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The second stop on our Trans Mongolian Railway adventure was Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We arrived there one afternoon after catching the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The train to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing was long but a great chance to relax! The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar was gearing up for the Naadaam Festival which started the day after our arrival. The city was full of people arriving from far and wide to enjoy and celebrate the traditional games of horse racing, archery and wrestling during the 2-day Naadam party. We couldn’t have picked a better time to visit Ulaanbaatar; one of the top places to visit in Mongolia. Indeed, we actually working our trip around these dates to make sure we were visiting Mongolia just in time for the games! But what’s Ulaanbaatar like and what things to do in Ulaanbaatar are there? Read this guide to Ulaanbaatar to make sure you don’t miss out on this fascinating city and the answer to what to do in Mongolia!
Ulaanbaatar, sometimes written as Ulan Bator or just UB, is the capital city of Mongolia and it’s hugely more westernised than you may be thinking. Some small city in the countryside this is not.
Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling city complete with high rises, more coffee shops than you’ll likely see anywhere in Asia, fashionably dressed residents and a complicated history.
The city was founded as a nomadic Buddhist centre and has been under Russian control in the past. You’ll notice a mix of more Soviet-style buildings in amongst Chinese as you wander around the city.
The coldest capital in the world, Ulaanbaatar comes alive in the summer and I can attest to the fact it’s definitely not cold in July – Ulaanbaatar weather in the summer is HOT! That cold creates other problems too, mainly the cloud of smoke that sits over the city in winter as a result of all the coal-burning as it keeps the houses warm. If its the dream of pristine Mongolian air you’re after, you’re not going to find it in Ulaanbaatar thanks to the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, but make sure to spend some time in this city during your Trans Mongolian Railway trip.
Where is Ulaanbaatar?
Ulaanbaatar is in Mongolia and more precisely north-central Mongolia. It’s at an elevation of 1,300m above sea level in a valley on the banks of the Tuul River. The city is connected to both Russia and China by rail on an off-shoot of the Trans Siberian Railway more commonly referred to as the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
Is Mongolia safe?
I felt very safe when walking around Ulaanbaatar and travelling in Mongolia and yes, it’s safe to travel to Mongolia. Lots of people travel independently either hiring their own vehicles and exploring remote parts of Mongolia or by using public transport and taxis to get around the country. There are also plenty of tours organised by the guesthouses and hostels that you can join if you want to meet new people and travel as a group.
How to get to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
The main ways people get to the city of Ulaanbaatar are by flying into Chinggis Kahn airport, or by getting the train to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing. We took the second option and caught the K23 train from Beijing to UB.
Flights to Ulaanbaatar
International flights arriving in Ulaanbaatar arrive at the Chinggis Khaan Ulaanbaatar Airport. Aeroflot flies from Moscow and Air China flies to Mongolia from Beijing. You can also fly from Turkey and Korea.
If you’re travelling to Mongolia from Canada, the USA or Europe you’ll normally have to make a stopover.
I always use Skyscanner to find flights when I travel. They make it super easy to compare different options and find cheaper flights.
How to travel to Mongolia on the Trans Siberian Railway
We arrived (and left) Ulaanbaatar by train by taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing. You can also get the train from Russia to Ulaanbaatar.
Booking Trans Mongolian railway tickets
If you’re travelling during peak season it’s highly recommended you book your train tickets several months in advance. This is especially true if you’re hoping to travel to Ulaanbaatar for Naadam.
We booked our tickets online through CITS and while, yes there is a huge mark up on tickets when booking through an agency, if you’re short on time like we were, it’s a lot easier to just get them booked beforehand.
If you’re spending longer travelling around the area then you can most likely book in person a few days before. Especially if you’re not fussy about which class you’re in. We were hard-sleeper and it was still very comfortable.
Train Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
The Beijing to Ulaanbaatar trains (the K23 and K3) run on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesday and leaves at 7.27am from Beijing Railway Station (北京站). It’s easy to get to the train station from where ever you’re staying in Beijing by subway.
The journey takes around 32 hours in total with about 5 of that being the border crossing between China and Mongolia.
Read more about our experience and what to expect on the Trans-Siberian Railway here.
Russia to Ulaanbaatar by train
You can also arrive in Ulaanbaatar by train from Russia. A lot of people on the Trans Siberian Railway will stop at Irkutsk in Russia to see Lake Baikal but you can also come directly from Moscow if you’re doing the whole of the Trans Siberian Railway.
There are 3 trains that go from Ulaanbaatar to Russi. There’s the 305 which leaves on Tuesday, Saturday and Sundays, the 3 which leaves on Thursdays and from there’s the 5 which leaves on Fridays from June to October.
Where to stay in Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar is full of guest-houses with super friendly hosts. During our time in Ulaanbaatar, we stayed at 2 guest houses and at the first we had the most helpful host we’ve ever met on our travels.
