Trip Report: 10 Days in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Chinggis Khaan Square

What comes to your mind when you think of Mongolia? Genghis Khan, surely? Horses? Yurts? Steppes? If you’ve done a bit of research, then maybe cashmere or Russian influence come to mind. I have to admit that prior to my trip to Ulaanbaatar, I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect from Mongolia. Let’s be honest – Mongolia isn’t exactly on most people’s radar, even with travelers to Asia. It took me six years of living in Asia to finally make my way to what I like to call “Northeast Asia’s forgotten country.”

But how did a low key city like Ulaanbaatar fare? Did its brutal cold winter make me want to leave and never come back? Was there much to do or see? Was Mongolian food all about stir-fries, the way it’s portrayed in the West? What are Mongolian women like? How about the cost of living/traveling? These are the kinds of questions I plan to address in this here trip report, which is broken into two separate entries – the first entry will be about my eight days in the city center and surrounding area, and the second entry will be about my two days living in a yurt with locals on the outskirts of the city. Now let’s get this trip report started and find out what Ulaanbaatar is really all about!

First Impressions

Genghis Khan Portrait Sign
Images of Genghis Khan are all over Ulaanbaatar. This one was right outside Chinggis Khaan International Airport.

Anyone going to Ulaanbaatar for the first time will surely notice all the images of Genghis Khan everywhere. His face is on murals, boxes of food, bottles of liquor, and just about anything else you can imagine. It’s very clear that the Mongolians are proud of their ancient warlord.

The second I stepped out Chinggis Khaan Airport, I was smacked in the face by an ashy coal smell that penetrated deep into my lungs. This smell would linger the entire span of my trip, and it’s a smell that reminds me of industrial Northeast China. Literally every time I stepped outside after being indoors for an extended period of time, I had to cough to help my body adjust to the barrage of ashy fumes. At certain hours of the day, especially around sunset, the sky would look hazy and unclear, yet at other hours of the day the sky would look blue and gorgeous. The colors and visibility of the sky would literally change from one hour to the next. One hour the sky was amazing, and then the next I couldn’t even see what was only 100 meters in front of me.

Ulaanbaatar only has a population of around 1.35 million. Yet the entire country of Mongolia only has a population of  2.85 million, so that means roughly half of the country’s population is packed into the capital city. But that’s still pretty low for an Asian city, so Ulaanbaatar doesn’t feel that crowded. It’s one of those rare spacious Asian capital cities like Vientiane down in Laos.

The layout and architecture of Ulaanbaatar also reminded me of Northeast China. The ugly Communist-era apartment buildings everywhere, the drab colors, the sidewalk tiles, the dirty snow lingering on the sidewalks – it was all very dongbei, indeed. As a matter of fact, if you’ve ever been to Harbin, then you should have a pretty good idea of what Ulaanbaatar visually looks like, as the two cities are very similar aesthetically.

The Weather

Christmas Tree Ice Sculpture

Ulaanbaatar was freezing! Daytime temperatures usually hovered between 14 to -13° F (-10 to -25° C), and nighttime temperatures dropped to -4 to -31° F (-20 to -35° C). Just like the sky’s visibility, the temperatures also changed from hour to hour, with midday naturally being the warmest and midnight being the coldest.

Going outside was a huge chore due to the sheer number of layers I had to wear every time I wanted to step out the door. I had to wear boxer shorts, thermal long johns, sweat pants, windproof jeans, a thermal undershirt, a thermal long-sleeved shirt, a thick jacket, a coat to go over the jacket, a scarf, a beanie, a pair of finger-less gloves, a thick pair of gloves to go over the finger-less gloves, two pairs of socks, and boots. As you can imagine, putting on so much clothes day by day is exhausting, but if you don’t you’ll freeze your ass off.

As a photographer, I welcomed the challenge of shooting in a super cold environment, as most of my previous shooting experience has been in tropical or not-that-cold environments. And what a challenge it turned out to be! My camera has a solid weatherproof all-metal body, so it got cold to the touch after being outside for only a few minutes. Anytime I wanted to snap a picture, my hands would be in pain from having to grasp something that felt like a solid block of ice. My favorite lens also has a metal body, so it constantly froze, which made turning it to focus an unnecessarily difficult task.

Mongolia may be a freezing cold country, but the Mongolians do not seem to fear the cold. It’s as if they were born to resist icy temperatures. I constantly saw people just standing outside nonchalantly chatting and having a smoke, as if they weren’t the slightest bit cold. Every night of the week the streets stayed busy with activity very late into the night. Even at 2 AM, I could hear people talking outside my guest house window, as well as all the cars honking their horns. I could also hear music playing into the wee hours of the night at the countless clubs and karaoke bars scattered around the city. This is very different from winter in Northeast China, where people greatly fear the cold and every city becomes a ghost town at night.

