How to Fall in Love with Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia beyond the steppes.

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Ulaanbaatar isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful. Pastel coloured Soviet-era architecture is set against a backdrop of rolling green hills, creating a softly symmetric, slightly absurd Wes-Anderson look. UB, as its friends call it, is a city where you instantly feel at home — people are friendly and laid-back, the buzz of city life is a gentle hum, not an in-your-face roar. Downtown is small and easily walkable. Museums are fascinating, and there is some great food.

It’s a shame, because most people rush through Mongolia’s capital, heading straight to the country’s grasslands and the beautiful Gobi desert. Mongolia attracts an increasing amount of tourists, drawn to the nomad culture and beautiful landscapes. The countryside is unforgettable, with yurts framed against empty grasslands or sand dunes and a bright blue sky, but Ulaanbataar, is a city like no other. Plus, it is where half of the country’s population lives, so you can’t get the full picture if you don’t spend a few days discovering it.

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A moving city

Historically, Ulaanbaatar has had trouble staying put. The first recorded capital city of the Mongolian empire was created in 1639, and it was situated some 420 km from its current location. Since it was made of felt tents, the city was easily transported when the grass dried up, and so Ulaanbaatar has existed in a total of 25 locations since it’s founding, finally erected in its current location in 1778. It used to be called the City of Felt, and only became Ulaanbaatar, or Red Hero, after the communists took over the country in 1924.

Still today, Nomad culture is visible throughout the city. Yurts — or Gers — are dotted throughout the streets, juxtaposed with high rise buildings. As hundreds of thousands of nomads are forced to settle in the city, a vast slum has cropped up, yurts crammed together around the town centre. They look oddly lost outside of the vast expanses of the countryside they were built for. Climate change has led to cold dry winters which decimate livestock every year, meaning that nomads can no longer make a living off herding, and are forced, instead, to come to the city.

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A stylish city

The first thing I noticed is that Mongolians are damn stylish. From punks with mohawks to chic businessmen, from people in traditional dress to women in designer revamps of Mongolian costumes, I was amazed by the fashion I saw on the streets of UB.

Heading to the National Museum, I understood why. The impressive gallery of costumes portrays traditional dress from across the country, and the designs are out of this world. The use of colour and shapes and textiles would not be out of place on a catwalk.

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A city of sights

UB is also home to a wealth of world-class museums. The National Museum has artefacts spanning 2500 years of Mongolian history, and is a great introduction to the little known past of this region. Considering that Mongolia’s most famous person, serial rapist Chinggis Khaan, is a direct ancestor of 1 out of every 200 people, it is fascinating to know more about the Mongolian empire which once spread from the pacific to Bulgaria.

Stepping even further back in history, UB’s Dinosaur Museum is a little underwhelming, considering how many of the world’s dinosaur fossils were found in the Gobi desert. Few are left in the country. But it is still very much worth a peek around — especially the brightly colours, trippy murals leading to the bathrooms on the ground floor.

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At the end of the day, I headed from the Museums up to Mongolia’s biggest monastery, Gandantegchinlen. A cluster of temples, each more beautiful than the next, forms a large rectangle overlooking the city.

The first one I walked into was filled with monks chanting and singing, their voices echoing throughout the room, transporting me, instantly, out and above the city.

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