A day in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia
This article is part of a series from a journey in 2011 on the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia, Mongolia and China. The text is a transcript of my diary at the time.
Wednesday, 1.6, Ulaanbaatar
Children’s Day on Sukhbaatar Square
Today is Children’s Day in Mongolia and all have a day off. There is a spectacle and parades for all the little ones in different places in the capital. We drove in from the national park on the humped roads, partly on asphalt.
Everyone wanted to check into the hotel first of all, and take a shower. It was something few had done in the camp. They had in other words decided to let themselves go almost unwashed from Moscow and up until now. There was never more than a cat wash on the train. People in my group complained about the toilet, the shower and the beds in the ger camp. For my part I had showered a couple of times and had good pillows in all “my” four beds. The pillows and blankets to some extent disappeared into the other gers after the first night. However, I kept my own.
On the way to the hotel this morning our guide proved a genius to stop at Mongolia’s and the capital’s central square of 140×140 metres, before it got too crowded. On the Sukhbaatar Square we find the freedom hero of 1924, Damdin Sukhbaatar, on an equestrian statue in the middle of the square. The liberation was from Manchuria (China). Otherwise, the square was dominated by a monumental government building with Genghis Kahn on a seat. Around the square we find the stock exchange, culture house, opera house, town hall and a modern office building in glass. On the square there was an increasing number of young children in their finest finery, their parents had done the same.
Everyone was very happy and it was so cute to walk around and look at them. Throughout the day, it would get even more crowded and even more jammed traffic because everyone wanted to take part in Children’s Day in Mongolia.
The central square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Video shot on National Childrens Day, June 1st.
Check-in and on to a monastery
Here in Ulaanbaatar we checked in at
- PALACE HOTEL is a hotel that has seen better days. It was a little dirty on the carpeted floor, but otherwise it was attempted to be kept clean as to bedding and bath. There was an unusually good shower. The bathroom was well equipped with two hair combs, two bottles each of bath foam, shampoo, bathing cap and all one would expect in a grand hotel. They try to maintain a style that the establishment might have had in a bygone era. I got a big room, albeit heavy with smoke. Do not know why I got it. Here I now walk around at night in white slippers and a white dressing gown and look myself in the mirror. I am reasonably happy while recording my diary on the phone.
After the shower we left with the guide straight into a traffic hell. First we went up to Gandantegchinleng Khiid Buddhist monastery. There we came in time for the prayer hour with monks sitting and chanting. Lots of doves in the courtyard outside.
The important, active and central monastery in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar. Video snaps with Mongolian song.
When the Communists seized power in the revolution of 1924 and beyond, the local ruler was more Stalinist than Stalin himself, and he dissolved all the monasteries to such an extent that there was not much left.
Today, there, in the monastery, and during mass, many orthodox Buddhists came and spun the prayer wheels and sought forgiveness for their sins, or whatever it may be within Buddhism. Exciting. In the area there were also several other temples we visited.
We went on and had lunch at a Mongolian Barbeque restaurant. There was a buffet and we picked up ingredients in the kind of vegetables, meat and sauces to the extent we could and let the grill chefs fry it. There was a grill plate of 1.2 metres in diameter as they fried many servings at a time. The tool was a long sword, or shoehorn, which they used to turn the food around with and we got it back fully cooked. We stood in a semicircle around and watched it, and they made a little show with flying ingredients and liquids that flared up over the grill plate. We could have gone to the restaurant several days without being able to get through everything.
It was nice, but the truth is that Mongolian Barbeque is not Mongolian. One may say that fried meat is Mongolian, but the invention of this is Japanese, brought to the United States and since all over the world. Now the phenomenon has actually come to Mongolia. I tried to make a Mongolian, or Trans-Siberian, evening for my friends before departure, and it was then I came across this piece of factual information. The guide did not come with it, but now I have recorded it.
Russian and Chinese relations
We went on. It was not really that much stuff we got to se. We were meant to climb a hill to see a monument to the Unknown Russian soldier, but it was a pilgrimage centre de lux. There must be a close and good relationship that cannot be linked to something negative from the communist era, but means something positive to this day. Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet republics under Gorbachev affected Mongolia in much the same manner. Mongolia functioned for many years as an extra Soviet republic.
