10 Things to See and Do in Ulaanbaatar

by Michael

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia after making our way across Russia on trains, and came back through the city as we finished excursions to Terelj National Park and the Gobi Desert. UB (as seemingly everyone calls Ulaanbaatar) is not the world’s prettiest city. It has Soviet-style apartment blocks and busy congested roads. During the cold winters, the city is known for having atrocious air quality due to the large number of surrounding gers that are heated by coal. But it’s a good stop-over for travelers, with things to do, easy ways to re-supply, and backpacker-oriented accommodations.

Here’s a sampling of what we did during our stays, in no particular order:

1. Chinggis Khan Square

It’s unclear when celebrating Chinggis (Ghenghis) Khan came back into fashion (or if it ever went out of style after the 1200s) but the main square is now his. A large statue sits at the front of an impressive parliament building. Someone may approach you and try to sell prints of paintings, but in typical Mongolian fashion they are never too pushy.

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Chinggis Khan Square

According to Lonely Planet, the Mongolian Statehood Museum is inside the parliament museum and you can enter for free. The guards disagreed. It’s unclear if it was just closed the day we tried or if it is closed for good.

2. Beatles Square

Apparently the Beatles were popular with counterculture youth during the Soviet period (yes, Mongolia was in Soviet Orbit, like Poland and East Germany; now Mongolia is democratic and capitalist, with, some argue, features of oligarchy). To celebrate the place where they would hang out, there is a monument shaped like an Apple (Apple was the Beatles’ record label when they left Capital).

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It’s not as giant as the David Bowie mural in Sarajevo, but it’s nice to visit.

3. National Museum of Mongolia

Well worth a visit, this small building just West of the Parliament hosts an easy to follow chronological history of the country. The display of traditional clothing was Elizabeth’s favorite part of the exhibit. Definitely worth a short stop.

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Outside the museum, an artistic representation of oppression during the Communist era.

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Buryat outfits on display.

And… that’s pretty much it for our traditional sightseeing in UB. We didn’t feel like rushing around to the various museums while we were there (especially since the National Museum is so comprehensive). We also had a lot of traveler’s chores to complete while we were in town, such as preparing our Chinese visa applications, shopping for food for our various trips/train journey, looking for shoe inserts to help with Elizabeth’s sore heel, and generally catching up on good food and sleep.  So, this post is really just my lazy attempt at a listicle. With that qualifier, the rest of our UB list includes:

4. State Department Store

The plastic bags say “State Department Store: All Needs Are Fulfilled.” Not quite, but close. Six floors tall, it has a grocery store, coffee shop, movie theater, souvenir shop, and two Cinnabons. Most of this was irrelevant to us, but the grocery store was pretty good. The quite impressive array of instant Asian noodles included MAMA brand, which we used to buy and cook while hiking in California. We bought those for upcoming train rides. More generally, we enjoy walking around shopping centers while we travel to get an idea of what the commercial life of a city includes.

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State Department Store lit up at night.

Also, Elizabeth kept pronouncing this place as the State Department (pause) Store. But I’m pretty sure that the Department Store belongs to the State, not that the Store belongs to the State Department.

5. Korean Food

We aren’t really sure why, but there appears to be a substantial Korean presence in Mongolia. More than Japanese or Chinese. And that means Korean food, notably Kimchi. We didn’t dislike Russian food, but being in the land of spicy food was nice.

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What do they sell at Seoul Mart?

6. Mongolian Food

Out of the city, you might find Mongolian food leaving something to be desired. And by something, I mean anything other than mutton and soup. But in UB, you can get better Mongolian food.

Two places that we visited are worth noting:

A. Altai Mongolian Grill.

A short walk from the State Department Store and Beatles Square, at this place you shouldn’t order off the menu. Rather, go to what looks like a salad bar but is raw food, including raw meat, seasonings, and sauces. If you’re a weirdo, like Elizabeth, you might opt to include horse meat in your grilled dish. Because Mongolians like horses? Make a dish and then take it over to the chef who will cook it for you.

If you are lucky, there may also be music. Which for us included throat singing. It’s hard to describe but we were able to get a video clip of the performer in action (here).

B. Modern Nomads

This place puts a modern spin on traditional Mongolian dishes. I had fish which may be somewhat less traditional.  [Elizabeth’s note: I opted salad after suffering a week of mutton in the Gobi.  The salad greens were… not the best.  I spent the night throwing up.  Might not have been from Modern Nomads, since I already felt bad before dinner, but maybe don’t order a salad.]

7. The Indian and Mexican Food Restaurant

I found Los Banditos online when searching for Mexican food. It’s both Indian and Mexican. It’s not bad, but you should order the Indian food since the Mexican food also tastes like Indian food.

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8. Khan Deli

Get your fix of American-style deli food. They happened to be out of lox for bagels when we visited, but there are still milkshakes, pancakes, and pulled pork sandwiches. Great for long-term travelers who miss home.

Wolverines beware: the proprietor sometimes wears an MSU sweatshirt.

9. Chinese Embassy and Around

Actually you should, if possible, get your visa for China ahead of time. It sucked for us.

10. Golden Gobi Hostel

They have decent rooms and arrange tours, but the real bonus here is the common room. Morning and evening there are groups of people here talking about where they have been and where they are going. Because Mongolia is often a pass-through on longer trips, and is popular with long-term travelers, these conversations can be more useful here than they often are in other places. Despite the solid traveler community here, we opted to spend our last few nights in a budget hotel because we were sick of taking not-quite-hot showers given UB’s cold temperatures.

[This blog post describes our various visits to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia from October 1 through 16, 2016.]

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