Impressions Of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Filed Under: Travel

I’ve just wrapped up a two day visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and truth be told I had no clue what to expect going in.

The more places I’ve traveled to, the more I’ve found that I have the best time at the destinations where I come in with few expectations. I really had no sense of what modern day Mongolia would be like. Obviously this is a country with rich history, though nowadays it’s not often I hear things about it.

Since I was only there for two days I just stayed in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia is high on Ford’s list of places to visit, so hopefully we can go back sometimes soon and visit the Gobi Desert as well.

I figured I’d share my impressions of Ulaanbaatar, in no particular order. I’m not suggesting these are the biggest things to know about the city, but rather that it’s what stuck out to me the most:

Ulaanbaatar is a vibrant city

Ulaanbaatar isn’t Hong Kong or London, but I was pleasantly surprised by the city as such. To me it felt like a cross between Moscow and Astana, though on a much smaller scale. The Soviet influence is apparent in much of the architecture, though that’s also mixed with more modern buildings. Walking around the city was fascinating, given how varied the architecture was.

No, Ulaanbaatar isn’t the most exciting city as a tourist. I spent an afternoon walking around the city, and feel like I covered it pretty well.

Is Ulaanbaatar the karaoke capital of the world?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many karaoke bars per capita as I saw in Ulaanbaatar. Without exaggerating, I felt like there was a karaoke bar on almost every block.

There’s quite a bit to do just outside the city

For my full day in Mongolia I decided to do a tour outside the city. This included visiting the Chinggis Khaan statue, which was impressive.

You can even walk all the way up to the top of the “horse,” which is pretty cool.

I also visited the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which is just about an hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. It was stunning.

What amazed me most about the national park was how varied the landscape was. One mile you had what looked like a desert with all kinds of rocks, and then the next mile you had what looked like a lush forest.

The people were friendly & interesting

The history of Mongolia is so rich, and the people reflect that. I was fascinated by every aspect of the people there, from the language, to how they live (3o% of Mongolians are still nomadic), to what they do in their spare time, etc.

For example, the guy who gave me a tour was a Mormon who is going to BYU soon. Hah.

Everyone I interacted with was genuinely accommodating and well intentioned. No, you won’t get a lot of artificial smiles or over the top service, but that’s hardly surprising.

I also felt safe everywhere I went, and no one tried to rip me off (not even taxi drivers).

Traffic is apparently terrible, but…

A friend visited Ulaanbaatar a few weeks ago and told me that traffic was about the worst he has seen anywhere (worse than Los Angeles, etc.). Without know a whole lot about Ulaanbaatar, I wouldn’t have expected it to be a terrible traffic city.

I was visiting over Mongolia’s Naadam Holiday, so I assumed that would make traffic worse (since everyone would be out and about, I thought), but the opposite was true. There was a bit of congestion, but traffic certainly wasn’t terrible.

However, apparently it can sometimes take two hours just to drive a few miles across town.

Ulaanbaatar is CHEAP

This is hardly surprising, but visiting Ulaanbaatar is an excellent value. My guide and I had a great meal at a restaurant for under $5. Hell, even snacks and drinks in my hotel room minibar were ~$1. The 30 minute drive from the airport cost less than $10. Entry to all major exhibits was $1-2 at most.

Along similar lines, Mongolia’s currency doesn’t have any coins, but rather just bills. I have the equivalent of about ~20USD remaining, and based on my wad of cash I feel like I’m smuggling money.

So, is Mongolia worth a visit?

Even though I was only in Mongolia for two days, I had an incredible time and can’t wait to return. If you’re pressed for time, I think a three day trip to Ulaanbaatar and surrounding areas is better than nothing. I wish I had another day to explore the city, and possibly to stay in a yurt (I’ve heard the HS Khaan Resort is great, and it’s not far from the city)

If you have more time, I’ve heard the Gobi Desert is incredible, so that’s next on my list.

I’m glad I had the chance to visit Mongolia, if only briefly.

If you’ve visited Mongolia, what was your experience like? If you haven’t, is Mongolia on your radar?

  1. @Lucky – awesome, hope to get there soon.

    For hotels from the major chains I know it’s limited. But hoping you stayed at the Shang there as I hear it is stunning!

  2. Lucky, I’m surprised about what you say about the karaoke bars in Mongolia because everywhere I go in Tokyo I see karaoke places! In one Shinjuku street alone there’ll be at least 10.

    Mongolia sounds interesting, I’m really hoping to go there soon!

  3. Thanks for the report, Ben! I’m working it into a RTW adventure next year and am happy to hear 2 days should be enough

  4. Perfect timing Ben, sinjust like @James I too am putting together a RTW trip for next year and ULN will be my first overnight stop on that journey. The 2 days you recommended sound perfect , so thanks for your impressions!

  5. Ben how did you drive around in Mongolia? Did you hire a car to do it for you? Or was it a part of some tour? Or something else?

