Mongolia technically has three cities, but Ulaan Bataar, their capital, is by far the largest. With a little over a million residents, it houses about 40% of Mongolia’s population.
Ulaanbaatar means “Red Hero” in Mongolian and is the capital city of the country. Created in 1639, it’s not the traditional, historic capital. It was only named Ulaanbaatar in 1924, after Mongolia got it’s independence back from China (in 1911) and embraced Communism from the Soviet Union (in 1921). Very few historic buildings are left in Mongolia—at it’s beginning, it was little more than felt and sheepskin gers, later the Chinese and Soviets destroyed many of the 19th century buildings. Still, UB is a thriving metropolis today, and surprised us by how crowded and energetic the city streets are (even in the beginning of winter!). We bundled up as best we could and hit the streets, ready to see what the capital of Mongolia had to offer.
Naran Tuul, Monglian for “black market” is a local, outdoor market where one can buy anything, from carpets to snow shovels to wool socks. Jordan and I went to the market as soon as it opened, ready to shed our tennis shoes for real snow boots.
We had been told that pickpockets and thieves prey on tourists in the market, but I think we went early enough that it wasn’t crowded and distracting. We didn’t have a problem. Although the market officially opens at 9 am, not all stalls were open until about two hours later.
It was -25 degrees C, and we shivered and stuttered through negotiations with the sellers. Our guidebook didn’t say whether we could bargain or haggle, so we didn’t at first. But by the end, we realized that a little bit of bargaining was okay, and I got discounts off the named price. We searched around and found all sorts of winter gear—perfect for what we needed. Although you can buy traditional boots, sellers also have more modern footwear to choose from.
The curled toe in the traditional boots helps keep heat in during the winter, we learned, and is a good way to keep feet in stirrups when riding over rough terrain. Another added bonus is that the curled toes make footprints faint. When China ruled Mongolia, until 1911, they imposed harsh penalties and imprisoned many innocent people. The traditional boots helped mask the path of escaped prisoners during winter.
Jordan and I bought three pairs of boots—one snow pair for me, one more traditionally-styled snow pair for Jordan, and one sleek, modern leather boots just because they were cheap. We kinda overdid it on the boots, but there were such good deals I kinda couldn’t help myself. We spent 119 USD total on boots.
For the rest of the winter gear, such as hats, scarves, gloves, and wool socks, we spent a total of 36 USD. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was! Some of it was likely made in China and is of low quality, but I didn’t have to pay importing price that Americans do for the same goods.
The State Department store is UB’s largest and grandest department store, and is practically a tourist attraction in and of itself. Built during the communist days, the government-run department store offered the best UB had for its residents. When the communist government slowly and peacefully transformed into democracy, the store was privatized. Today the 7th story building looks drab and Soviet on the outside, but has the loveliest and brightest Christmas displays in the whole city. It has a grocery story on the bottom floor, which Jordan and I went to for buying food for our Trans-Mongolian train trip, and everything was moderately priced. We even found lots of imported Western items—things we never saw in Korea! Jordan and I salivated over the rows and rows of fresh bread to choose from. We hadn’t seen that much (or that quality) of bread in over a year.
Sukhbaatar square is the center of the city. In the middle of the square we were surrounded by a giant Chinggis Khaan statue, a Mongol warrior statue, Parliament house, and several state museums. To our south were small skyscrapers and hole-in-the-wall coffee shops. Although Mongolia is now a democracy with presidential elections every five years, a few things are still state-run, like MIAT, the airline we flew into the country on.
Our last tourist stop in the city was the National History Museum. Tickets were cheap, but the camera fee was more expensive than the cost of admission. Still, Jordan paid it because he wanted an easy way to document the history we’d learn. The first floor was Neolithic and prehistoric, and I don’t really understand those eras. I was still having a hard time piecing together the different dynasties and how the Golden Horde was different than Attila the Hun and who exactly the Manchurians were. In China, they seemed to suggest the Manchu dynasty had strong ties to Mongolia. But in Mongolia I was told they were Chinese. (And who exactly is Chinese? Who decides? Is it based on where the group lived in medieval borders, or present-day borders, or does it have to do with a broad ethnic grouping? And who gets to decide who does and doesn’t fall into the ethnic group?) Anyway, besides these rather existential questions, we had an excellent time on the upper floors.
Mongolia has around two dozen ethnic groups in the country, though most can all be labeled the umbrella term “Mongols” (not the Kazakhs though, they’re Kazakhs, not Mongols, even though they’ve lived in Mongolia for 200 years). I loved looking at the official and traditional clothing of the ethnic groups over history. Obviously, most don’t wear these today—the Kazakhs we met were wearing fleece pullovers and ski pants with fake North Face boots—but Mongolians do pull the clothing out for special festivals and holidays.
Look at this amazing clothing that Chenggis Khan’s children would’ve worn! Jordan and I stared at the colorful clothing, realizing how little information we’d known about the Mongol Empire. Most Westerners know the name Ghengis Khan (but not Chenggis Khaan, his real name and title), but only see his as an effective barbarian intent on maiming and killing his way across Asia. In fact, I think the only depiction I’ve seen of Mongols is in the Disney movie Mulan, where they’re the evil bad guys. It makes sense, of course. The only reason Westerners know about Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Empire is because the Chinese told us about him, and they were enemies. Of course they’d paint him in the worst light possible. So looking at the elaborate jewelry and clothing, much that had been transported along the Silk Road, we realized how incredible the Empire really was.
Elsewhere in the museum we got to see a tradition ger set up, as well as timelines for the Khaans to understand how history played out. The last floors told about Mongolia’s communist days (all broad brushstrokes, mostly highlighting the good things communism brought the people—like a 98% literacy rate) and heralding the smooth transition to democracy (it wasn’t that smooth, but they made it).
UB has other museums and the lovely Gandan Monastery, where Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhism is practiced, but we didn’t have time to see all of that. We had to catch a train to Russia that afternoon!