First Impressions of Ulaanbaatar

We finally arrived in Mongolia at 5 PM on Friday despite United trying to foil us once again.

Our friend Katie got us in touch with a Mongolian guy, Bazo, who is just starting his own tour company. He picked us up from the airport in an awesome old Russian van. The drive took forever, and this is where we noticed the first thing about Ulaanbaatar: the traffic is intense. There seem to be few rules and fewer stoplights, though some intersections were manned by police. The other thing we noticed is that the streets were flooded – it has been raining in UB, when normally it doesn’t rain a lot.

Finally we made it to the guest house and got some dinner. Mostly it was ordered for us so I’m not totally sure what it all was, except that the fried thing is called khoshoor, and all the meat was mutton.

The food is rather rich, fatty, and greasy, and it gave me some bad heartburn. On top of that, UB is incredibly polluted. The air is totally full of dust. So my years-dormant asthma made a return, necessitating a search for a new inhaler today, which taught me that medicine in Mongolia goes by the British names. So it’s paracetamol not acetaminophen (that’s Tylenol) and salbutamol not albuterol (that’s an asthma rescue inhaler).

We were told by loads of people that UB is best gotten out of as quick as possible. We weren’t sure if we’d agree but we kind of do – I definitely want to get out where the air is better. The city is not particularly attractive. Someone told me it’s like if people who don’t want to live in a city made a city, and I guess I could see that. The city sprawls with long streets full of drab apartment complexes and vaguely Soviet looking architecture.

Sukhbaatar Square is as downtown as you can get. It’s a vast plaza with giant heroic statues, of the leader of the 1921 revolution that expelled the Soviets, and on the steps of the Government Palace of Genghis Khan (which is perhaps better spelled Chinggis Khaan) and four of his generals.

The Government Palace has undergone a recent renovation and now looks rather grand. We were especially impressed by the huge map of where Mongolia conquered back in the day, which we recently read about.

Now you can even go inside the Government Palace, which is apparently a new thing. We saw a bunch of cool artifacts like some spirit banners, various state symbols, and stuff used by the last Khan, Bogd Khan. Most of the visitors were Mongolian and everyone seemed really proud of these pieces of heritage.

On our second day, we tried two different bakeries – one which had overly sweet cakes and one which was clearly geared towards expats – the cheese sandwich was awesome.

We also visited the Natural History Museum, which was kind of old and musty but nevertheless interesting.

We also noticed that there are a lot of Korean restaurants, Korean goods in the grocery store, and even some Korean signs in museums and stuff. The buses are old imports from Korea – one even said Dynamic Busan on it!

Mostly, our first impressions of UB weren’t great. Our health and banking woes (Jeff’s card was eaten by an ATM and now mine’s not working either) probably didn’t help. If you’d like to go to Mongolia, I’d recommend coming with plans to get out of UB as soon as you can.

Ever been to UB? What did you think?

2 thoughts on “First Impressions of Ulaanbaatar

  1. Lena

    I have made a lot of Mongolian friends in Arlington, since I was working on an exhibit on the art/culture of that community. Most of the people I know are from UB, some of them having been raised in the ger district – I’d love to check that out.

    One of the contributors to the exhibit runs a cooking show on the local Mongolian tv network. She demonstrated how to make buuz, or steamed meat dumplings. Definitely try those if you can! Will probably be better on your heartburn.

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