Ulaanbaatar (Улаанбаатар), also Ulan Bator or simply just UB, is the capital and, with a population of around 1,000,000, also the largest city in Mongolia. In fact, according to recent estimates, this means approximately 1/3 of the country lives here. It is located just east of the center of the country.
Sunrise in Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar has a long and mysterious history, and is only now undergoing an industrial revolution. When under communist control, the city was forbidden to waste funds on beautification projects, and this policy is no doubt partly responsible for the city's present drab and uninteresting architecture. Still, as traditionalists, Mongolians love their capital. They understand that it is not an Asian beauty, but in their hearts they are aware of the city's history, culture and many struggles. Foreigners who take the time to get to know the faces that are hidden behind the gray walls will discover a hospitable and warm-hearted people. Explore the city from different angles, while at the same time do not ignore the abject poverty of many of the ex-nomads who in recent years have come to the city to find work after severe winters have killed their livestock. In this way, you will learn to unlock the city's many secrets and discover an Ulaanbaatar that is not initially revealed to the casual visitor.
Although summer temperatures are around 20°C, the city shivers in minus zero temperatures for five months of the year, with January and February being the coldest months with temps hovering between -15°C to -30°C. As a result of these prolonged periods of intense cold, the city has an average annual temperature of -1.3°C, giving it the dubious distinction of being the world's coldest capital.
The majority of visitors arrive in Mongolia through Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN), which is located 18 km to the southwest of Ulaanbaatar. The airport was reconstructed in 1990, and the immigration, customs formalities and luggage delivery are relatively efficient.
Trains from Beijing run once a week (on Tuesdays) and seats can only be reserved at the International Hotel in Beijing (a ten minute walk north of the main Beijing rail station). The journey takes about 30 hours. Packing a face mask might be a good idea as sandstorms in the Gobi desert may cause difficulty in breathing.
Once in the country, it should not be difficult to find a bus going to UB, at least from larger towns. However, bus stops are difficult to locate, with buses usually just stopping in populated areas. Furthermore, Mongolian buses are notorious for being late and on some routes for not even arriving on the scheduled day. Be forewarned!
Taxis are cheap, charging around T300-350 per kilometer, but a foreigner will get overcharged easily. Considering the low price of the ride, it might be a good idea to negotiate the fare before the journey.
Buses are regular and have a fixed charge of T200. Electric trolley-buses cost T100 but are slower and run fewer routes. Smaller buses (really just vans) are equally accessible at T200. These have someone who hangs out the window at each stop shouting the name of the destination in rapid Mongolian. Fairly hard not to notice.
Walking is also an option as the city centre is quite compact.
Gandan Khiid Monastery
Gandan Khiid - the city's main monastery - services at about 10AM.
Chojin Monastery - a monastery combined with a museum.
Natural History Museum - a huge collection of expertly stuffed animals, and massive dinasour skeletons from the Gobi desert. Admission - T2500, 10am-5.30pm, last admission, 4.30pm.
National History Museum - a nicely put together display of Mongolian history, with a lot of English and Dutch support. Admission - T2500, 10am-5.30pm, last admission, 4.30pm.
Sukhbaatar Square - the big open space in the center of the city with an equestrian statue of the 1921 hero Sukbaatar, and seated statue of Chinggis Kahn.
Bogd Kahn Museum
Zaisan Tolgoi (Head)- located on a hill near the city. It represents the Russian and Mongolian heroes who fought together during WWI and WWII.
The Buddhist statue located near the Zaisan Tolgoi - a very nice place to visit.
NB: Most tourist sites have a camera/video fee in addition to the entrance fee.
Attend Naadam - the largest and most famous festival in Mongolia, which consists of competitions in the three traditional Mongolian sports of wrestling, horse racing and archery. The festival is an annual event and runs from July 11th to 13th.
Take a walk to Zaizan Memorial.
Get an inexpensive massage at one of the many massage spas located on Peace Avenue
Mongolian - there are several language schools in the city.
Volunteer. Work is available for overseas visitors in the volunteer sector.
English. Teaching English as a second language is an option for native English speakers. Mostly positions are in Ulaanbaatar, though they could be anywhere in the country. Those who find a teaching position after arriving in the country will need to travel to Seoul or Beijing to apply for a working visa. The school may or may not pay for this.
UB has a host of souvenirs aimed at Western and East Asian tourists. While the quality of the goods varies, the price is always high. Service in tourist shops is generally better than the usual surly Russian-style "service".
Traditional clothes, boots and hats, cashmere garments, jewelery, leather wall hangings, miniature gers, bow and arrow sets and paintings.
Peace Avenue and the Circus area are the main shopping areas.
The 5th floor of the State Department Store is entirely devoted to souvenirs, but prices are higher than in some of the smaller stores.
