Mongolia’s vibrant capital, Ulan Bator goes by a few monikers: “Land of the Blue Sky,””Land of the Great Khan,” or as the locals simply call it, “UB.” Whatever name you choose to call it, one fact about it remains consistent: it is the portal to a beautiful country, which, despite its tumultuous history, has maintained an intact identity. Despite UB’s seemingly frigid countenance, that of its people speak otherwise. They radiate utmost conviviality, which has made Mongolia one of the most hospitable nations in the world. While the capital is not as abuzz as say, Paris or New York, its fantastic natural sights and attractions make up for its modesty, creating an idyllic destination for sightseers and adventurers alike.
Best Time to Visit
Ulan Bator is literally one of world’s the coolest capitals, as its average temperature is a chilly 1.3 degrees Celsius. To avoid these cold temperatures, make it a point to visit during summer, which spans from July to August. During these months, UB enjoys a cozy climate of 20 degrees Celsius. Don’t forget to bring your umbrella though, since summer brings some rain. Springtime, which ranges from January to March, is another good time to visit UB for a variety of reasons. During these months you can enjoy a comfy climate of 12 degrees Celsius. It is also the time when the snow starts to melt and the trees come alive – creating a scenic view for tourists and locals alike. When autumn commences in September, Mongolia is literally colored in orange and red. The changes in the sceneries also make this season a good time for a trip. Make sure to bring thermal wear though, since the fall experiences cold days every so often.
Getting around Ulan Bator
When in Ulan Bator, you have two options for getting around: riding a bus or a taxi. If you decide to choose the former, you only need to pay a flat rate of USD 0.27. There are also electric trolley buses that run fewer routes, and its fares are comparably cheaper at USD 0.14. Microbuses or vans are also available for an affordable fee of USD 0.21-0.34.
Unlike other countries, riding a taxi in UB is very cheap, since the rate is just USD 0.48 per kilometer. A trip from the airport to the city center costs an average of USD 10.30, so be wary of drivers who might overprice their services and ask you about USD 14 for fare.
Some Mongolian taxi drivers can be opportunists, so if you don’t want to be conned, seek out older taxi drivers in their own cars, instead of young cabbies in yellow taxis. Majority of the drivers don’t speak English, so have your hotel and location written in Mongolian to avoid any confusion. Also make it a point to carry small bills (MNT 500-1500) and tell the driver what you are willing to pay before you get inside the cab. Once you arrive at the city center, the best way to explore the capital is to tour around its attractions by foot. Always keep a map at bay so you can navigate throughout Ulan Bator with minimal fuss.
Just like any other capital, Ulan Bator natives celebrate a lot of festivities that draw tourists from all parts of the globe. Here are the capital’s finest celebrations which you can coincide with your UB trip:
1) Tsagaan Sar
Mongolian for Lunar New Year, the Tsagaan Sar (also known as the White Month) has no specific date of celebration. The feast is scheduled anywhere from January to March, according to the computation of Buddhist leaders. During this three-day event, locals are dressed in fine Mongolian wear, as they visit families and friends, and exchange gifts along the way. The Tsagaan Sar is also a great time to visit if you are curious about Mongolian delicacies, because you can expect delicious UB specialties during this time of the year.
2) Thousand Camel Festival
Take a journey back into time, and experience the life the nomads have lived by visiting UB during the Thousand Camel Festival, held annually every March. This event is organized yearly in order to save the Bactrian Camels, which are slowly declining in number. During the Thousand Camel Festival, you can learn more about these trusted creatures – and how they have helped the nomads thrive throughout the centuries.
3) Naadam Festival
Held from July 11-13, the Naadam Festival is considered as the most famous festivity in UB – and the entire country. This athletic event features competitors from all parts of the country, all vying for the bragging rights of being the best in the traditional sports of archery, horse racing and wrestling.
Things to Do in UB
What UB lacks in warmth and modernity, it makes up with its wonderful natural attractions. Unleash your adventurous spirit; explore UB in a number of action-packed ways, such as the following.
