Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling, fluid, crazy boomtown. Until about 15 years ago, ‘UB’ was a sleepy capital of about 500,000. Then, international mining firms literally struck gold (plus coal, copper and uranium) in the hills. Long considered a remote satellite of the Soviet world, Mongolia suddenly found itself sitting on up to $1.3 trillion in minerals. Gold rushers flocked to the capital in droves. By 2005, the city’s population had nearly doubled to 947,000 people; today it’s over 1.3 million, making up about 45 percent of Mongolia’s three million souls. Up to 40,000 more arrive yearly. Mining contracts also brought an influx in wealth. Although growth has slowed (to three percent in late 2015) thanks to a slump in developing-world markets, Mongolia’s GDP grew tenfold from 2000 to 2012 and in 2011 Mongolia experienced 17.5 percent growth, making it the world’s fastest-growing economy that year.
Maps are worthless. Aside from one or two key streets (Peace Avenue, Narnii Road, and major east-west thoroughfares), UB’s streets are poorly signed and street addresses are rare. Locals use Peace Avenue as a key reference point. Or you can orient yourself finding Chinggis Avenue, the administrative center of town and a fairly stable north-south street on the western side of Sukhbaatar Square, and head south. Eventually you’ll find Zaisan monument, a concrete Soviet monument to Mongolia’s involvement in WWII, perched upon a gentle but tall hill on the southern edge of town. A quick run up the monument’s staircase (which may still wind you—UB sits 4,500 feet above sea level on a huge plateau), and you’ll not only find some blocky Soviet tile mosaics, but also the most accessible panorama view of UB and its liquid expansion.
The city’s a cultural free-for-all. It’s not just foreign developers and rural migrants who’ve come to UB. Chefs and entertainers have flocked to the city as well, as have Mongols from the diaspora. These newcomers have brought multinational corporations to the city, from the nation’s first Western fast food joint (the now defunct Kenny Rogers Roasters) to luxury shopping outlets (like Louis Vuitton in 2009). But they also host the bizarre mash-up Los Bandidos, a mildly overpriced but still affordable Indian-Mexican fusion joint with Mongol overtones. Perhaps the most common imports are UB’s Oirish (Irish) Pubs—there are about 40 in the city by one estimate. Some, like the Grand Khaan Irish Pub, are hotspots for ex-pats and developers, and others are simply bizarre blends of bleak Soviet bar culture with Guinness posters and harp icons, where locals come to down foreign beers and Chinggis Vodka. (It’s worth noting that even in UB there’s no standardized English for “Genghis Khan”, since the name itself was given by outsiders.)
Visit a ger district. Getting caught up in the chaos of a mining metropolis is fun, but it doesn’t reflect the history of UB. Founded in 1639 as Örgöö and rebranded about a century later as Urga, UB was at first a mobile monastic tent city. It only took on a fixed location around 1778 to facilitate trade with China, then Russia. But aside from a few administrators, merchants, and monks, its population was still small and mostly mobile, living in nomadic tents and coming and going as they saw fit, until the Soviet era. Many nomads settled down to work in factories during the Soviet times, but nomadism never really went away: Mongolia is still about one-third fully nomadic. There are really just over 30 tiny towns throughout a nation the size of Western Europe. And many of the rural folk sucked into UB (sometimes against their will due to a dzud, a mass die-off of livestock, often tied to a harsh winter) have been loath to give up their mobility—a cultural hallmark. As such, at least 800,000 people live in ger districts on the edge of town, quarters of nomadic tents that people use as a primary or overflow dwelling, lacking plumbing, electricity, or modern heating, and still using coal stoves. The ger districts are impossible to navigate, and (if you don’t know Russian or some Mongol) you’ll understand no one there. Avoid the “slum tours” that are popping up in town, but the ger districts are absolutely worth a visit, and no one will pay you much mind, much less mind you poking around town.
Master grunt-based communications. Few people in UB speak English. Most speak at least some Russian, but the local lingua franca is Mongol, a language distantly related to Turkic tongues, but in its own family. Its sounds, conjugation, and grammar are so complex for a native English speaker that Learning some might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Visit the heart of Mongolian Buddhism. Mongolia is deeply involved in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which spread to the region through the influence of the third Dalai Lama in the 16th century. (They gave him the title “Dalai,” a Mongol term retroactively applied to his predecessors.) The fourth Dalai Lama was a Mongol, and since the 17th century the nation’s had its own Dalai Lama equivalent, the far less famous Jebtsundamba Khutuktu. The Gandantegchilin Monastery, built in 1809 by the fifth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu on an escarpment overlooking the heart of modern UB, is the heart of Mongolian Tibetan Buddhism. It’s also one of the few monasteries spared by Soviet-backed regimes during religious-cultural purges. Ever since independence, renovating the Gandantegchilin has been a priority for the state, which has also welcomed the ninth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu back from exile (he died in 2012; his successor is still being chosen).
Let Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii blow your mind. Almost every major museum and entertainment venue in the nation is in UB. Yet most of these offerings are heavily touristed, Mongol variations on a common theme. A uniquely UB cultural experience (beyond the crowds of the famous but overstuffed Naadam festival in July) is Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii’s place. Tucked away on a side street on the eastern fringes of downtown UB, it’s a pink building notched with little brown knobs all over, known as the International Intellectual Museum. That sounds like a dull Soviet-speak name, but in truth it’s one of the most playful collections in the world—literally. Founded in 1990 as the nation’s first privately-owned museum by Tumen-Ulzii, a local toymaker, the IIM is a shrine to games and magic from all over the world, but his specialty is the traditional Mongolian logic puzzle—proto-Rubix Cubes usually carved from wood that, thanks to a complex series of locks and interconnections, require a knowledge of physics to solve. Tumen-Ulzii can turn anything into a puzzle, including an entire ger; one of his creations takes 56,831 moves to solve. He offers cash prizes to anyone who can best his challenges. But you never will—the man is a mad genius. And he’s trained his entire staff in tricks and puzzles, so they’ll also whoop you (and keep you amused for hours on end).
