Mongolian Modern

For MT
It's unsurprising that Mongolia remains an exotic destination, one that few travelers consider -- or even know anything about. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, and has not been a great source of headlines since the days of Genghis Khan. Visitors to Ulan Bator will therefore be surprised by the sleek city center, where modern-day hordes of businesspeople scurry amid a wealth of new construction. Although the center might seem characterless at first, Ulan Bator offers a relative wealth of attractions for such a small city.

The Mongolian capital started its existence as a nomadic outpost, shifting position slowly along the banks of the surrounding rivers. Founded in 1639 about 400 kilometers from its current location, the city was moved frequently. Its present site on the banks of the Tuul River was chosen about 140 years ago, when it was on the tea road between China and Russia. Despite the modern glass-and-steel buildings in central Ulan Bator, a 10-minute walk in any direction will take you into more traditional Mongolian neighborhoods, where most people continue to live in gers -- traditional, round tents made of felt. Nowhere is the contrast between the modern and the traditional that epitomizes Ulan Bator more evident or more incongruous than in these neighborhoods, and exploring them is an interesting way to pass a few hours. Students and young professionals in fashionable outfits rub shoulders with boys herding enormous flocks of goats along the dusty roads.

In contrast, the center is not particularly enticing to casual amblers. Fighting between the Chinese and Soviet armies, together with the inevitable Soviet concrete makeover, have destroyed much of the city's once-renowned Buddhist architecture. One of the only remaining examples is the imposing monastery of Gandantegchinlen Khiid, which was left intact through Mongolia's years of Communist rule as a token example of the government's supposed religious tolerance. The monastery complex consists of several separate temples and libraries. The centerpiece is the towering Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara, which is the home of the colossal Migiid Janraisig statue. The original statue was removed by the Soviets in 1938 and was supposedly melted down to make bullets. The new, gilded version was completed in 1996 and contains 2 million bundles of holy mantras in its hollow interior.

Ed Pulford / For MT
A statue of D. Natsagdorzh, the father of Mongolian literature, stands out in the city.

The Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery is another of the city's best attractions. It receives few visitors, meaning that you are likely to have the two floors of varied paintings and sculptures more or less to yourself. The varied exhibits explore the quintessentially Mongolian themes of loneliness, bleak wilderness and the kinship between herders and their animals.

Undoubtedly the most popular time to visit Ulan Bator is during the Naadam festival, held annually on July 11 and 12. The festival features traditional pursuits such as archery, horse racing and wrestling. Festivities are held throughout the country on these dates, although the games in Ulan Bator are by far the most popular with Mongolians and tourists alike. Anyone who wants to prove their mettle can enter the games: the wrestling events are particularly popular with foreign visitors. Be sure to book accommodation if you plan to arrive in Ulan Bator during Naadam, as places fill up weeks in advance.

How to Get There

By air: Aeroflot flies from Moscow to Ulan Bator on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The plane comes back on the following day. Tickets start from 19,893 rubles.

By train: Trains leave from Yaroslavsky Station every Tuesday and Wednesday and take four days to make the journey. Kupe class tickets cost around 8,500 rubles, and a space in platskart will set you back around 5,500. Tickets are cheaper when you book in advance.

What to See

Gandantegchinlen Khiid

Situated on a hill overlooking the city, the monastery complex is Ulan Bator's finest example of Buddhist architecture. Get there early to catch a morning ceremony.

Ondor Gegeen Zanabazaryn street

Mongolian National Modern Art GalleryA varied collection of contemporary Mongolian art, which provides a fascinating perspective on traditional Mongolian culture. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, closed on Monday.

3 Sukhbaatar Square,(976)-11-322632

Where to Stay

Zaya Guesthouse

With several locations in the center, Zaya is one of the best choices. They offer comfortable rooms for $25 or dorm beds for $7. They can also help to arrange visas and tours.

Tserendorj Street 63, App 10-12,(976)-11-331575

Where to Eat

Khorgo Restaurant

Fill up on traditional Mongolian dishes such as buuz (enormous steamed meat dumplings) and tsuivan (fried noodles with mutton) at this atmospheric restaurant, conveniently located in the center.

2nd building, Urt Tsagaan,Tourist Street, (976)-11-315624