Hello, Weekenders! We are very happy and super excited to announce our collaboration with Travel Blogger – Patrick Kelly. From now on he will be sharing his travel experiences, adventures and stories with all of you through our blog WeekendTrivia as a Guest Writer. His Guest Blogs will be updated on Thursdays. So keep an eye out for his blogs.
Today’s Location – Ulaanbaatar, the changing face of a nation.
Chances are this’ll be your starting point for any trip exploring the vast, largely untouched country that is Mongolia.
And all things considered, it’s really an interesting place to start with.
Nearly half the country’s population (some 1.3 million people) call this city home. That number is likely set to rise with a flurry of new developments taking place. Honestly, it was one of the first things I noticed when coming from Chinggis Khaan International Airport. Everywhere, luxury high-rise apartments and new office buildings seem to be popping up, virtually overnight in some areas.
But, for as cosmopolitan as Ulaanbaatar is, with its wild traffic, nightlife, and bohemianism – you’ll see plenty of mohawks and maybe The HU – it remains a place where you still can experience traditional Mongolian culture.
Roughly 62% of the city’s population lives in the so-called ger district, where this kind of nomadic housing is commonplace.
Nomads from the steppe walk the city streets, there’s a giant Soyombo on a hillside, and monks can be found chanting at Gandan Khiid.
It’s a city of contrasts, a blend of old and new, that definitely is worth checking out before continuing on elsewhere. With that being said, here are my recommendations for a few must-see sights in UB.
Hero of the Revolution –
In the center of Ulaanbaatar, you’ll find Sukhbaatar Square.
Featuring a bronze statue of Damdinii Sukhbaatar, a founding member of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, it was here the country’s independence from China was officially declared in 1921.
Mongolia’s political history can be a rather complicated subject, depending on who you ask, but Outer Mongolia was essentially under the control of Bogd Khan – who’s going to be something of a reoccurring character – in the beginning half of the 20th century.
His government, however, was largely beholden to Tsarist Russia, that is, until a period in the 1900s when Moscow itself struggled with revolution and civil war following the First World War.
Without Russian protection, China sought to exert its influence over the whole of Mongolia, having already gained control of Inner Mongolia during the 17th century.
Sukhbaatar would emerge as a leader of the opposition, spearheading a military campaign first against the Chinese and then members of the anti-Bolshevik White Army who then occupied parts of northern Mongolia.
More recently, the square was the site of peaceful demonstrations in the 1990s that eventually ushered in country’s era of democracy, as evidenced by Saaral Ordon (nicknamed the Grey Palace), which houses Mongolia’s parliament. Completed just before the 800th anniversary of Chinggis Khaan’s coronation, it features bronze statues of the Khaan, alongside his relatives, Ogedei and Kublai.
Within walking distance, you’ll also find the Cultural Palace – which houses the Mongolian National Art Gallery – the State Opera & Ballet Theater, the National Museum of Mongolia, and Central Tower—a gleaming icon of new Ulaanbaatar.
Overall, not a bad place to start your day exploring the city, which is exactly what I did.
Next up, the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan.
Spared from destruction, unlike the Summer Palace on the banks of the Tuul River, it was built between 1893 and 1903, serving as the Buddhist king’s residence for nearly 20 years.
The place is a must-see for any history or architecture lovers.
There are six temples on the palace grounds, each containing Buddhist artwork and sculptures, alongside a rather impressive collection of items from the Bogd Khan’s life—which include the Mongolian Declaration of Independence (from China in 1911) and a sizable number of taxidermized animals, a few having come from his personal zoo.
It’s also a great location for seeing the contrast between traditional and modern Ulaanbaatar.
The palace itself is…well, quite old, featuring beautifully intricate Chinese-style architecture, along with some buildings that have a noticeable Russian influence. And, just beyond the palace walls, you can glimpse the city that pretty much encircles you, with its mix of steel and glass.
Just south of Sukhbaatar Square, the Winter Palace is still a bit of a trek. So, I’d recommend catching a taxi or taking bus 7/9 there.
A Place of Complete Joy
I borrowed my little sub-heading there from Gandantegchinlen Monastery, or Gandan Khiid for short, which roughly translates as “the great place of complete joy” in Mongolian.
One of just a few monasteries to have survived a violent purge of Mongolia’s religious heritage in the early 20th century, it remains an important center of Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar—with more than 600 monks in-residence today.
The monastery was once renowned for housing a 32 meter (about 105 foot) tall statue of Megjid-Janraiseg. It was erected in 1913 thanks largely to donations from the Mongolian people for Bogd Khan, in hopes that it might restore his eyesight. Syphilis having blinded him.
However, during the 1930s, a nation-wide campaign of destruction was sanctioned by the communist government (under considerable pressure from Joseph Stalin), which resulted in the loss of some 900 monasteries and the deaths of more than 10,000 people across Mongolia.
Russian troops would also dismantle the original copper statue of Megjid-Janraiseg, reportedly melting it down to make bullets.
Following democratization, a new statue was installed, which (fun fact) is hallow and contains: 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 334 sutras, two million bundles of mantras, plus an entire ger!
Wandering around Gandan Khiid and the many buildings here, is like stepping into another world. And, if you get there early enough, you might catch one of the daily ceremonies that usually begin around 9:00 AM.
Just remember, photos are not allowed in Migjid Janraisig Sum, the main building housing the Megjid-Janraiseg statue.
Reflecting on the Past
This one is a bit of a hike, but completely worth it. Even if you’re not a history buff.
Built to commemorate “unknown soldiers and heroes” from World War II, Zaisan Memorial sits atop a pretty steep hill just south of the city.
Like I said, chances are you might be a little short of breath after climbing the stairs, but the views are unparalleled anywhere else in Ulaanbaatar.
Keep your eyes peeled for a Soyombo, the national symbol of Mongolia, on a nearby hillside.
It’s also on the Mongolian flag!
Not only do you get a beautiful view of the city here – slightly obscured now because of some rather unfortunately placed high-rise commercial developments –but Zaisan itself features stunning Soviet reliefs and mosaics.
It’s a nice way to wrap up a day of sightseeing and catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the city limits.
Bus 8 or 52 from downtown will take you straight to the memorial’s base.
Of course, there is much more to see and do in Ulaanbaatar, from Red Ger Art Gallery to Tasgany Ovoo.
I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of Ulaanbaatar, and maybe, it’ll help with planning your own Mongolian adventure.
As for me, my travels would continue off grid, as I began exploring the great expanse known as the steppe.
Thank You Patrick, for the first blog, we look forward to your many exciting adventures..!