As mentioned previously, we weren’t huge fans of Ulaanbaatar. We had a few difficulties there as well, and this post is to help you learn from our mistakes. Here are some cautions for when you are visiting UB.
Caution #1 – ATMs
First off, whatever you do, do not use Khaan Bank to withdraw money with an international card. They are apparently well known to eat cards frequently – and their policy is to destroy international cards when the ATM eats them. I know it’s tempting, because they’re abundant, but you should really avoid them.
If you have a MasterCard debit card, your card may not work in some ATMs. Or even in some banks. But the general rule is that if you go into the actual branch, you will have more luck. There is a 24 hour Golomt Bank on Seoul Street just down from Dublin Irish Pub, which was easily able to give me some money. I only found one type of ATM that worked for my Capital One debit card but I didn’t even see a bank name on it, so I’m not sure which one it was, sorry. I know it was the left-most ATM at the airport near the exit, if that helps.
Caution #2 – The Air
Ulaanbaatar is incredibly polluted. We’re in Beijing now, a city not particularly known for its clean air, but I am breathing easier. Looking at a list of annual average pollution, UB has over twice the amount of particulate matter as Beijing. It’s very, very dusty – if you close your teeth together outside you will feel the grit. In the winter apparently, a lot of people on the outskirts burn their own coal (which adds to the giant coal-burning plants just outside the city) and the air is even worse.
I grew up with asthma, and then during college had no problems with it. But arriving in UB, it came back. I had to procure a new rescue inhaler. Which is thankfully very easy in UB – you can get it over the counter in some pharmacies. Medications go by the British names, so if you use albuterol it will be called salbutamol. The word for asthma in Mongolian sounds the same so you should be able to get what you want with some miming, saying ‘asthma’ and ‘salbutamol’. If you exit the State Department store and turn right, the first pharmacy on the right carries fluticasone (asthma prevention, sometimes marketed as Advair) and the second one carries salbutamol.
We also noticed that the air is very dry in UB, so you may want to bring some lotion.
Caution #3 – The Sun
Mongolia is located at a pretty high elevation and so the sun is very strong (it’s also rather sunny and often cloudless blue skies). Be careful to wear lots of sunscreen – I actually found this to be more the case in the countryside than in the city. I used lots of 50 SPF stuff and still burned quite a bit on our horse trek, but then again I burn easily.
Caution #4 – Pickpockets
While we luckily were never pickpocketed, UB is well known for having a lot of them. Be especially careful in the Black Market and Sukhbaatar Square. I definitely got eyed in the square, maybe to see if I was a good target, but we were with a Mongolian guy and nothing was tried. Outside of the State Department Store a guy watched us and made us rather uncomfortable when we were waiting for the Stepperiders van, so be careful there too.
Caution #5 – Your Budget
Perhaps this should have been obvious to us, but Mongolia is not actually a budget destination! Sure, accommodation and food (if you eat Mongolian) is pretty cheap in UB – a dorm bed can be had for $7 right downtown, and a big plate of mutton and rice is about 3,000 tugrik. However, if you want to get out of UB (and I bet you will), you’ll have to pay. If you don’t speak Mongolian, independent travel is pretty difficult. Therefore you’ll probably have to take a tour and they definitely don’t come cheap. Honestly, I sort of wish we had gone when we could afford a nice tour instead of when we were one a tight budget.
Hopefully this will help you in planning a trip to Mongolia. Feel free to ask any other questions in the comments!