As the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the base to arrange any longer trips to the countryside and the main terminus for trains and planes. There are some interesting museums and monasteries to gain a further understanding of Mongolian culture and history. This is also the main place to stock up on souvenirs, such as a pair of traditional Mongolian boots. There are plenty of local markets and western supermarkets to stock up food for the next part of the train journey. There is also a growing selection of local and foreign managed bars, restaurants and nightlife.
National Museum of Mongolia
Mongolia’s wonderful National Museum sweeps visitors from the Neolithic era right to the present day. It’s UB’s only genuine blockbuster sight, offering an unparalleled overview of Mongolian culture, ranging from stone-age petroglyphs and exquisite gold ornamentation to, arguably the highlight, the full gamut of traditional ceremonial costume – which unmistakably inspired the look of characters from the Star Wars prequels.
Choijin Lama Temple Museum
This temple museum smack in the middle of downtown Ulaanbaatar was the home of Luvsan Haidav Choijin Lama (‘Choijin’ is an honorary title given to some monks), the state oracle and brother of the Bogd Khan. Construction of the monastery commenced in 1904 and was completed four years later. It was closed in 1938 and probably would have been demolished had it not been saved in 1942 to serve as a museum demonstrating the ‘feudal’ ways of the past.
Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan
Built between 1893 and 1903, this palace is where Mongolia’s eighth Living Buddha, and last king, Jebtzun Damba Hutagt VIII (often called the Bogd Khan), lived for 20 years. For reasons that are unclear, the palace was spared destruction by the Russians and turned into a museum. The summer palace, on the banks of Tuul Gol, was completely destroyed. There are six temples in the grounds; each now contains Buddhist artworks, including sculptures and thangkas.
Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts
This fine-arts museum has a superb collection of paintings, carvings and sculptures, including many by the revered sculptor and artist Zanabazar. It also contains other rare religious exhibits such as scroll tangka (paintings) and Buddhist statues, representing the best display of its kind in Mongolia. A bonus is that most of the exhibit captions are in English, to go with a very comprehensive audio guide.
International Intellectual Museum
This museum contains an intriguing collection of puzzles and games made by local and international artists. One puzzle requires 56,831 movements to complete, says curator Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii. There are dozens of handmade chess sets and ingenious traditional Mongolian puzzles that are distant cousins to Rubik’s Cube. An enthusiastic guide will show you how the puzzles operate and will even perform magic tricks. A fascinating place for both kids and adults.
Built by the Russians to commemorate ‘unknown soldiers and heroes’ from various wars, the Zaisan Memorial features stirring socialist realism imagery with Soviet mosaics and reliefs, including that of Stalin and Lenin. Accessed via steep stairs, the monument sits atop the hill south of the city with wonderful views of Ulaanbaatar and the surrounding hills – although these have been blighted by recent high-rise commercial development.
Around the start of the 19th century more than 100 süm (temples) and khiid (monasteries) served a population of about 50,000 in Urga (the former name of Ulaanbaatar). Only a handful of these buildings survived the religious purges of 1937. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the people of Mongolia started to openly practise Buddhism again. This monastery is one of Mongolia’s most important, and also one of its biggest tourist attractions. The full name, Gandantegchinlen, translates roughly as ‘the great place of complete joy’.
In July 1921 in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, Damdin Sükhbaatar (the ‘hero of the revolution’) declared Mongolia’s final independence from China. A square later built on the spot now bears his name and features at its center a bronze statue a of the revolutionary astride his horse. In 2013 the city authorities changed the name of the plaza to Chinggis Khaan Sq, but in 2016 Sükhbaatar’s descendants won a court battle to restore the original name.
Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery
Sometimes called the Fine Art Gallery, this place contains a large and impressive display of modern and uniquely Mongolian paintings and sculptures, with nomadic life, people and landscapes all depicted in styles ranging from impressionistic to nationalistic. The Soviet romantic paintings depicted in thangka style are especially interesting, but the most famous work is Ochir Tsevegjav’s 1958 The Fight of the Stallions (aka Horse Fighting).
Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs of all shapes, sizes and appetites once roamed the Gobi Desert. Their fossilised bones and eggs were first uncovered by American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. Today you can come face-to-skull with some of the best examples of Mongolian dinosaur fossils in this museum. The centerpiece of the museum is the UV-lit 4m-tall, 3-ton, flesh-eating Tarbosaurus bataar (a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex) and the smaller Saurolophus, with its distinctive cranial crest.
‘Our Tranzib trip last April was brilliant! You have great meters and greeters too.
Ulan Bator and the Ger Camp was most enjoyable and our guide Odka was a bundle.
All in all a wonderful experience for which we thank you.’
The annual Naadam Festival is a major part of the Mongolian life and includes the three manly sports of Archery, Mongolian Wrestling and Horse racing (actually participants are boys). It is a sort of mini Olympics! and is held from the 11th to the 13th July each year. It is also the peak of the tourist season.
In Mongolian Naadam is known as “eriin gurvan naadam” (эрийн гурван наадам), meaning – the 3 games of men.
The festival is performed throughout the country. The central ceremonies and competitions are held in Ulaanbaatar where contenders of national titles will usually perform. There are roughly 500 wrestlers competing in 10 rounds at the National Central Stadium, where the less physical ankle-bone games also take place. 3,500 horses compete in six age categories at the Hui Doloon Hudag fields, 40kms to the west of Ulaanbaatar. Archery is also a main event and takes place in the Archery Stadium.
All events take place in the city, except horse racing which are held in the Khui Doloon Khudag race fields.
Ankle bone, Shagai (шагай) is played with the ankle bone (knucklebone) of a sheep. Pieces are flicked with the middle finger of one hand, along a wooden board (khashlaga = fence rail) held in the other hand. The goal is to hit a target piece over a distance of about 10 metre. You may have played a similar game with (three) coins in Europe.