Mongolia’s national airline, MIAT Mongolian Airlines, connects Seoul to Ulaanbataar in 3 hours. However, bad weather and turbulence can cause frequent flight delays or a longer flight duration. We reached Ulaanbaatar rather late on a wet Saturday evening. We took a cab and reached the heart of the city in about 30 minutes. Outside my window, it was hard to escape the obvious Russian influence. However, as a discerning traveller, I also knew it was too early for any kind of impression.
Sukhbaatar Square (Chinggis Square)
We rarely splurge on trips and prefer budget hotels, homestays, or hostels. The thought of spending the next 6 days in gers(yurts) made us opt for a luxury hotel — in a desperate attempt to hold on to modern living. And Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel doesn’t disappoint. The view from the 20th Floor was breathtaking. We could see clouds make rain below or cast shadows on the mountains — when the sun peeked from hiding. We also got a bird’s eye view of Sukhbaatar Square and the illegal gers that dot the slopes of the mountains. On a gloomy Sunday morning there were hardly any people at the square and it was the perfect point to kickstart our day of exploration.
Sukhbaatar Square gets its name from Damdin Sukhbaatar — the national hero of the revolution of 1921. It was also the site of his mausoleum between 1954 and 2005. Having far too many towering figures in history can prove to be a perplexing situation for any country. In 2013, ninety years after its renaming, Sukhbaatar Square got a another name. This time, to honour Chinggis Khaan (known to the rest of the world as Genghis Khan) — the founding father of the nation. It’s hard to miss the larger than life statue of Chinggis Khaan at the centre of a gigantic marble facade — flanked on either side by two guarding Mongol soldiers. If the architects were looking for admiration, I’d say, they were pretty successful at winning mine.
Sukhbaatar Square might have been an important site for the revolution in the twenties and democratic struggle in the nineties. These days, it wears a more relaxed look. And you can’t go wrong with a backdrop like that. Come early, and you’ll catch happy bridal couples with their colour coordinated families — striking a pose under Chinggis Khaan’s protective gaze. As the day builds up, young kids drive their toy cars around and people gather to talk.
The gallant statue of Sukhbaatar riding a horse opposes the gigantic statue of Chinggis Khaan. The square is literally the meeting point of two national icons, born in different eras, with different political ideologies — who shaped the history of Mongolia.
Sukhbaatar Square is surrounded by some interesting and important buildings. The Government House (Parliament House) lies behind the Chinggis Monument. It won’t be too difficult to spot the Stock Exchange of Mongolia and the Trade Union Building. The Mongolian National Art Gallery and the National Museum of Mongolia (we didn’t have time to peek in) also lie within walking distance. The Mongol Post building lies beyond the statue of Sukhbaatar. The building has ATMs, tourist information maps, souvenir shops, and a fully functional postal department.
National Museum of Mongolia
We barely had a day to explore Ulaanbataar and we knew we’d have to make some tough choices. The National Museum of Mongolia is a perfect place to take a lesson in Mongolian history and shouldn’t be skipped. Fortunately, the museum was open on Sunday and it was also nice to escape the cold outside.
Renting an audio guide ensures you have a steady background commentary to each marked exhibit in the museum. The first floor takes you through the prehistoric era with fascinating exhibits of cave paintings and objects of everyday use. The floor eventually leads into the early dynasties. The second floor is a homage to the costumes of various tribes of Mongolia.
But it’s the third floor that truly demands your undivided attention. Being a science geek, I didn’t appreciate history before we started travelling. So, I wasn’t too aware of the details of the Mongolian Empire or Genghis Khan for that matter. I was hoping to dispel myths and get a crash course in history at the Museum. Interestingly, I’ve come to realise that history, like perception, depends on the one who writes it. The boards, at the museum, trace a path from his humble beginnings to his eventual rise — as the ruler of one of the greatest empires in history. Life-size replicas of charging warriors and scare tactics used to intimidate the enemy, give you a sense of what it might have been like — to be foolish enough to fight him. However, there is no attempt to acknowledge, mention, or even debunk the belief that his campaigns were accompanied by mass massacres of innocent civilians. And you can’t help but leave with a feeling of knowing an incomplete story.
After a brief introduction to the spiritual and religious rituals of Mongolia and nomadic life, the course takes a sharp turn into modern political history. From the revolution of 1921 (declaration of independence from China) to becoming a satellite state of Russia — Mongolia went through a period of repression and political purging under the socialist regime. By the nineties, after the democratic revolution, Mongolia turned to democracy. Freedom is something that of most us take for granted. It’s only when you witness how hard it is to fight for that you realise its importance.
Apex of the Sky Monument
With no elaborate plan for the day, we walked away from the main square (beyond the statue of Sukhbaatar) into the busy streets of the city. The ‘Apex of the Sky Monument‘ sits at the central focal point of a small public park. It was designed to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Mongolia’s induction into the United Nations and also mark the 11th ASEM Summit.
We walked around and came across a bell made from melted coins — from different countries across the globe. The bell was presented by the ‘World Peace Bell Association‘ in acknowledgment of the Mongolian people’s efforts for peace and harmony.
Walking Around Ulaanbaatar
In the past, the city was known by multiple names (Orgoo, Nomiin Khuree, Ikh Khuree and Niislel Khuree) and was named Ulaanbataar (translates as Red Hero) when it became the capital city of a new republic in 1924. These days, locals have simplified it to UB or UB City making it easier for travellers to save time on fumbled pronunciations. And if you take a look around, you’d see why UB fits right away. The old buildings of the socialist era might still remain, but there’s a new wave of modernism sweeping the city at a rapid pace. It’s hard to miss the advertisements, mushrooming coffee shops (popular Korean brands), free Wi-Fi at parks, and an ambitious construction spree. Navigating around isn’t very difficult with signboards being printed in Cyrillic script and English.
State Department Store
No matter how much you plan a trip, something always gets left behind. And don’t you hate it when it’s your tripod and zoom lens? We had half a day remaining and a difficult choice to make. So, we scouted for camera shops and found one just before the State Department Store. We had expected to get a better deal at the State Department Store, unfortunately, they didn’t sell the matching lens. Otherwise, the store is good for shopping for cashmere or groceries and money exchange. Don’t miss the tourism information centre on the first floor.
There’s a cute restaurant opposite the State Department Store. It was cozy and had an array of local delicacies. So far, I was lucky to get chicken wherever I went. If you’re a hardcore vegetarian — food will be very difficult to find.
Somewhere along the way…
We returned to our hotel by late afternoon for some rest. After drinks at the lounge and a gorgeous view of a rainbow — we head back to the streets. The streets never failed to amaze. There’s always some snippet of history scattered among modernism.
Choijin Lama Temple Museum
We continued walking towards Shangri-La Mall and discovered Choijin Lama Temple Museum. Sadly, we had reached just after closing time and had to make do with the views from the outside.
We had discovered Shangri- La Mall on the previous day. It is a high-end luxury mall and was practically deserted when we had visited. On Sunday, it didn’t look very different.
The topmost floor has a foodcourt and IMAX. Visiting malls is not our thing on a trip and we would prefer the outdoors to air-conditioning. However, when you know you’re going to leave civilisation for isolation — you might reconsider how you spend every last moment. That’s how we watched Dunkirk (although Planet of the Apes was my first choice) in UB.
The city was plunged in darkness by the time we reached back. In the distance, the gers looked like fallen stars accompanied by a hazy glow in the horizon. The next day, we’d be miles away from civilisation and this view was a great way to end the day.