“What did you buy in the city?” was a question everyone was asked when they returned from the capital city of Mongolia. In a country the size of Texas and sparsely populated with only 3,000,000 people it is not possible to have many cities. There are a handful of provincial towns (aimags in Mongolian) and even more villages (soums) but cities, there is only one: Ulaanbaatar. Today I’m going to tell you about Ulaanbaatar (called UB by most people), the coldest capital city on earth and a place I know very well from my time in the Peace Corps.
The city is bustling and jam-packed with people many of whom live there and many more just passing through to get somewhere else. All roads (the few that they have in Mongolia) lead to UB and there are two major ground transportation hubs that service the Eastern and Western portions of the country. They are chock full of private cars, taxi drivers, vans, small buses, and large buses all waiting to transport people, their goods, and sometimes animals cross-country. The UB airport has flights daily that go to various other countries in Asia. An off shoot of the Trans-Siberian railroad passes through the capital on its way to Ulan-Ude, Russia or Beijing, China.
There are huge markets selling everything under the sun. Many people will travel to the capital a few times a year to stock up on items they otherwise can’t in their towns and villages. If you want specialty items or imported goods you’ll find them in shops tucked away behind the main roads. Most of the time, if you’re passing through UB you’ll have a list of things to buy either for yourself but always for other people. When I heard of someone going to UB I would give them my list and some money, praying that there would be broccoli at the specialty market and that peanut butter hadn’t gone up in price for the third time that year.
For me, UB was a world apart from my daily life in Ondorkhaan. The pace of city life was faster, dirtier, and chaotic. In the summertime, cafes and beer gardens are plentiful and the weather is perfect for spending time outside. However, come the cold months (usually October-April) the pollution becomes so horrible it rivals that of Beijing. Despite the layers of smoke and crazy drivers in my opinion UB has a lot to offer. There are plenty of wonderful museums to visit where you can learn more about Mongolia’s ancient and modern histories. At one museum there is an entire gallery filled with clothes typical of the 20+ Mongolian ethnic groups.
UB is not for newbie travelers. It can be done but it takes a lot of patience, grit, and miming. In the tourist areas many of the people have some English but it’s hit or miss. I would recommend booking with a travel agent or tour group for your visit to UB and Mongolia. Or, if you’re an adventurous traveler, get in touch with people living there through Couch Surfing or a friend of a friend of a friend! If you can get in with someone who knows some of the language they’ll be more than willing to make sure you have a wonderful trip. And, plan your trip for the summer months. You’ll still need a light jacket and pants because there is always a chance of rain or even snow!
Do you enjoy visiting cities when you travel? I like that they’re filled with history and lots of things to do. What are your impressions of Mongolia’s cold capital?
P.S. Check out my other post about where I lived in Mongolia HERE!
P.P.S. A video I took of landing at the airport in UB: