Ulaanbaatar has lots of interesting things in it: museums, temples, palaces. But between those places the city is a little drab and austere, reminiscent of when Mongolia was part of the Soviet Union. Large, practical apartment blocks dominate, with dusty parks in-between, the newly wealthy inhabitants of the city spending more time in the new department stores. And did we mention the pickpockets? Someone told us before we got there that pockets in Ulaanbaatar are like Mongolian ATM machines…luckily we didn’t have anything stolen but this wasn’t without a lot of dodgy blokes trying….Now this might sound like we didn’t have a good time in the capital…but we did. Perhaps we liked the soviet aesthetics, or that some of the attempted robberies was so bad they became funny or maybe we just liked that the city had flushing toilets…who can say!
This country has only one ‘real’ city, with paved roads, large shops and big businesses, and its Ulaanbaatar. I can’t think of many other countries where almost every politician, celebrity or CEO of a company are all in the one place…along with over 50% of the population too. So of course the city has a lot of the nations ‘national’ things, like museums and theatres, so being the good tourists that we are we visited a few of them. The National museum has an impressive number of traditional costumes from the various different ethnic groups, displaying the amazing ways Mongolian women wore their hair over the years. But you can’t see any photos of them as Mongolia has an extortionate system of charging maybe five times the price of the entrance ticket to take photos…needless to say these stingy travellers wouldn’t pay! One of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever been to is the Intellectual museum, which is home to some amazing traditional puzzle games and goat ankle bone games, still popular with nomadic families today. The museum is four floors worth and seems to get less relevant the higher up the building you go…giant chess games, plastic dolls and even a Michael Jackson mask made it into the cabinets. But it was still fun to fail at the intricate wooden sliding puzzles.
Though many of the countries religious buildings were destroyed during the 1930s soviet purges some still remain, the most extensively used being the ramshackle yet charming Gandantegchinlen Monastery. Making the trip there early in the morning will treat you to seeing many Mongolians dressed in their finest del and some unusual ceremonial practices. We watched a tiny room full of people walk around in a circle jostling for the best spot by the monks, while some people we met saw an elderly lady drink what look like the urine of a monk…Seriously! The lama temple, which is now a museum, is also worth a look mainly for the sheer volume of images of impaled humans…its the most aggressive buddhism depictions we’d seen on our trip. We also looked around the Winter Palace, where the last king and religious leader lived with his wife and you can see a collection of his possessions, including a ger made of leopard skins and musical thrones…presumably for when they wanted to play royal musical chairs?!
One of the highlights of our time in Ulaanbaatar was going to see the cultural show (tumen ekh ensemble), which is on every night in the summer months but once a week while we were in town. We dragged along some friends and as we approached I wasn’t very confident…I don’t know but if I were designing a tourist theatre I wouldn’t have it in what looked like a disused office building, with smashed windows in a muddy car park, full of rusting metal. But this is Mongolia, so inside it was perfect! Beautiful costumes, amazing musicians and for me the outstanding act of the night was the inhuman sound of the throat singing. If a person somehow could be mixed with a didgeridoo this is what it would sound like…most of the time you couldn’t work out whether it was an instrument or singer making the amazing noise! (you can check out Mongolian throat singing here)
What do you do when your most famous historical personality ever is Chenggis Khan? Put him on your bank notes of course but also build a huge shiny version of him which visitors can climb up, then open a door and step through his groin…Well they say we are all descended from the Mongols! This huge aluminium statue seems a little out-of-place amongst the green hills but to attract the tourists they also have a huge traditional style boot for no discernible reason apart from to have your photo taken next to it. We also went onto the nearby National Park to see a huge turtle rock which actually looked like a turtle and to break into a closed monastery…in our defence it did have a beautiful view from the top and all the locals were doing it!
After a trip to the black market where Ryan unsuccessfully tried to get his own pair of human sized Mongolian boots (the stall only had one in his size!) it was time to jump aboard another train for another country. We had met some great people and seen some of the most beautiful views of the trip so far. Thanks Mongolia… and no doubt see you again!
Next time icy Siberia.
R&E (and Neli)