An adventure in Ulaanbaatar: Discovering Mongolia’s Capital
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Travelling in Mongolia is never something that was high on my travel radar. So when I was sent there with SPAR International on my dream travel job last summer, I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, or where I was going. The adventure was to be a grueling 6 day journey from Moscow on the famous Trans-Siberian rail, with a 4-day stopover in Ulaanbataar and the Mongolion countryside on the way. Before I knew it, I was on the train, taking me slowly but surely right on to the doorstep of mysterious Mongolia.
First impressions of Mongolia
My first Mongolia travel experience was a bit of a strange one. A 4-day stopover between Russia and China while travelling on the trans-Siberian rail. After a few days of staring at nothing but the bleak outdoors, and with patience wearing thin with many bodies in the small compartments of the train, we decided that day one in Ulaanbataar would be a party... we decided this several hours before arriving. We decided that we would celebrate our arrival in Mongolia. And dammit, why not TONIGHT!?
And so, as the train rumbled to a halt in Ulaanbataar and our spritely local guide ran to greet us, day one of the Country’s capital was... a struggle. We had celebrated our arrival all night, and now all I wanted to do is crawl into bed. When I finally dragged myself into consciousness, I got my butt outside and quickly discovered that Ulaanbataar was nothing like I expected. The home of 40% of Mongolia’s population was surprisingly modern, a concrete-jungle and, well, just like any other major Asian city.
As we walked around, I noticed many local citizens walking around in clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place on my local high-street whilst others – generally the older generation – strolled around in beautiful, traditional outfits I had never seen before. Many in Mongolia, our guide said, are torn between traditional, nomadic routes and strongly independent culture, and a distinctly Western, urbanised culture. The old and the new, the traditional and the modern.
I started musing about this on our guided tour of the city. As my short visit to Mongolia clashed with a national holiday, the city’s iconic centralised monument of Genghis Khan was swamped with wedding parties… again, displaying a contest of culture; the bride and groom resembling the cliche plastic wedding couple you see perched on top of the wedding cake, whilst the family stood around in an array of colours, materials and clothes. I suppose its a social issue that most cultures all over the world face... from the young generation of empowered girls in India opting for pants and shirts over saris in their day-to-day life to the scores of traditional family-run businesses in small villages of the UK, whose parents are pleading with the next generation to stay put and do as they have always done... But hey, I'm rambling and oversimplifying the issue...
Anti-tourist: Hostility in the capital
It was a strange feeling, and kind of hard to put into words, but walking around the capital city of Mongolia that day was a... harrowing experience. Maybe that word is a little extreme, but the general vibe of hostility thrown our way from so many of the people we walked by was something that I hadn't experience before. Pooped and a bit disappointed, the group returned to our hotel and went out for dinner.
The selection of restaurants was interesting at best - we settled on the uniquely named Garlic Corner. It was fun enough: small, absolutely empty, a strange, western-inspired menu, and a large waiting staff who were fascinated at the arrival of the weird tourists from Europe. We laughed and joked in broken languages, and we left that night knowing that - of course - not everybody hated us.
The next day, we travelled with our group to the infamous Black Market of Ulaanbaatar. We would soon discover it lived up to its dangerous reputation...
I wandered off from the group a little bit, minding my own business when suddenly an elderly man jumped in front of me. Cigarette in one hand and a saw in the other (Yes, A SAW. I shit you not). He shouted at my face and lurched towards me and I ran away. I don’t know why I felt it appropriate to run, maybe it was the saw (which was actually still in its cardboard packaging, but it sounds much more dramatic…), but either way, the man chased me. He chased me! Through the black markets of Mongolia. Chased by a (packaged) saw-wielding mad-man in Mongolia.
I returned to my friends, shaken up by the experience. The hostility that I'd sensed yesterday was back: in tenfolds. As we made the decision to leave the markets, we spotted a group of men staring and laughing at us. One of them started running at us with a shopping trolley, laughing but meaning every step. Crashing into my friend, leaving her fine but dazed on the floor, for the first time ever travelling, I felt like I was in danger.
We practically ran out of the market and dashed into the nearest building: a pub. Safe, right? Turns out this was the chosen haunt of some of the city's meanest looking men. We sank down into our seats with our freshly ordered drinks, not daring to look anyone in the eye. After a few minutes, we dashed across the road to a hotel and stayed in reception until we could arrange a car to take us back to the safety of our hotel.
Travel in Mongolia: Am I just being dramatic?
It wasn’t all saws and scares in Mongolia and, yes, maybe I am being a little dramatic. Obviously, not everyone in the capital city hates tourists travelling in Mongolia, and like most issues, I'm oversimplifying a complex issue. Something which I, regretfully, took very little time to learn about before I arrived in Mongolia. I was just naive enough to think everyone would welcome our presence.
The city of Ulaanbaatar, at least, is not somewhere I would recommend to pick as your ultimate travel destination. Or the rest of Mongolia for that matter. But if you ever do get the chance to travel in Mongolia, then I’m sure that like me, it’ll leave you with more than just an expansion of your world map knowledge.