1) Watch or Join the Motorcycle Tour in the Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert, straddled on the border between Mongolia and China, is a wild yet dramatic place, entirely suitable for motorcycling. Whether you’re part of the motorcycle tour or not, you will be enthralled by the sight of bizarre rock formations, the Gurvansaikhan mountain range, and the long stretch of sand dunes, as well as forests of small saxaul trees and other lush desert vegetation.
Inclusions: Motorbike hire, petrol, transfers, support vehicles, hotel, ger camp accommodation, hire of tents, meals, mechanic, interpreter
2) Explore Mongolia’s Remote Zavkhan Province on Horseback
Zavkhan Trekking takes small groups into one of the more remote regions of Mongolia, traveling by horseback. Explore the steppe, forests, lakes and desert of Zavkhan in the centre of the country. Along the way, get to meet local nomadic people and experience their traditional way of life.
3) Trek up the Mount Kharkhiraa
Uvs province, situated in the far northwest part of Mongolia, presents a spectacular host of attractions, encompassing snow-capped mountains; raging, torrential rivers, refreshing lakes (saltwater and freshwater), and a fantastic variety of flora and fauna. Its residents use camels and horses as beasts of burden and their main mode of transportation. Get a good insight of how these people live. You can choose to be accompanied by local guides on horseback, with their camels carrying all the luggage and equipment.
UB’s Best Attractions
When it comes to a unique and immersive experience, Ulan Bator has everything that you need– and maybe even more. With its historic structures and modern attractions, you will enjoy the best of both worlds in this lovely Mongolian capital. So while you are in UB, take yourself to these attractions.
1) Gandan Monastery
Established in 1835, the Gandan Monastery is the present-day center for Sutra-Tantra Buddhism. Nestled in the hillside of Central Ulan Bator, the monastery is what remains to be the one of the few religious structures in the country after the socialist government decided to abolish the religion. Despite reopening in 1944 with only a handful of staff, the monastery has been able to reclaim its reputation as a center for cultural and religious heritage. The 400 monks living in the monastery is a sight to see, but the best attraction here remains to be 26.5-meter tall statue of Magjid Janraisig. The monastery is open daily from 9am to 9pm; entrance is free of charge.
Address: 1.5 KM north west of the central square, Ulaanbaatar
2) Choijin Lama Temple
The Choijin Lama Temple is a beautiful remnant of the communist regime. While others were completely destroyed, the temple was left intact and even preserved as a museum. Today, the four-temple complex is a hit amongst its tourists because of its historic Buddhist paintings and scriptures. Visit the statue of Buddha Sakyamuni in the main temple, and the papier mache sculptures in the Zuu temple. Honor the Bogdha Jevzundamba by paying a visit to the temple of peace. Admission price is USD 1.72.
Address: City Center
3) Bogd Khan Winter Palace
This ornate winter palace is one of the four original residences of Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, who was proclaimed Bogd Khan or emperor of Mongolia. Alongside the main structure – the winter palace – are the seven summer temples for prayer. Since the Bogd Khan’s death, the palace was converted into a museum complex where the emperor’s carriage and cultural artworks are being displayed. Entrance fee is USD 1.72.
Address: Chingisiin Örgön Chölöö
4) Sükhbaatar Square
The square was constructed to commemorate the heroic efforts of Damdin Sukhbaatar, who rendered the country free from Chinese invasion. The square is embellished with bronze statue of Sukhbaatar on top of his horse. Below the statue are his words when he declared the independence of Mongolia: “If we, the whole people, unite in our common effort and common will, there will be nothing in the world that we cannot achieve, that we will not have learnt or failed to do.”
Address: Sükhbaatar Square Central
5) Zaisan Hill Memorial
Located on a hill just outside the city is the Zaisan Hill Memorial, a monument that honors the brave Soviet and Mongolian souls who lost their lives during the Second World War. The journey to the memorial involves a steep climb, but once you are at the paramount, you will enjoy the views of the cityscape, as well as the sight of the majestic Tuul River, which is just close by.