Ulaanbaatar is undoubtedly the coldest city I’ve ever been to. Northeast China is very cold, but Mongolia is even colder. So If you’re gonna be in Ulaanbaatar in the wintertime, prepare for extreme cold. Enough said.

The Dudes

Group of Mongolian Men

I don’t normally talk much about guys when I travel, but Mongolian men are an anomaly among Asian men. They were actually masculine for a change. None of this metrosexual crap that plagues the rest of Asia was anywhere to be found in Ulaanbaatar. The stereotypical pencil thin glasses wearing Asian nerd didn’t seem to exist either. As a matter of fact, lots of Mongolian men were tall, bulky, and fit, and that made their presence somewhat intimidating. They also had a very good sense of style like the dudes over in Korea. They’re a pretty good-looking bunch, which is something I’ve never said about any other nationality of Asian men.

But on the other side of the coin, many Mongolian guys have an obnoxious macho attitude similar to that of an over-the-top Western bodybuilder. It’s as if they believe they have to prove to the world how manly they are. They were also very loud and boisterous, especially when they were hitting the alcohol bottle. Every night when I was out walking around taking photos, I’d run into large packs of sloppy drunk men shouting at each other, stumbling haphazardly along the sidewalk, and puking their guts out. Holding one’s liquor didn’t appear to be a priority. I’ve also heard some secondhand stories of Mongolian men confronting foreigners with a Mongolian girlfriend or wife. That’s not cool.

The Ladies

Mongolian Women Collage

As for Mongolian women, I have almost nothing but praise for them. Their physical beauty absolutely blew me away, and they just might be the hottest Asian women I’ve ever seen. They have an exotic appearance. Their faces look similar to northeastern Chinese and Korean women, but they have sharper oriental features like slanted eyes, big round cheek bones, long jet black hair, etc. They also have more curvy and shapely bodies than typical Asian girls. Their sense of fashions reminds me of Russian girls. So mix a Korean girl’s body with a northeastern Chinese girl’s face and a Russian girl’s style, and there you have a Mongolian girl. You can’t go wrong with that combo!

I was also happy with what I didn’t see on Mongolian women. I didn’t see any of them wearing those reptilian colored contact lens that other Asian women seem to love. Hair dye was the exception and not the norm. Make-up styles were supplementary rather than complementary. They actually embrace their natural beauty for a change. And last but certainly not least, I saw very few Mongolian women with their face buried into their smartphone. That’s a change I’ll always welcome!

Walking around the streets of Ulaanbaatar, I was getting eyed pretty hard by the local women. It was very rare to see another white guy in Ulaanbaatar, which means I probably had a foreign exotic factor working in my favor. Sometimes I would walk into a bar, and an entire table of ladies would turn around and stare at me hard. It must be heaven being a single white guy living in Ulaanbaatar. We constantly hear about the local dating scene in Asian countries like China, Thailand, and the Philippines, but how often do we hear anything about Mongolia? It’s clearly underrated. Mongolian women are gorgeous, feminine, fashionable, multilingual, and curious about foreign guys. What’s not to like?

The Food

Buuz Soup

Mongolian cuisine was like a fusion of Chinese and Russian cuisine. It’s very meat heavy and filling like Russian cuisine, with a strong emphasis on beef. There are lots of root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, turnips, and onions incorporated into every dish. It was also flour heavy, seeing as noodles, dumplings, or bread were in almost every meal. Potato salad in a thick mayonnaise sauce was a common side. Having seen their diet, I can now I understand why Mongolian people are so big!

Notice I didn’t mention anything about stir-fries. That’s because I didn’t see any during my entire trip. That said, I’m not sure where the American concept of the Mongolian stir-fry restaurant comes from. Maybe stir-fries are only eaten in the summer?

One dish that kept popping up on my trip again and again was a dumpling dish called buuz. They’re filled with beef and onions and are actually pretty tasty, but they’re a little too rich and oily. I also ate lots of hearty soups that were filled with beef, carrots, potatoes, and onions. I personally enjoyed the soup dishes the most, as I quite enjoy a hot bowl of soup when it’s so f’ing cold outside. Almost all of the local food I tried in Ulaanbaatar was good, but nothing really wowed me. I enjoyed it while I was there, but I haven’t thought about it much since I’ve left.

Chicken Tikka Served at Mughul Restaurant

What did wow me was all of the city’s foreign cuisine. Would you believe me if I told you Ulaanbaatar is an international food heaven? Prior to my trip, I never would’ve guessed it. There’s so much international cuisine in Ulaanbaatar that you’ll never run out of choices – Korean, Italian, Mexican, Cuban, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and so much more. There’s something for everyone. Chances are you’ll find yourself eating more foreign than local cuisine.