Beware the Nazis. Modern Mongolia lives in existential fear that its massive, sometimes aggressive neighbors—especially China, which rules over more more ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia proper and stands accused of trying to cleanse their culture—might one day gobble them up. China’s heavy involvement in the nation’s mining boom and coziness with the government is stoking a longstanding paranoid nationalism. Usually it’s harmless. But sometimes it manifests as Nazism. The young men and women who dress up in SS-inspired getups and tattoo swastikas on their fingers (and yes, they’re swastikas, not the differently-oriented and–colored khass symbol of Mongol Buddhism) don’t actually know much about Hitler, but they do associate him with ethnic and cultural purity and strength in a time of national weakness. Although split across several groups (like Tsagaan Khaas and Dayar Mongol) and likely never numbering more than a few hundred, for a few years the Mongol neo-Nazis did some real damage, menacing Chinese-owned businesses and publicly shaming Mongol woman who allegedly shacked up with foreign men. Although they’re less active now than they were a few years ago the Nazis are still out there—and while they reserve special hatred for the Chinese, they’re not above sucker punching foreigners found out at night with Mongol woman. It’s happened to a few friends of mine. You’re not likely to wander into a local Nazi bar (a mistake I once made), but a bit of caution never hurts.
If you want to make friends, always carry smokes and Chinggis Vodka
It’s too easy to get hammered. Drinking is a fundamental element of socializing. (From my journal the first time I visited the country: If you want to make friends, always carry smokes and Chinggis Vodka.) For a city of just over a million people, UB’s nightlife is bumping. And if you make any friends, they’re going to invite you out at some point. Or if you want to make any friends, you’re going to need to go out at some point. Mongol culture can seem a little straight-laced and aloof, but with a bottle out it gets convivial really fast. But unless you have a liver of steel, don’t try to keep pace.
Stay with locals whenever possible. Outside of bars, the best way to get chummy with locals in UB is to stay with them. That’s not hard to do. Most of the affordable hostels are just massive apartments owned by local families who’ll often be chilling out in the next room. If you ask around you can always find someone willing to put you up for a night in further-flung parts of the city. Granted, if you don’t share a language they might treat you a little more like livestock than a guest, keeping you fed and watered, but going about their day as if you weren’t there. Still, as with anywhere else you can’t get a real sense for a city until you’ve been in a few unpretentious apartments. And if you’re only going to be in UB, you might want to try to spend some time in a ger as well to get a brief, if deracinated, facsimile of Mongolian nomadism.
Take your time. Mongolia is vast, the steppe can be bumpy and boggy, and paved roads are limited. So unless you’re willing to fly on regional airlines, getting from UB to any other towns can be time consuming. Hostel owners and tour operators are used to setting people up to trek out into the countryside for weeks at a time rather than mere days. The steppe experience is worth it and affordable, especially since it’s legal to free-camp almost anywhere in the country and most folks you come across in the hinterland are friendly enough. But it definitely falls beyond the purview of a UB-focused guide.
Naraan Tuul is your one-stop shop for yak needs. These shaggy giants hold a special place in the nation’s mind and material culture. You can search out yak meat (and it is delicious). There are also yak socks, yak bone jewelry, and yak bone chess pieces on a foldable board made of dyed yak felt, to name just a few offerings. Low-grade yak wool can be a bit rough. But proper yak craftsmanship is beautiful, cuddly, and warm. Tourist shops will gouge you, but you can find yak everything (and some very stylish nomadic leather goods) at eminently affordable prices in the massive Naraan Tuul, UB’s quasi-black market, and there are artisans aplenty well worth supporting with shops on most major and side streets of the city—so stock up.
Ask about the Death Worm. Every nation has its myths and magical creatures. But few are so amusing, so worthy of a SyFy Original Movie, as the olgoi-kharkhoi—the Mongolian Death Worm. A longstanding belief amongst Mongols first revealed to the West in a 1922 account by the paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, the Death Worm is by reputation a rare creature that lives deep in the sands of the Gobi. The few who claim to have seen it describe it as a three-foot-long fat worm, dark red, with spikes sticking out of both of its ends. Although sluggish, many fear it for its ability to spit corrosive acidic venom and to discharge a lethal electrical shock at humans and livestock from a great distance. There is no evidence it exists, and some speculate that it might have been a misidentified snake or worm lizard turned mythic over generations of tall tales, but the Death Worm is a fun topic of conversation nonetheless. If you’re at a bar, bring it up and see what ensues—hopefully it’ll be a joyful crypto-zoological free-for-all.
DO NOT GO IN WINTER. UB is pleasant in the spring and summer, but in the winter it gets bitterly cold. In January 2015 temperatures hit -41.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Within recorded history it’s gone as far as -86.8 Fahrenheit. The bitter cold, biting winds, and heavy snows last for months on end, making UB one of the coldest capitals in the world. It’s also one of the most polluted cities in the world for a few months out of the year, thanks to the impoverished ger districts’ reliance on cheap but inefficient coal fires for warmth and light, and the heavy use of coal in the rest of the nation. Step outside, and the air will choke and stab at you. Mongolia is an amazing place, and UB is a bizarre mélange of a city, but summer is good and winter is bad in the city.