How to get cash:
It is relatively easy to find an ATM machine with a VISA logo to withdraw cash. As long as your ATM, debit or credit card has the VISA logo, you can withdraw tögrög, the local currency. Other card types are also accepted, simply not as widely, for example, the machines in the central Post Office and main street will not accept foreign MasterCards although they bear the logo. The machines in Golomt Bank branches are more reliable. The more expensive shops take credit cards, but almost everywhere else runs strictly on cash. Note that most credit card companies will pass on the 3% "foreign currency conversion fee" to you.
Nobody travels to Mongolia for the food, but Ulaanbaatar has a range of Western, Asian and Mongolian options. No other city this side of Beijing has close to a comparable selection. Even better, meals here are quite reasonable. You can get perfectly reasonable pizza for $3, even a night out at a fancy French cafe shouldn't pass $20. Consider splurging on a couple good meals here, especially if headed out for a long trek into the country. Be aware that fresh vegetables, especially in winter, are hard to come by and expensive.
Korean and Chinese restaurants dominate the city. As Asian restaurants in America tend to tailor their menu to the Yankee palate, so in Ulaanbaatar do the East Asian restaurants tailor their menu to the Central Asian palate.
My Homemade Khushur serves a favorite Mongolian dish, mutton fried in dough. One khushur is 150T, and three is a pretty adqueate meal. On Peace Avenue near the State Department Store.
Ubdeli Restaurant, placed on Seoul Street. The UB deli is popular with foreign expats, tourists and the trendy locals alike. In addition to a great breakfast menu, we serve gourmet sandwiches as well as delicious pizzas, pastas and salads for lunch and dinner. And they also have free WiFi internet service to make your stay more convenient and comfortable. Website of Ubdeli Restaurant.
American Ger'll, right across the Peace Bridge on the right has the best American-style, thick crust pizza in town. The large pizza will feed 5-6 people for about $20.00 US. They also have an extensive foreign menu, including the best coffee drinks in UB. With one of the friendliest and most well-trained staff in town, you should get there early, because this place is a favorite among Mongolians and expats alike.
Planet Pizza, near Sukhbaatar Square. Offers an American-style, thicker crust pizza, and costs around $8 for a two-person size.
City Cafe, across the street from Sukhbaatar Square. Great food and location, wonderful staff, good prices. If you want tasty and healthy Chinese food, this is the place to go.
California Restaurant, on Seoul Street not far from the State Department store. Extensive foreign and Mongolian menu. Beautifully decorated, this is one of the best restaurants in town. It's a bit small, but in the summer there is additional outside seating. Reservations are advised.
Los Banditos serves Mexican and Indian food. It sounds terrible until you taste the spicy chicken malasa or crispy tacquitos. They are at a new location not far from Sukhbaatar Square. The prices are higher now, but the atmosphere has improved and most mains are still in the $5-8 range.
Chez Bernard Cafe, Peace Avenue (main street in Ulaanbaatar), between the Central Post Office and the State Department Store  - excellent breakfasts, snacks and good selection of coffee - open all day. This cafe is famous among travelers as the place to gather information about journeying through Mongolia and for organizing tours. Prices are comparatively high, but the service is excellent. There are better cafes in town, but the location alone makes it worth a visit, especially in the summer. In the winter it is very quiet with few customers, as it serves mostly back packers.
Oasis Nightclub and Lounge is located on Seoul center of the city, it is by far the swankiest and coolest nightclub and lounge in Ulaanbaatar, featuring a Cuban influenced outside bar with enormous sofas and lounge areas as well as a wood fire pizza oven and an American grill. The interior has cosy VIP nooks, a beating dance floor and a large bar to serve exotic cocktails all night long.Visit Oasis Nightclub and Lounge website.
Ikh Mongol is a cavernous club just south of the State Department Store. Choose between the main dining area, the fancy VIP upstairs, or seculded tables in the back. Most weekends have concerts from Mongolian acts. The restaurant brews several beers on tap, or get some of the more popular Mongolian brands for around T2000 a half-liter.
Brauhaus goes for a German brewhouse look and succeds. This bar is big but usually not noisy. It serves X Beer, a quite tasty local brew. Half-liters run around T2,500.
Dave's Bar is an underground English pub located just off of Sukhbaatar Square. It can be difficult to find due to a lack of signs, but the four vintage automobiles outside should make the bar easier to spot. Go there for trivia on Thursday nights, or to catch big soccer or rugby matches.
Nowadays, budget accommodation in Ulaanbaatar tends to give the best deals for a traveller. Usually a bed in a clean dormitory costs about $5-10 and a double room should be under $30 a night. Good mid-range options are sparse. Note that during the annual Naadam festival it is almost impossible to get any kind of accommodation in UB without prior reservations.
