As the largest and most heavily populated city in Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is a logical place for many visitors to start their exploration of this beautiful country. Though the city itself can hardly be recognized for having a particularly clean environment, the pulsating hub of Mongolian commerce is home to both modern ways of life and the quaint and serene tradition of Mongolia’s rich culture and religion.
Nestled between four pine-laden sacred mountains on the bank of the Tuul River, there is a lot to do in Ulaanbaatar, from exploring its somewhat naughty and fast-paced nightlife to strolling through the relative ease and peacefulness of its temples and select nooks within the city, there is something for everyone. These are our top five things to see and do in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
1. Gandan Monastery
The foremost religious structure in the country, the 85-foot-high (26 meters) Gandan Monastery is one of the only Buddhist structures to survive the religiously oppressive communist regime of 30 years ago. The largest in the country, inside the temple is a wonderful gilded and jewel adorned 82-foot-tall (25 meter) statue of the Magjid Janraisig. Coming in at 20 tons, this behemoth is a functioning symbol of Mongolian post-communist revival. With services going on every morning, see entrancing Buddhists flock to the temple to pay homage to their spirituality and new freedoms.
2. The Museum of Natural History
For a real insight into Mongolia’s natural history, there is no better place to go than this museum. Complete with two full dinosaur skeletons, that of the 15-foot tall (4,5 meter) flesh-eating Tarosaurus and the duck-billed Saurolophus, the museum is an old but provides a detailed account of Mongolia’s storied natural past. Full of wonderful exhibits, be sure to see the geology section, full of interesting meteorites and minerals, or get to the several rooms displaying embalmed native animals. It has a terrific section showing ancient and modern flora and also includes a section on the origin of humans, so grab an English-written guide and wind your way through this insightful national landmark.
3. Naadam Festival
This is a bit of a special order, since it only happens in July, but if you can make it, you are in for a heck of a time. The biggest festival in Mongolia, this three-day annual event is a feast of national pastimes and tradition. “The three games of men” as they might call it, see celebrated Mongolian wrestlers pick their opponents and face off in a single elimination tournament as zasuuls sing in praise. The other two events, horseracing and archery, are a bit more close to home though with a bit of a twist.
4. The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan and Museum
Certainly one of the most interesting places you can go in Ulaanbaatar, the spanning complex contains six temples containing the many possessions of the early 20th-century Great Khhan known as Bogd Khan. It is the last remaining residence of the emperor and it contains his throne, bed, beautiful collection of art, and oddly enough, stuffed animals. It even has his boots, given to him as a gift by the famous Russian Tsar Nicholas II. Beyond this, there is much more to see, such as the Palace Museum.
5. Get to the Theaters
Mongolia has a pretty vibrant arts and culture community under several establishments. With places and groups around town such as the State Academic Drama Theater, the National Academic Ensemble of Folk Dance and Music, and the Mongolian State Puppet Theater, you get the chance to see one of the world’s most storied cultures at work. Enjoy a romantic evening at the Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet or check out the Symphony Orchestra or the Mongolian State Philharmonic. There’s something for all tastes.
- Philip Heijmans