What can you do and see in a day in Ulan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia? When I looked back at my iPhone photos and my husband's Nikon camera, I was taken aback with the vast numbers of photos we took that showed what we did on the first day in Ulan Bator. All these sightseeing, shopping and food experiences would not have happened without the guidance of a local tour guide, a tour leader and our willingness to explore as a family (there were just the four of us in the tour group).
Upon arrival at 6:10 am we were met by Amran, our tour guide and his driver outside the train station. They immediately brought us to a downtown money exchange place. The store was already filling up with tourists at 6:30am.
With the Tugrik, the Mongolian currency in hand we were scheduled to have breakfast in a café. Amran said we were heading to Café Amsterdam, a café catered for foreign tourists. We quickly asked for breakfast in a local restaurant. Though longing for a nice cup of espresso, I agreed with my husband and the tour leader that we should try the local breakfast. You can read about my Mongolian coffee and breakfast experience at coffeesphere.com.
Ulan Bator or Ulaan Bataar, another way to spell the capital city of Mongolia is one hour ahead of Irkutsk. There is no jetlag issue so by 8 am we were already checked in to our three-star Voyage Hotel Plus.
The hotel is located in a bumpy back road in the heart of Ulan Bator, within walking distance to the city square and restaurants.
At 9 am Amran was back to pick us up for a half-day tour. First stop Gandantegchinlen Monastery. The Gandan Monastery is a restored Tibetan-style monastery destroyed by the Communists during the Soviet rule. At one time the monastery had over 5,000 monks.
This impressive monastery had all the rituals going while we visited. The beating of a gong was followed by hundreds of pigeons flying all over the monastery main entrance as monks chanted and walked into the temple in their red robes. Men and women were going around spinning the prayer wheels located around the perimeter of the buildings. Inside the monks and students were chanting from the holy books. Most were caught staring at visitors instead of focusing on their chants.
It’s hard to believe that all these rituals were forbidden and the gilded statue of Buddha was absent from 1938 to the early 1990s when these were part of their lifestyle for many years.
Lots of effort was made to restore Gandan Monastery including restoring the Buddha statue, known as Migjid Janraisig after the fall of communism in Mongolia in 1990. The statue is made with 2,286 precious stones and gilded gold leaf. It is the third largest in the world at 26.5 meters high. She or he is surrounded by over 5,000 smaller buddhas.
Buddhism has been flourishing in Ulan Bator since 1990. Amran said shamanism is also being practice in Ulan Bator. But there are more in the northern part of the country where his family lives.
At the Gandan Monastery we learned about the importance of Buddhism and how the Marxist rulers were against any forms of worship. The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan gave us a glimpse into the life of the Khans of Mongolia – their devotion to Buddhism and their ties to Tibet.
Amran, the guide said, Bogd Khan is a reincarnated living Buddha-king from Tibet. So all kings in Mongolia were reincarnated Buddhas.
The Winter Palace is the only remaining building out of four of the original residences of the eighth Bogd Khan, emperor of Mongolia. Inside the Winter Palace complex were six temples, displays of things belonging to the Bogd Khan and his family members including art and stuffed animals (live stuffed animals). We saw a pair of ceremonial boots given by Tsar Nicholas II to the Bogd Khan.
For a view of the city we walked the 300 steps at The Zaisan Memorial. This memorial was built to honor the Soviet soldiers killed in World War II and remembering the Russian-Mongolian friendship. Zaisan is also a place to see locals hanging out with their family and friends, taking photos and enjoying the view of the city.
That was the end of the guided tour with Amran for the day where we were then being dropped off at the city center for lunch. Having noodles for breakfast left us wanting something to go with either coffee or tea for lunch. We settled for Bon Bon Bakery.
Bon Bon Bakery, located about 10 minutes walk from the hotel was our best finds in Ulan Bator. It served good Korean and Chinese pastries almost like those found in Chinatown.
The city center is quite safe to walk around. Sukhbataar Square, the city’s famous square is only a 15-minute walk from the hotel.
When in Mongolia you can’t get away from the name Genghis Khan or Chinggis Khan in Mongolian. I found beer, vodka, 3-in-1 coffee and shops named after the country’s greatest warrior and son. His name was banned during Communist rule.
You can see his 40 meters statue at Sukhbataar Square.
Peace Avenue is the main street and the shopping street in Ulan Bator. Souvenir shops, cashmere shops and the famous State Department Store are located on the avenue. My husband and I tried a couple of 100% pure cashmere outfits. None of the sales attendants spoke any English. I’m glad we managed to purchase one soft high quality cashmere blouse.
Dinner was set at 7:30pm at Modern Nomads. Amran had made a reservation earlier. The restaurant was a 10-minute walk from the hotel. At the Modern Nomads we had all the exotic “unknown” body parts of animals served in a lamb skull. Also a barbecue platter of the Five Snouts – traditional Mongolian dish of horse meat, yak meat, goat meat, lamb minus the camel meat.
We were seated in a private room with our own waiter, a buzzer to call on him anytime we want and warm fresh towels before our meal. Modern Nomads also serves a variety of beer, wine and local drinks like this white popcorn milk drink.
I would recommend Modern Nomads if you have the time for dinner in Ulan Bator. It serves traditional food in a modern setting. It is a chain of restaurants in Ulan Bator that offers great service, affordable prices and great drinks.
We did quite a bit in a day. Come back again for our stories on ger camping in Mongolia.
Note: When in Ulan Bator beware of manholes. Yes, there are many and you may not be aware of them when walking on dimly lit back streets. You don’t want to see yourself inside one of those (found in front of the Voyage Hotel Plus).