in the middle of the modern city. It’s no longer active, but is well restored and has good english descriptions of each temple and each artifact inside.
Tumen Ekh Ensemble (Cultural Show) – This is a must see in our opinion. You get to see traditional dancing, music, and singing, including the very unique throat singing (watch the video below to hear!).
- Sukhbaatar Square – This is where a Chinggis Khaan statue is. It’s a nice space for locals to hang out. We actually caught quite a few weddings taking pictures in front of the statue. It was nice to just relax and watch everyone pass by in their best Mongolian clothes and pose for pictures. At night we think they had bikes for rent. Riding bicycles isn’t common there, probably because it gets so cold it’s not practical in the winter, so I guess it’s a novelty to them.
- Black Market – Don’t worry, nothing illegal went down here! It is an enormous outdoor market that sells everything under the sun, including all the parts you need to buy your very own ger! We were told that you can buy a small one starting at about $1000…not too shabby. We stopped here on our way back into the city from our Gobi Desert tour. We were ushered around the market by our guides Zola and Togoo like little ducklings quickly weaving through the endless stalls. I wish we could have stayed longer, but I’m happy to have seen it since it’s a bit outside of the center of town and wouldn’t have been walking distance to get to from our guest house. This is totally worth a bus or cab ride to see, however!
Unfortunately, we realized in the Gobi when it got so cold at night that we had grossly underpacked cold weather clothing for our trip. We were fine for the rest of the time in the Gobi with the help of some camel wool socks we picked up from one of our ger camp owners, but we knew that would not be enough for Northern Mongolia. We were really upset that we had all of this gear at home, but it didn’t make the cut considering the majority of our time will be in warm weather.
Thankfully, our guesthouse was only a block from the State Department Store. We picked up some base layers from the Columbia shop, I got a nice cashmere hat (a Mongolian specialty), and a pair of gloves. We were crunched for time, so this was a life saver because otherwise we would probably have to go all over town looking for this stuff.
To our surprise they are building a luxury brand mall with all super high end stores near the Square. Obviously, this is out of our budget these days, but it’s a sign of growing consumerism and westernization that is yet to come in UB.
Lodging & Gobi Tour – Khonger Guest House
My friend Cristiana who lived in Mongolia for a couple years let me know that it’s cheapest to book tours through a hostel in UB. This would also guarantee (hypothetically, at least) that your money is going to the local economy instead of some multi-national tour company.
We decided to stay at the Khonger guesthouse more out of default because we didn’t end up booking our accommodations until about a week before we left. We didn’t think we’d have a problem arriving in September since it was supposed to be shoulder season, but we wanted a private room and those were booked up at several places by then (e.g. Golden Gobi, UB Guesthouse, LG Guesthouse, and a couple others mentioned in Lonely Planet).
Our biggest issue in choosing a hostel in UB is that the reviews of every place is SO all over the board. There was no clear winner – they all had pros and cons. We figured that accommodations in Mongolia were not going to be fancy at any budget place!
Most hostels make their money through tours they organize. We saw a few places that would kick people out if they didn’t go on a tour through their hostel. We definitely didn’t want to deal with that since we were planning to do a tour with Ger to Ger, which is a separate company.
We chose Khonger based on availability of a private room, location, decent reviews, and it was in the Lonely Planet…good enough for us!
Arriving in the room was a bit of a wake up call that we were in fact now traveling on a budget! Since we’ve been together, we’ve stayed in hotels and B&Bs that were all fairly nice. It seemed like a closet that a double bed was stuck into. It did have a TV, small refrigerator, safe, and square desk to put our things so it met our needs, but just felt so cramped. The bed was hard as a rock and it definitely did not meet Jan’s cleanliness standards.
However, after coming back from the Gobi and Northern Mongolia, the place seemed like paradise with hot running water, electricity, and internet! It’s all relative…I suppose that’s one reason why the reviews were so scattered for each hostel!
Food & Drinks
One thing to note is that in UB there are all sorts of international restaurants, so in the city you can pretty much get whatever food you want. Here are our thoughts on where we went:
Veranda – We had our favorite meal here, which is an Italian restaurant where we fulfilled our cravings of salad, pasta with tomato sauce, and Italian coffee. It felt fancy, but was very reasonably priced. In the summer they have a fabulous outdoor patio overlooking the Lama Temple. Highly recommend!
Brauhaus – As the name suggests, it’s a German-style Brauhaus that is very large and has a stage for bands to play at night. We ordered beers, but my “wiezen” beer tasted more like a lager (see Beer above), however the dark beer was decent. This was our first post-Northern Mongolia meal so we gave in and ordered the pizza. Most other patrons ordered it, so we thought their “Specialty Pizza” would be a solid choice…as mentioned in the Pizza section it didn’t have tomato sauce, it came with pretty much anything they had on top, including pickles which was a first for us on pizza!
Dublin – Really cute Irish Pub on Seoul Street. We just had drinks, but the food looked pretty good and was decently priced too.
40K – We had lunch here one day. I ordered the “guessadilla” aka quesadilla since it really looked more like a panini. It was tasty and enough food that I actually ate the other half for dinner! Jan got the chicken teriyaki, which was also good.
Grand Khaan Irish Pub – This is a huge, popular pub with a covered outdoor space that we enjoyed a meal and drinks with another long-term traveling couple we met through Twitter. The food and beer was ok, but we thought it was way overpriced for what it was. I will note that our friends split a margharita pizza and it had actual tomatoes on it and they said it was good…so I suppose if you have a pizza craving that’s where to go!
Khaan Buuz – This is a chain of Mongolian restaurants in the city. We went for the buuz and were not disappointed.
House of Noodles – We both got noodle soups, which were decent, especially for price of about $3.50 for a big bowl. The meat was a little tough for our liking and we got one quarter of a tomato and one piece of bok choy each. However, the noodles were made on site – you could see the chef rolling and stretching them in the kitchen.
We definitely didn’t see all there is to see in UB and it’s growing rapidly, so the list of must see/taste/do will also grow in the future. If you have been to UB, do you have any other favorites to add to this list?