Most hostels and guest houses also run their own tours if you’ve yet to book anything.
Hostels in Ulaanbaatar
There are lots of guesthouses and hostels in Ulaanbaatar which offer budget accommodation for your trip to Mongolia. Many of them will help you out with a transfer from the airport of the Ulaanbaatar railway station to the hostel.
- Sara’s Guest House: We stayed at Sara’s Guest House for most of our trip to Ulaanbaatar. Sara was immensely helpful with getting us cheaper tickets for Naadam, getting a SIM Card and where to eat nearby. Plus the price is hard to beat making this the best guest house in Ulaanbaatar! Book here & see prices.
- Danista Nomads Tour Hostel: Another highly recommended hostel in Ulaanbaatar is Danista Nomads hostel. There are single-sex dorms available here as well as single and private rooms. Very close to the monastery. Book here & See prices.
- Khuvsgul Lake Hostel: Here there’s a restaurant, gym, American breakfast and a kitchen in which you can prepare your own meals. See prices.
- Zaya Guest House: Zaya Guest House rooms have a TV, some have a seating area and there’s a coffee machine in the room. They look stylish too! Book here
Hotels in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar hotels are few and far between but there are some. However, you should expect to pay a lot more compared to what you get for the hostels.
- Grand Hill Hotel Ulaanbaatar: Rooms here come with a private bathroom, fridges, kettles and AC. Rate also includes breakfast. See more here.
- Grand Hill Hotel Ulaanbaatar: Rooms with private bathrooms come with a bathrobe and free toiletries. You can even choose your own pillow and enjoy views of Bogd mountain. Rates & booking.
Best things to do in Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar has plenty of things to do so if you’re wondering what to do in Ulaanbaatar then be sure to check out these top Ulaanbaatar attractions! Use these ideas to plan your Ulaanbaatar city tour!
Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar
Naadam is Mongolia’s national celebration of national independence and it combines both arts and sports. The main events at the Naadam festival are the 3 manly sports – wrestling, horseracing and archery – alongside singing and dancing.
The sports for Naadam run for 2 days in July (in 2019 is was 11-12), but Mongolians celebrate for about 5 days. There are also smaller Naadam festivals out in the Mongolian countryside but Naadam in Ulaanbaatar is the main event.
We attended the opening ceremony, archery and wrestling in the stadium and headed out to the country to watch the horseracing too. The opening ceremony of Naadam was like attending an Olympic Ceremony!
If you have flexibility with when you visit Mongolia then try and time it around Naadam as it’s got to be the best time to visit Mongolia!
Try fermented horse milk and cheese curds
Our host, Sara, at the guest house greeted us when we returned one evening with a glass of fermented horse milk and cheese curds. I was curious to try these especially Mongolian treats and, whilst I won’t exactly be looking to add them to my weekly shopping list, I’m glad we got to try them. It’s a little bit fizzy and very sour tasting!
Fermented horse milk is actually alcoholic and you’ll see Mongolians walking around with several litres of the stuff!
We were told that cheese curds are often used as snacks for children, especially amongst Mongolian nomads. Sometimes there’s fruit put in them to make it a bit more appetising.
Visit Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square is the site where, in July 1921, Damdin Sükhbaatar declared Mongolia’s final independence from China. The square that’s now there features a bronze statue of Sükhbaatar astride his horse and is one of the most well known Mongolia tourist spots.
Given that Mongolia doesn’t really use addresses, Sükhbaatar Square is a pretty good landmark for finding your way around the city.
Go to Gandan Khiid monastery
The full name of Gandan Khiid monastery, Gandantegchinlen, roughly translates as “the great place of complete joy”.
Around the start of the 19th Century, there were more than 100 temples and monasteries in Ulaanbaatar. Unfortunately, only a handful of them survived the religious purges of 1937 and it wasn’t until the early 1990s the Mongolians started to openly practise Buddhism again.
Gandan Khiid monastery is one of Mongolia’s most important and one of the biggest attractions in Ulaanbaatar too.
- It costs 4000T to enter and try to visit around 9am/10am to see the ceremonies
We ended up just wandering around the complex to the east of the main monastery and caught the end of some of the prayers and ceremonies too.
Learn about Mongolian history
Ulaanbaatar has quite a few museums but the main one to visit is the National Museum of Mongolia.
Mongolia’s National Museum takes you from the Neolithic era right to the present day. It gives you an overview of Mongolian culture from stone-age petroglyphs to displays of traditional ceremonial costumes.
I knew very little about Mongolian history before visiting and this was a great introduction.
- Tickets cost 8000T per adult plus an extra 10,000T if you want to take photos.
