During my short stay in Mongolia I spent most of the time in its capital: Ulaanbaatar or, as it was previously known and still called sometime, Ulan Bator. I’ve decided to turn this experience in a little guide to the city and its most important sights evaluated according my personal impression. Ulaanbaatar is a huge city so I will split the entire story in two parts. This is the first post. One more will come out pretty soon.
An overview of the town.
Ulaabaatar is big, it hosts about 50% of entire country’s population, that means little less than 1.5 million people but nevertheless, most of the sights are in the centre or at a walkable distance from it. I have to say in advance that, if it is not raining, for me “walkable distance” could also mean 3-4 kilometres especially if I’m pushed in this direction by dishonest taxi drivers, chaotic traffic, lack of a subway, buses whose destination is hard to guess and where is mandatory to pay with the local card. Am I talking about Ulaanbaatar? Oh, yes! However, I have to say that orientation in Ulaanbaatar is not so complicate. Main street listed on all guides as “Peace avenue” but unknown to locals with this name (for them is the easy to memorize “Enkh Taivny Örgön Chölöö”), goes on a East/West axis and allows to reach most points of interest. Furthermore as it always happens, walking you have the chance to discover unexpected or less known sights. For example walking toward the main square of the town I found a big statue of Marco Polo. For an Italian doing the trip around the world meeting the greatest Italian traveler ever, even if in marble and it looks a bit Mongol, it is always an heart warming experience… 🙂
Sights along Peace Avenue.
In this first part of my travel guide to Ulaanbaatar, I will describe a bunch of interesting places located along Peace Avenue or whatever is called. Don’t be scared by my introduction above. For none of the sights I’m going to describe it will be needed a 3km. walk, at least if you are reasonably close to the main square of the town.
Chinggis Khan Square
…and then let’s start right from the main square of Ulaanbaatar: the monumental Chinggis Khan square. First of all, let’s clarify that Chinggis Khaan is the same guy that in the West is known as Genghis Khan. The square was named after Damdin Sükhbaatar until 2013 and most of the people here still keep calling it Sükhbaatar square and with a reason. If Chinggis Khaan reminds of a glorious but remote past in which a Mongolian was king of China, Damdin Sükhbaatar, the red hero that gives the name to the town (see the explanation in my post about Ulan Ude) more recently, in 1921, declared the country’s independence from that same China. Said that, there is one more thing I have to frankly say: the square for me is ugly. I wanted to find a more polite form to say it but I was afraid to be misunderstood. To me is just a huge square without any real appealing landmark. There is the obvious statue of Chinggis Khan in the middle but too small compared to the size of the square. Stairs of Mongolian Statehood History Museum on the north side of the square are likely perfect for brides taking pictures for the wedding but I cannot say it impressed me that much. Most pleasant thing of the square is that, being the central meeting point, is always a great place to see something happening. I saw policemen on a bike, young athletes with sport medals around their necks, wedding pictures and peaceful demonstration of people with red flags. In other words to me, better the content (beautiful people in the square) than the container (the square itself).
On the north-west corner of Chinggis Khan square there is National Museum. It is definitely an interesting place for all who wants to know more about the history of the country. Ground floor exhibits very ancient items including tools from stone age, pictures of petroglyphs and beautiful golden jewels. On the upper floor there is plenty of costumes and some anthropomorphic stele. Of course the most important part is dedicated to the Mongol empire that, it is important to remind it, was the largest contiguous land empire in history extending on large part of Asia and most of Eastern Europe. I liked the museum also because of good descriptions in English. I was also impressed by the Mongolian script, very peculiar to me, since it is written vertically. It was replaced by Cyrillic in 1946 but it is still used in official statements. You can see it also used on the banknotes.
Choijin Lama Temple Museum
Very close to Chinggis Khan Square is a former Buddhist monastery. Going south of the square, just separated from it by some big building, you will be able to see some temple roof behind a wall. Entrance to the museum however, is on the southern side so you need to follow a small unpleasant small street along the walls of the monastery. What impressed me of this place is that it is surrounded by modern and tall buildings and it seemed to me a miracle that it is still there and the area is not 100% “modernized”. Actually, as far as I read, it should have been demolished in 1938 when ended to be a worship place but for some unclear reason was “saved” and luckily it is still there for tourists since believers go somewhere else. Entrance is not very well signposted and I’ve found it when I’ve almost gave up thinking it was temporarily closed. In the monastery area there are five temples built at the beginning of XX century, nothing so “historical” then. However, some nice statue and some other religious item makes this sight an interesting place to spend about half an hour.
I’m afraid you will not find it in any tourist guide except this one but, very close to above mentioned Buddhist complex there is a very peculiar and interesting statue. It represents the alien of the movie “Predator” riding a motorbike shaped in perfect “Alien” (the movie) style, including a monster face. This kind of mashup of sci-fi movies put together two strong innovators. One is the great H.R.Giger whose work represents a turning point in the idea of starships in films that before him was still stuck to the tidy and sophisticated atmospheres of “A Space Odissey”. The other is Stan Winston that designed the alien of movie Predator. So, if you liked the movie Alien vs. Predator, here in Ulaanbaatar you could find something appealing.
Monument to Beatles
It is a monument rarely missed by tourists even if pretty horrible. You can find it in Tserendorjiin Gudamj. I’m talking of a big red apple-shaped wall with a bronze high-reliefs of the fab four on it. Paul is standing barefoot (conspiracy theory is still alive!) while other three guys from Liverpool are walking away in a ridiculous pose halfway between the Italian tarantella and a drunken men choir. I don’t want to argue, I understand how was important for locals listening to western music in ’70s as act of rebellion and therefore I understand also why they decided to erect this “thing” in 2008 but I’m wondering why it was so difficult to do something better than this. At the end of the street there is the circus building in the usual UFO like shape, as I saw in many Russian towns. By the way, this is not the only “UFO” in Ulaanbaatar. At the end of Peace Avenue there is a similar building hosting the Wrestling events but only in season.
State Department Store
Close to “Beatles square”, along Peace Avenue, you will find the big building of the State Department Store. To be honest, after having seen some other shops and supermarkets, I didn’t expect the nice mall it actually is. By the way here you will find the official tourist information office, the only one I’ve seen in town. There are many others showing a “Tourist Info” sign but are just travel agencies selling tour packets. This one instead is managed by Mongolian Tourist Board and people are very friendly and competent. They also sell excursions but, if you like, they are also ready to explain you how to get to other towns on your own, if there is such chance (!). Getting back to the mall there are many shops on its six floors selling many different items. The one I liked most is the musical instruments shop located at the last floor. As I saw so many instruments for the first time I also asked for a demonstration and the assistant was so nice to play for me some of the weirdest ones.
End of first post with some music and photo
Most of the instruments I saw in State Department store were actually played by a band I saw in a restaurant while I was dining. I didn’t miss the chance to record a video and you can see it here.
It was traditional music but with a very modern arrangement. I liked it a lot. Talking about traditions, it is my personal tradition to leave you with a photo gallery and I don’t want to stop this habit therefore here it comes a huge gallery of pictures so far unreleased on Facebook or other media. Last by not least. Did you like this post? Then you would maybe like to read second half of my guide to Ulaanbaatar.