  6. My poor dear Ben…at this point you would find a North Korean Prison Camp interesting and dynamic.

  7. Yup, been to ULN. I drove a POS car from London to Ulaanbaatar, probably the greatest adventure on earth.

  8. Did you get dressed up in warrior garb under the statue, Lucky? C’mon, post the photos! 🙂

  9. @Lucky you’ve been to Korea, right? It’s not just karaoke on every block, but 4-10 karaoke bars on every block! You probably didn’t see it because it doesn’t say “Karaoke” instead it’s written in Korean but trust me……. They’re everywhere here.

  10. I visited Mongolia for my 40th birthday in 2005 and spent 9 days there. It was a great experience and I highly recommend it. For the exception of visiting an awesomely creative game/ puzzle shop/museum in UB and the state museum, we had much better experiences heading west (and back) and then jumping on a plane south to (as I recall without checking) a town with a long name starting with a D. We only spent 3 nights in UB coming/going/in transit.
    The other highlight was that my friends and I got a private meeting with the (female) leader of the Dalai Lama’s Yellow Sash Sect far up in the mountains in her yurt. We also saw the ruins of the Genghis Khan fortress and I found a rare 1865 Seated Liberty Silver Dollar while there!

  11. “The history of Mongolia is so rich“ –

    Laughable ignorance. Look, every place has its history and heritage, but if you know ANYTHING about Mongolian history, I wouldn’t call it rich, relative to neighboring countries.

    ”Ulaanbaatar is CHEAP

    This is hardly surprising, but visiting Ulaanbaatar is an excellent value. My guide and I had a great meal at a restaurant for under $5. Hell, even snacks and drinks in my hotel room minibar were ~$1. The 30 minute drive from the airport cost less than $10. Entry to all major exhibits was $1-2 at most.”

    What planet are you from? Oh, right, Florida. Are you seriously using Western, developed country standards to judge the living standards and value of a foreign, developing country? You’re an absolute joke.

  12. @sunshine weng when a visitor to a country calls it “cheap” they’re not commenting on living standards – they’re commenting on the cost of visiting relative to other places they’ve visited or comparing it to where they come from.

    Not sure why you don’t already know that but perhaps before calling someone a “joke” you could take some time to make sure you actually understand what the author is saying before you comment…..that would go a long way to ensuring that others don’t consider you to be….oh what’s the best word to use here…..ah yes….a joke.

  13. Ziggy, so you’re also the type of dupes who pays Western prices for local goods in developing countries. Love it. That just contributes to the perception in many places where Westerners are easy preys to rip off. Ms. Weng signing off.

  14. @Sunshine Weng – are you always this inconsistent? First you blast Ben for saying Mongolia has a “rich history” by comparing Mongolia to other countries, then you whip right around and blast him for saying Mongolia is “cheap” for (implicitly)…wait for it…comparing it to other countries.

    And if you think Ben is a “joke”, why are you, so obviously a much more learned and superior person, bothering to read his blog?

    By the way, the plural of “prey” is “prey”. And many people from relatively wealthy countries are willing to pay higher prices because:
    1) we’re just not good at haggling, it not being a customary practice in our societies, and
    2) we feel (rightly or wrongly) that if we insist on getting the same price as a local, we’re taking advantage of them.

  15. Sunshine Weng wishes prices were like what they were before globalization. Someone from the West would never understand how the wage/price gap increased during the past decade.

    I wish people could keep the conversation civil though…

  16. @Lucky did you manage to go to the Naadam Festival in UB at all? The wrestling is a must-see!

  17. You went during Naadam so hopefully you attended the festival!? It’s such a highlight of travel to Mongolia!

  18. I read somewhere that nightlife in Ulan is actually very dangerous for visitors because locals can become very violent against non-Mongolians after a few drinks. Guessing you didn’t hit the clubs while there.

  19. I believe that technically you were smuggling money, as it is illegal to take more MNT out of the country than you brought in with you (which was presumably none).

  20. @Lucky- I visited Mongolia first in 1988 and go back once every few years. It’s amazing to observe the transition of the economy, infrastructure and culture. I am happy to see you made a trip there and formed a good experience.

  21. @sunshine weng You’re clearly not very good at arguing a point (but thanks for the entertainment)

    If I was one of the “dupes who pays Western prices for local goods in developing countries” if hardly think things were cheap would I?

    Have another go at being smart and see if you can do better.

  22. @sunshine weng You’re clearly not very good at arguing a point (but thanks for the entertainment)

    If I was one of the “dupes who pays Western prices for local goods in developing countries” I’d hardly think things were cheap would I?

    Have another go at being smart and see if you can do better.

  23. @lucky – BYU is an incredibly vibrant University that attracts people from all around the world. I’m glad you met your guide, you now have had a taste of the world-traveler ease that can be found at BYU

  24. In terms of traffic clearly your friend has never been to Vietnam if he is using LA as the yardstick for terrible traffic on a global scale.

  25. @Warren yea I’m sure Korea excels at karaoke bars. No way does Mongolia out do them on that front.

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