Address: On a hill south of the city
Eating in Ulan Bator
Walking around the city square and visiting monuments and temples can be tiring, if not exhausting. As such, you need to energize yourself before you embark on another journey. Of course, the best way to replenish your lost fuel is to stock up on UB’s best foods. For an amazing gastronomic experience, make sure to dine at these top restaurants:
1) The Bull
Nothing compares to the fresh meat of just-herded animals. Tasty and juicy, fresh meat is just one of the many things you can enjoy at UB’s renowned Bull restaurant. It is also famous for its hot pots, which makes it the place to be for sick (or hung over) locals and travelers. If you are up for a rare aphrodisiac delicacy, make sure to order the resto’s house specialty: bull penis.
Address: Seoul Street
2) The Ivy
UB does not have a lot of options for fine dining restaurants, so if you are looking for a romantic dinner with your spouse, then your best choice (if not only choice) is the Ivy. Here, you can sample delicious international entrees, ranging from pasta to succulent steaks. The price is quite expensive though, but what can you expect? Ivy is about fine dining.
Address: Seoul Street
Got a hankering for Indian food? Even if you are in Ulan Bator, you can get your hands on the finest Indian delicacy at the Hazara restaurant. Its’ house specialty is the naan bread, which diners describe as a ‘melt in your mouth’ experience. Other must-try dishes include Hazara’s kabobs and curry dishes. The price is very reasonable; entrees range from USD 10-15 only.
Address: Peace Avenue 16, Behind the Wrestling Palace
4) Luna Blanca
If you are a vegan, you can still enjoy a delicious and hearty meal at UB’s famed Luna Blanca restaurant. Founded in 2008 by three Mongolian women who are advocates of healthy living, Luna Blanca takes pride in its 100% vegan delicacies, which includes vegan meat, vegan mayonnaise and vegan hot sauce. Its tasty yet healthy international and fusion vegetarian entrees cost anywhere from USD 3-15.
Address: Tourist Street, Chingeltei District
5) Turning Point Café
Looking for a nice place where you can enjoy sumptuous European food and fine wines? Then the Turning Point Café should be at the top of your list. Famous for its bar scene, Turning Point is the go-to place for diners who want to lay back, relax, and listen to soothing jazz music. Here, you can discover the musical gems that only Ulan Bator can bring to the table.
Address: Sukhbaatar District, Khoroo 4, Tserendorj Street
Where to Stay in Ulan Bator
Unlike other capitals, Ulan Bator only has a handful of hotel options for tourists. Despite the limited number of hotels in UB, you can enjoy a great stay by staying at these top accommodation choices:
1) Ramada Ulaanbaatar City Center
Ramada, a 4-star hotel situated in the city’s downtown district, is hailed as one of the best hotels in the capital. After all, this 17-story feat of architecture features a 5-storey mall and art gallery, making it the perfect location for shoppers and art enthusiasts alike. At Ramada, you need not worry about the language barrier since most of its staff members are proficient in English. The room rate is affordable too (USD 193 per night, inclusive of breakfast.)
Address: 17th Khoroo Gandan, Peace Avenue 35/1, Bayangol District
2) Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace
Considered as the best hotel in UB, Kempinski offers clean and spacious rooms at affordable rates, starting at just USD 266 (breakfast included). Kempinski is also famous for its big bathrooms, which is a definite plus factor for travelers who are picky about personal care. Kempinski is also near the Sukhbaatar Square – so you can visit Mongolia’s top site in as short as 10 minutes.
Address: East Cross Road, Peace Avenue, Bayanzurkh District
3) New West Hotel
Do you have a limited budget for your hotel stay? Fret not because you can have a comfortable yet cheap stay at the New West Hotel. Rooms are spacious and clean, and you can dine on free breakfast for a nightly rate of as low as USD 123. Despite its cheap cost, New West boasts of a central location, therefore making it the best hotel for bargain hunters.
Address: Bayangol District, 10th Horoolol, Peace Avenue
As you explore UB from different angles, you get to learn the resilience of the ex-nomads who, in the recent years, have moved to the city to seek greener pastures after the merciless winters have destroyed their livestock. This speaks of the significant part of the city’s history, culture, and struggles, and unlocks its many secrets: UB, as drab-looking and desolate as it may seem, is one mystical destination that is sure to capture the fascination of its visitors.