Land of Eternal Blue Skies. That's how Mongolia is often called. It was my dream of many years to visit this country. Intrigued by the beautiful vistas, history and people. I finally got my chance. I started and ended my trip in Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital in the world.
I landed in Ulaanbaatar mid day so I had a good look at the city from the plane. I was surprised how big the city was. Nearly half of Mongolian population live here today and more are coming. With total population just over 3 million and being the 19th largest country in the world, Mongolia has the lowest population density of all independent countries. Somehow Ulaanbaatar felt very much like going back to my own country about 20 years back, just after Velvet Revolution. Russian influence is still very visible although being slowly taken over by western influences. Cyrillic alphabet also adds to impression of being in former Soviet satellite. Especially architecture gives it away. Older residential blocks look just like the ones from Eastern Europe. I know, I used to grow up in one just like these. Looking at number of construction sites, the industry is booming. There is an obvious shift from Russian style concrete blocks to modern western style condominiums. Very distinct feature of Ulaanbaatar is the fact that many of it's residents still live in gers. They can be found even in very close proximity to the city center. Suburbs and outskirts are full of them. I guess some habits die hard. It is also quite possible that many of them still live in the gers for pure economic reasons.
Today's Ulaanbaatar is a modern city with everything you would expect from it. All the modern amenities are widely available. People go around their business and nothing suggests this is the capital of the country where most of the population still more less follows traditional nomadic style of life. Also traffic is like in any other modern metropolis. It is bad. I mean really bad. At the times I compared it to Bangkok. Relatively low price of the cars caused this traffic boom and negative effects are visible especially during peak hours. Roads are congested, air is quite smoggy. I suggest to allow for extra time when trying to catch a flight. Airport is just outside the city but getting away from city center buzz might take a while. Cars drive on the right side of the road but strangely enough vehicles with steering wheel on either side can be seen. Main street in Ulaanbaatar is called Peace Avenue and it stretches few kilometers from East to West side. Along this street you find the heart of the city, the Chinggis Khaan (Sükhbaatar) Square. It is an interesting place. I spent few hours there and got approached by students wanted to practice their English or tour guides offering their services. All people were very kind and not pushy as experienced in some other countries.
Chinggis Khaan (or Genghis Khan) is everywhere. Just like the King in Thailand, Chinggis Khaan enjoys the same cult status in Mongolia. Air crafts land in Chinggis Khaan International Airport. There are equestrian statues of him just outside the airport. There is the Chinggis Khaan Square, Khaan Bank, Chinggiss Khaan Hotel and of course Chinggis Vodka. Obviously he is almost on every bank note. Mongols are very proud of their most famous ancestor, the founder of largest continuous empire ever known to the man kind. Chinggis is a very interesting figure. I was fascinated by him as young boy. Barbarian and conqueror as well as very pragmatic and inventive leader. For example Mongolian Empire enjoyed quite unprecedented religious freedom and tolerance which the world would need these days in triple doses. There is still lot to be learned from his legacy. Another monument, the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex can be found about an hour drive from the city. It is bit far but definitely worth to see. It is a huge 40m tall statue that is symbolically pointed to the east towards the direction of his birthplace.
Morning walk to the Zaisan Hill, a World War II memorial offers probably the best view of Ulaanbaatar. From here the sheer size of the city is evident as well as layer of grey smog hanging above it even during clear days.
Another popular destination, the Terelj National Park can be reached within a hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. Main attractions here are the Turtle Rock and a Buddhist Monastery. Unfortunately, this area doesn't resemble real Mongolia any more. There are tourist ger camp resorts everywhere and area around Turtle Rock seemed to be overrun by them. Also there is lots of rubbish everywhere. It is hard to get a good photograph without any of these distractions in the frame. It could have been beautiful few years back.
Mongolian language doesn't sound anything like you heard before. They use Cyrillic alphabet but this is as close it comes to Russian or other Slavic languages using the same alphabet. It sounds very exotic but it is not a tonal language either. This suggests that it should be easier to learn Mongolian but I guess the opposite is true. From the sound some Mongolian words are close to impossible to say correctly. There are also few dialects used across the country but for me there is no difference. They sound the same.
Best feature of Mongolia are it's people renowned for their hospitality which I can confirm is true. I was warned prior to the trip about usual suspects of "modern diseases" of city life as pick pocketing, ripping of and taking advantage of tourists but I personally have not encountered any of these. Country is considered safe for travel, even for families or single females. Most likely visitors will be accompanied by guide or driver anyway. Distances are huge and transport infrastructure for tourism outside the city is almost non existent. Either you have few months of time and you get yourself a horse or just go with the tour and transportation will not be an issue any more.
As for staying in Ulaanbaatar I booked very affordable hostel called Danista Nomad Tours Hostel. It is very good value for money. Nothing fancy but feels very cozy and homely. Also staff is very friendly and helpful. I stayed with them at the beginning of the trip and I didn't see any reason why not to book few days at the end of my trip. It is a good place for solo travelers and couples on budged. I highly recommend them.
National currency is called Mongolian tögrög (or Tugrik). Conversion rate is roughly USD $1 to 2000₮.