Head to the Mongolian countryside and stay in a Ger
Mongolia’s famed for its countryside and the pristine air. And while this is a post about the best things to do in Ulaanbaatar, the countryside isn’t too far away from the city and it’s one of the top Mongolia tourist attractions!
There are two Mongolian National Parks near Ulaanbaatar. They’re called Gorkhi-Terelj and Khustain Nuruu National Park. Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is the one we visited after the Naadam festivities and spent a couple of nights living in a Ger, washing in rivers and hanging with cows. It was beautiful and I’d highly recommend it as one of the best places to see in Mongolia near the city!
Read more about staying in a Ger in Mongolia here.
Explore Mongolian coffee culture
I really didn’t expect Mongolia to have such a huge coffee scene! There were coffee shops everywhere and not just because ‘coffee’ was the only word we could recognise.
There’s no Starbucks (or at least we didn’t see any), but there are loads of independent looking and local chains of coffee shops in Ulaanbaatar. You could spend days trying them all out.
We like Cafe Bene when we just needed a more westernised lunch (sandwich & an iced coffee with free wifi). Plus it was the only place open during Naadam.
Also, give these places a go for coffee in Ulaanbaatar:
- Bud Coffee Lounge
- Uni Coffee House
- UBean Coffee House & Roasterie
- Millie’s Espresso
Eat Buuz and Khuushuur
These two Mongolian foods are delicious and a must eat when you’re on your trip in Ulaanbaatar. They’re also very cheap and so great if you’re travelling on a budget!
Buuz is a Mongolian steamed dumpling filled with meat (usually minced mutton or beef). You’ll find it on the menus at many Mongolian cafes and Ulaanbaatar restaurants. We actually tried vegan ones (see below) on our first night in UB.
Khuushuur is a meat pastry or dumpling popular in Mongolia; a bit like an English pasty (with less veg). The meat inside tends to be either beef or mutton mixed with onion, salt and a few other spices. On one day of our trip to Ulaanbaatar, we ate Khuushuur for lunch and dinner (’cause they were cheap and the only thing on offer at Naadam!). But they’re yummy too.
Experiment with Mongolian vegan culture
Another surprise when visiting Mongolia was the number of vegan restaurants in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia isn’t exactly a country you’d think of as having been swept up by the move towards veganism and eating less meat. Especially when you consider the dishes that are traditionally eaten there.
However, there are so many good vegan places, some of them are even the best restaurants in Ulaanbaatar! We ate at one of them on our first night and were recommended a few more that we didn’t quite get time to try.
- Luna Blanca – we ate here and there are big portions of vegan food for a good price
- Bosco Verde – one of the top-rated vegan restaurants in UB
- Loving Hut – popular vegan chain in Ulaanbaatar
- Agnista – gets really good reviews
- Green Zone
Visit Narantuul Market
Also known as the black market, Narantuul Market in Ulaanbaatar is the place to go if you like to haggle. You’ll find pretty much everything imaginable here from fabrics to fruits and buttons to fur-lined boots.
Top tip: This market is notorious for pickpockets and the host from our Ger told us of a couple of occasions he, or people he’s with, have been victims of theft.
State Department Store
If there’s any shopping you want to get done then make sure to go shopping in Ulaanbaatar’s State Department Store. This place is full of food, souvenirs and gifts and it’s super central so the perfect place to stop in at when you’re in Ulaanbaatar.
Go hiking on Mt Bogd Kahn
Mountains are the backdrop to the city of Ulaanbaatar and the closest one if known as Mt Bogd Kahn. Spending a day hiking this mountain, visiting the nature reserve and the ruins of Manzushir Monastery is a day well spent.
Visit the Manzushir Monastery ruins first. The monastery was built in 1733 but destroyed in the 1930s during the anti-religion campaigns. However, you can still see the main temple which has survived and then a few stone terraces and walls along the cliffs. Then, enjoy hiking through the forests and meadows to Tsetsee Gun Peak which is 2,256m above sea level.
See the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
Another top thing to do in Ulaanbaatar is to take go out to the Genghis Khan equestrian statue during your Mongolia trip. The Genghis Khan Statue Complex is 54 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar and takes roughly an hour to get to.
While Genghis Kahn is often seen as a brutal and savage dictator outside of Mongolia, he’s very much the national hero of Mongolia and this statue was built to remember him. The statue was built in 2008 and is a 40-metre high statue of Kahn on his horse. It’s the world’s largest equestrian statue and is more than double the height of the previous record holder in Uruguay. It took 250 tonnes of stainless steel and reportedly cost $4.1 million to construct! Nowadays it’s top of the list when it comes to Mongolia famous landmarks!
There’s a museum inside and then you can climb the stairs to the top of the horses head for a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
- Costs 30,000 T per person – expensive but still one of the most popular things to do in Mongolia
Check out this tour: Mongolia Genghis Kahn and Gorkhi-Terelj tour from UB