Russians perceived the country more as a protectorate. And the great enemy here has always been China, at least since Mongol empire was eaten up by the Chinese and especially the Manchurians. The Russians have since emerged as the protectors and the great friends of the Mongolian people. Therefore everyone wanted to take the kids up the mountain to the monument today, while we with great difficulty managed to turn our bus back out of the jam.
We also today went to see the Royal Palace. As far as I understood the guide the story goes like this: In the beginning of the 1900s there were three Dalai Lamas. The one in Mongolia died in 1924, the others soon after. They went about searching for the right reincarnation and they found he who today is the Dalai Lama. At that time he was a child, and I cannot recall when that was. It was the thirties.
(Back home I find no support for this three numbered Dalai Lama stuff. However, there was a guy named Bogd Khan, who proved to be resourceful when the Chinese Qing dynasty fell in 1911, and declared Mongolia independent.) Bogd Khan was a combined government and religious head. It turned out that the temple or the palace has been empty since the khan’s death in 1924. The building complex is converted into a museum, but was closed at the time of our visit.
Before the others had finished their shopping at the cashmere-wool store, I wandered over and looked at it. The rest of the group came after. The area is not nearly as impressive as the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
What else did we do?
We attended a folklore show, one of the best I’ve been to. It was absolutely fantastic. They had so beautiful outfits, so varied compositions, so skilled singers, including throat singing, where you make some strange noises far down the throat and when the sound gets up it sounds like a Jew’s harp. So what should you with the harp when you have throat singers from Mongolia? And then there were singers, women and men. And dancers, musicians with various instruments including the genuine Mongolian instrument with two strings one uses a bow on. We saw dancers with lion and dragon heads. A snake woman was so flexible that it should not be possible. It was hard to follow what was up, down, front and back when she turned around, and balanced so perfectly. She must be immensely strong standing there on one hand.
They really had put together a very good program. The guide said that she was embarrassed sometimes at how few spectators there could be. It was not the case this time, there were many. 60-70 I believe.
Afterwards we drove on to a restaurant that had a little boring food. But it was good ice cream for dessert. Good salad for appetizer. Mongolian food is like the Russian. It is not exciting. They have good salads as entrees, then meat and accessories that are no more than alright. Today on Children’s Day is the serving of alcohol prohibited in restaurants and even at the supermarket I was visited later.
Let me give some of the impressions of Ulaanbaatar.
Insane traffic, but it was perhaps because it was a special day. It is a city that has everything. Apparently half a million live in gers in the outskirts. The rest live in apartments, a few in houses. To judge from the cars, there are some who have much money here. And otherwise it is judging from street life typical capital youth with tough boys and girls. You see it everywhere really. We noticed lots of shops and signs in English. The guide seemed a bit reluctant about that. It’s convenient for us. There are substantially more restaurants here than in the areas we walked through in Moscow.
The city is not particularly beautiful, with a jumble of buildings. They are going to be strangled in traffic, not just today, but as wealth increases. It will be exciting to see what happens to ger-life eventually when the new times come. It was interesting to note that they had a TV at the so-called nomadic family we visited. Flat screen. The development has come here, as everywhere in the world.
By the way, we visited two souvenir outlets the guide took us to. In the first I came across some traditional slippers and a CD with traditional Mongolian music. We also went to a cashmere-wool store where several in the group revelled in the goods and I bought me a scarf.
It was annoying that my Visa card did not work, so now I have replaced it with my MasterCard.
From now on I won’t need my togrug any longer, for we shall set off by train tomorrow morning. I must end my report of Mongolia here. It was a wonderful ger-trip, combined with one day in the capital, which I think is sufficient. It was above expectations and very nice to be here. It’s not every day, to put it that way.
All chapters in this series
- This introduction
- Some very interesting and pleasant days in Moscow. That city has certainly more to offer than we imagined.
- An excursion to a wonderful city in the Golden Ring and an evening in Moscow.
- A cruise on the Moskva River, the Gorky Park, the Kremlin and the departure for Siberia.
- The days on the train, four and a half days continuously on the move
- Mongolia: Well! Not bad to come to this country, some of the remotest imaginable of all inland countries. We first went into a national park.
- A day in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia
- NEXT: The train journey continues from Ulaanbaatar to China
- The train into Beijing from the border to Mongolia
- First day in Beijing and a visit to the Great Wall
- The last days in Beijing and the return journey