It was a long day. After crossing the border with Mongolia in Altanbulag, we grabbed the cab for some spare rubles to Sükhbaatar, 25 km away from where after 5 hours we took the bus to Ulaanbaatar (commonly known as UB).
The bus was full, some people were sitting even on the small plastic chairs in the aisle. Being the only foreigners in the bus, we were catching attention not only of adults but also of many kids that were just staring at us the whole way. Friendly family sitting next to us kept offering khuushuur – fried mutton pancakes while the TV’s on playing loud Mongolian and Russian music hits.
Outside the bus, there was nothing apart from empty steppes, dust storms and sheep constantly crossing the road but that didn’t really stop our driver from speeding and overtaking trucks on the partially covered asphalt road. The travel finished after 325 km in around 7 bumpy hours by arriving in chaotic bus station in UB. Our hostel was in small flat in one of the communistic blocks of flats in the city center. Some old man opened the door and not saying much showed us the room on the left hand side. It was nearly midnight.
Ulaanbaatar is the country’s cultural, industrial and financial heart. Located in north central Mongolia, it is the center of Mongolia’s road network and connected by rail to both the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chinese railway system. As the capital and largest city, UB is home to 1.3 million people – about 45% of the country’s population. Because of nomads and people leaving the countryside for more opportunities to earn living in the city, UB is growing faster than the center can accommodate the extra people and their cars. The traffic is wild and the city is jammed due to the lack of highways. There is public transportation in the form of overcrowded buses, but no subway to avoid the traffic. Additionally the city is located in a valley, which prevents air circulation. The busiest, most polluted and jammed main avenue is called Peace Avenue…
UB is definitely not the prettiest city. The city is a mix of concrete Soviet-style blocks of flats and modern glass skyscrapers. The city center stretches from the State Department Store and nearby square unofficially named the Beatles Square through the main Sükhbaatar / Chinggis Khaan Square with the Government Palace, Opera House and various museums to National Wrestling Palace.
The place we really enjoyed was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a Tibetan-style Buddhist monastery once a complex of more than 100 temples and monasteries. Today it is only a handful of the buildings that survived the religious purges of Stalin in 1937 as a ‘show monastery’ for foreign visitors until 1990 when the people of Mongolia started to openly practice Buddhism again and restore the monastery with donations. The monastery’s main attraction is the 26m high statue of Bodhisattva made of copper with a gilt gold covering, rebuilt in 1996. It was nice to visit this place in the morning during the praying time.
Another place that we liked is Zaisan Memorial, built by Russians as a monument to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. It is a tiled mural within a huge concrete ring but the real attraction is not a monument itself but a view over the city and good spot for sunset.
Last but not least: wrestling -national sport of Mongolia. Since it was weekend and there was a match at the wrestling stadium we decided to check it out. There were lots of giant men wearing traditional wrestling costumes comprised of a tight blue Speedo-type bottom and the top covering the arms and back with an open front showing the bare chest. The wrestlers move into the circle of spectators in pairs, the winners are pitted against winners. Each time they win they raise their arms and soar like an eagle to celebrate the victory.
First local experience checked. But that was only a beginning.