Not Just Any Sunday in Ulaanbaatar

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

Blue Sky Tower

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.

Lunch

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.

Shangri-La Mall

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.

31 responses to “Not Just Any Sunday in Ulaanbaatar

  1. As I wrote last summer, I found UB to be surprisingly enjoyable! Did you generally like it? It’s odd, for sure – a mishmash of time periods and styles. In contrast to your weather, ours was scorching hot, but we walked the streets for hours, seeing many of the places you did. It looks like maybe you didn’t get to the bigger Gandan monastery a bit up the hill from downtown UB, but I liked the little Choijin Lama one, too, and the way it butted up against the glassy new skyscrapers. Can’t wait to read about your time in the gers!

    • I remember your posts and did think of you on our trip. 🙂 We absolutely loved walking around UB! And ever since we moved to Seoul, we keep imagining how life would be if we moved to every city/town we visit. 🙂 It sounds a little crazy, I guess. Mongolian winters are terrible though and I’m not sure I could survive those temperatures!
      I was expecting August to be warmer and pleasant. The rain dipped the temperatures drastically and I don’t think I was well prepared (Seoul was scorching back then). I was happy to have packed a warm jacket, but in the gers with the nomads — I nearly froze! We visited Gandan Monastery on the next day as part of the tour. I’m equally excited to write about trip! My friends have waited patiently for two long months. 🙂

      • I think it’s a land of temperature extremes. One of my nights in the gers was honestly the hottest night I have ever spent anywhere. There was no breeze whatsoever, and the heat was suffocating. We all slept with the doors open (allowing a few small animals in – yikes) and a few people even slept outside the gers. And you and I were both there at the same time of year!

      • I agree! I expected it to be pleasant and wasn’t sure what to pack. I guess, the rain turned the temperatures around and took me by surprise. By the end of our trip it was really hot! So I can imagine how your trip must have been. 😦

  2. I always considered Mongolia having a strong Russian influence. from your pictures though it seems that there’s other side too even though there are some building which looks clinical- as do all Russian satellite towns. Even departmental store seem to be a socialist legacy. Enjoyed the virtual trip if UB.

  3. I’ve missed your posts! I was quite happy to read more about Mongolia, a part of the world Le and I would love to visit!

    In one of your pictures of La Mall I can see a Godiva logo, it’s a Belgian chocolate brand… weird, right ?!

    • So good to have you back, Gin! 🙂 I thought you’re incredibly busy with the new changes in your life. I can’t wait to read your new posts!
      We did a 6 day tour of Central Mongolia and parts of it reminded us of Iceland and Jeju! 🙂 We want to go back and I’m sure you and Le will love it. Mongolia is Fantastic!
      Hahah…I know it was funny to see Godiva there! I noticed it almost immediately and that’s why I put the pic up. And trust a Belgian to notice it right away! lol…But it also shows how our world (or perception of it) is changing and how we’re getting more connected to each other than we know it! Good to have you back!

  4. Mongolia! This sounds like quite the trip. Definitely looks like a great view from the 20th floor, and such a clear skyline too. The National Museum looks like such a big place to explore and agree, history is about perception. It’s interesting to hear how closely aligned it is with Russia, a big superpower back in the day. Love the photos and sounds like quite a trip 😊 That rainbow shot 👌

    • Hey Mabel! How have you been? Mongolia was on my list for more than a year. 🙂 I’m so glad we were able to do the trip. I wish we had more time to explore other museums and galleries. A day and quarter isn’t really good enough. Russia is on our list too! We got lucky with the rainbow shot! Thanks so much for stopping by! 🙂

      • So glad you got to visit Mongolia. It looks so rich in history and nature, so all the more reason to go back. Maybe go to Russia and then stop off at Mongolia 😀 Been busy but it’s always nice stopping by 🙂

      • Russia is on our list — not so soon though! haha…It’s tempting to go back. It’s always a tough choice: revisit a country or choose a new one! 🙂

  5. It seems like a good mix of the traditional and modern, doesn’t it? Although were there a lot of people around when you were there? I wasn’t sure if it looked that way from your photos here. Genghis Khan is an interesting historical figure, I would definitely be very interested to know how much of his influence is portrayed there although you did mention that the history museum seemed to gloss over some parts of his history. Hmm, nothing new there, I guess. Different perspectives which is why history is so fascinating to think of..haha..looking forward to reading about your experience in the yurt! 🙂

    • I like noticing the contrasts in cities. 🙂 The population of Mongolia isn’t much and UB didn’t seem to have many people. But, we try to capture places without people — that doesn’t imply a place is isolated. There were many tourists in the month of August. 🙂 Actually, not much was known about Genghis Khan by the locals (explained by our guide) during the socialist era. After the country opted for democracy in the nineties, there was a renewed effort to restore the old glory of Mongolia. His statue was erected at the main square etc. These days, you can buy vodka and beer bearing his name. 🙂 I also understand there is a need for heroes in new nations — especially ones that have been born from strife.
      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂 Always good to hear from you.

  6. Looking at the main square and is colossal monuments I was reminded of Pyongyang…. right down to the detail that wedding couples are drawn to the monuments for photos. There the similarities end.

    • I believe the similarities could have their origins in a shared political ideology. 🙂 That’s changed since 1990 in Mongolia. Wedding couples are drawn to larger than life monuments. I remember spotting couples at the Colosseum and St.Peter’s Basilica (to seek blessings from the pope), haven’t seem them near the Eiffel Tower though! 🙂

    • Mongolia is a land of many contrasts. Most tourists prefer observing rural life, yurts, and nomads. And to be fair, it is something that must be experienced and seen. But city life is also quickly catching on. UB is developing at a rapid pace and our guide said that there are similar cities mushrooming across the country. People are opting for life as settlers by staying in small towns in the countryside too. Nomadic life is very difficult and the numbers are slowly dwindling.

  7. So interesting. I had no idea what UB looks like these days. I expected it to be very Soviet 🙂 Well it is a little bit, “state department store” and all, but I can see that they look towards the West rather than Russia. Good for them.

    • I didn’t know about the Russian connection (or history) till we went there. State Department Store is like a remnant of the past and a good tourist stop! 🙂 It’s good for pictures. The city is changing at a rapid pace with construction work clogging some roads. I prefer the empty countrysides instead! 🙂

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