Youth Mongolia Guest house, (Near the circus), (firstname.lastname@example.org), . This smaller and nice guest house has a nice location in the center of the city. Close to the biggest foodmarket in Ulaanbaatar (25 meters away). Russian style building. Door no. 67, 1st floor 5th entrance, building 14-b.
Mongolian Resort's Guesthouse, Seoul Street, ☎ +976 9908 2757, . They claim to be the coolest guest house in Mongolia. Their apartment rooms, located in buildings around the guesthouse come complete with a full individual bathroom, sitting room and bedrooms. Their lounge area is equipped with a television, a large collection of DVDs, and WiFi internet service to make your stay more convenient.
Zaya Guesthouse, Tserendorj Street Bld 63, App 10,11,12, ☎ +976 11 331 575 (email@example.com), . Zaya has two locations in the city center, and both are in modern recently renovated apartment buildings. The place is more suitable for a person looking for clean and calm place to sleep than a backpacker looking for a rowdy and noisy dorm. Also organizes tours.
Happy Guesthouse, (firstname.lastname@example.org), . An excellent guest house run by some young Mongolians in a central location - hot showers and western style toilets - a very nice place to stay.
UB Guesthouse. A clean, well-organized and centrally located hotel that also arranges tours around the country. E-mail ahead for a free pickup from the train station. Dorms beds, $5; Single room, $10; Double room, $14. A light breakfast, tea and coffee are included.
Idre's Guesthouse, Bayangol disrict 1, ☎ +976 99112575 (email@example.com), . Friendly family-run guesthouse with $4 dorm beds. Rooms are clean, staff are helpful, and tickets and tours can be arranged without hassle.
Mongolian Properties Short Let Apartments, . Mongolian Properties, the leading real estate agency in Mongolia, offers a number of 1,2,3 and 4 bedroom apartments for short term rent during the summer months. All the available properties can be viewed on the website. Prices vary from 40USD a night to 150USD. The quality and comfort of the apartments very much depend on price and availability.
The supposedly luxurious Shangri-La hotel near Sükhbaatar square has been under construction for several years now. It is nearing completion though.
Ulaanbaatar Hotel, Sükhbaatar Square 14, ☎ +976 11 320 620 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . The centrally located Mongolia's first 5-star hotel is showing its age already.
Internet cafes - there are many Internet cafes liberally scattered around the city and they cost around T400-800 per hour.
Mail - the central post office is located on the south west corner of Sukhbaatar Square, and besides stamps it also sells a wide variety of reasonably priced postcards (though they may take up to two months to reach their destination!), some very large, decorative collections of stamps (which are not for use) and a few nice calendars.
Telephone - the city has an international call center. However, if you have access to a private phone, the most convenient way to make an international call is to use a prepaid card, such as BodiCom.
UB has a high crime rate which explains all the steel bars and security guards in apartment buildings and larger stores. Pickpocketing is common and violent muggings are increasing so it is advisable to avoid walking alone after dark. Street lighting is unreliable and the city is frequented by drunks and stray dogs. Most sidewalks are not paved and so can be very muddy and slippery during a thaw or after rain. Walking on the streets at any time is a dangerous affair as one needs to contend with ice from about October to March, open manholes and extremely chaotic and wild driving habits. Drivers (including buses and police) pay no attention to pedestrian crossings and will not reduce speed, but simply sound their horns. The automobile culture in this city is too new to have developed safe driving systems and habits.
Unmarked taxis are common and shouldn't be feared. Locals simply stick out an arm and hitchhike anywhere around town.However, it is wise to get a local to interpret if possible and explain the fare system.
Child beggars are common and persistent on the streets, but watch out for groups of them, as one may be trying to pick your pocket. Also be aware that any money you do donate will go straight to their teenage "pimps", and so you may not be helping them as much as you think.
Walking at night in company shouldn't be too great of a concern, it isn't for the locals. But stick to areas where you can see lots of locals (especially women).
All of Mongolia awaits. Drive an hour out of the capital and you're in deep in a land of herders, gers and bumpy dirt roads. Arrange a tour in any one of Ulaanbaatar's hundreds of tour operators, or brave local minibuses and hitchhiking to reach far flung destinations.
For less-adventurous or time-strapped travellers, the most popular one night excursion is to Terelj, a nearby grassland park. Again, you can arrange a tour (around $30-40 a person)that will include transport, lodging and admission fees at dozens of places in Ulanbaatar.
For travellers on the Trans-Siberian Express route, tickets onwards to China or Russia can be purchased from the International Railway Ticketing Office (8am-8pm), just outside the main station (ask inside for directions). Most tickets can be reserved a month in advance, but tickets for the main express trains between Moscow and Beijing (train numbers 3 and 4) go on sale 24 hours before departure. Travel agencies may be able to help you reserve them earlier. However, one needs a Russian visa - something which can be an "experience" to obtain.