The Mongolians are actually very skilled at cooking foreign cuisine. Foreign cuisine usually sucks real bad in neighboring countries like China and Japan, but not so in Mongolia. Portion sizes are also very generous. The Ulaanbaatar international scene food might just be the best in all of Asia, which is odd considering how off the beaten track the city is for foreigners.

Things to Do

Monks at Chinggis Khaan Square

Admittedly, Ulaanbaatar wasn’t exactly an exciting travel destination. Interesting? Sure. But not exactly exciting. There’s just not a lot to see or do, so you have to keep yourself entertained through simple things. Walking around, trying different restaurants, lifting weights at the cheap local gyms, eyeing up all the eye candy, and taking wintry photos was entertaining enough. Regardless, I was there ten long days, and I didn’t start to feel bored until the very end. Just don’t go to Ulaanbaatar expecting high energy and excitement. It’s a pretty low key capital city after all.

There were some memorable places in Ulaanbaatar. Chinggis Khan Square is surely the most famous place in the city, and it was lit up with Christmas decorations while I was there. The Gandantegchinlen Buddhist Monastery looked like something straight out of Tibet. The sidewalk market on Ikh Toiruu had lots of Mongolian character and plenty of snacks to try. There were also lots of little massage places on the side streets where you could get a dirt cheap and good quality massage. I’m not much of a drinker, but even the local bars drew me in with their good social atmosphere and cheap drinks and snacks. If you want to see some nature, also check out some of the mountains and hills surrounding the city.

Cost of Traveling

Mongolian Currency

As of January 11th, 2016, 1 USD equals about 2,000 MNT.

Ulaanbaatar is one of the cheapest places I’ve ever traveled to. The food, accommodation, transportation, and nightlife all were an incredible value. Eating well was easy, seeing as a giant bowl of beefy buuz soup was only 5,000 MNT, and 10 to 20,000 was all I needed to have a Western feast. I often found myself eating gigantic chicken tikka plates for only 12,000 MNT at the Indian restaurants. I stayed at an exceptionally good centrally-located guesthouse that was only 36,000 MNT a night for a double room with a private bathroom. It was super clean, well-decorated, well-equipped, and a great quiet place to just chill out. Getting around the city by bus was only 500 MNT a ride, and black taxi rides were a few thousand on average. I also found a decent gym that allows single visits for only 10,000 MNT.

Excluding airfare and accommodation, I prepared a budget of 60,000 MNT a day. I felt that was just enough, and I didn’t feel like I had to scrimp on anything to enjoy myself. I ate two giant meat-filled meals every day, had plenty of snacks in between, hit the gym, saw some interesting places, had some great massages, got lots of cool pictures, occasionally popped into a bar, and took the odd black taxi here and there. You can do a lot with only 30 American dollars in Ulaanbaatar.

Interesting side note: there are seemingly no coins in Mongolian currency. Be prepared to have a wallet full of cash, most of which is only worth a few cents, and be ready to be confused with all the extra zeros. If you’ve ever traveled to Vietnam, then you’ve seen this before. Sometimes I could barely even fold my wallet closed, even though it only had about 50,000 tugrik in it!

Conclusion

Sunset on the Outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

My trip to Ulaanbaatar completely exceeded my expectations. I expected nothing, yet I got one of the most memorable travel experiences of my life. Mongolia is a unique and off-the-beaten-track country that deserves more love. Though it’s located in Northeast Asia, it carries over many elements from Russia, which gives the country a half Asian half Russian vibe, which is what I imagine other central Asian countries to be like.

Ulaanbaatar is a really cheap place to travel, and it doesn’t take much to do a lot. The food is filling, meat heavy, and a good value. All kinds of foreign cuisine can easily be found. The guys are oddly masculine in a continent not known for its masculine men. The women were absolutely gorgeous and had a friendly demeanor. The city is more spacious and less dense than most neighboring Asian cities.

But Ulaanbaatar is fiercely cold in the wintertime, so you really shouldn’t even bother going if that’s something you don’t like. The city has a grey and drab industrial look that doesn’t exactly lift your spirits. The average Mongolian can come across as aggressive and too straight-faced to a Westerner who hasn’t ever traveled to the likes of China or Russia before. Ulaanbaatar might even be too boring, as it’s not a vibrant city with lots of things to do.

Despite the cold, I had a unforgettable trip that will go down in the history books for me. Some day I’ll have to go back to see how different Ulaanbaatar is in the summertime. It must be great to see all the ladies in their summer attire!

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