Steppes, Horses, and BBQ | Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Mongolia has always been one of those places with an almost mystical reputation, perhaps because we imagine it to be so drastically different from whichever metropolises we live in. Aptly called “the Land of Eternal Blue Sky”, Mongolia is a vast country comprised of endless grass steppes, desert, barren hills with few trees, and of course, endless blue skies and sunshine. It paints the image of a wide open grassy world dotted with grazing cattle and nomadic humans on horseback.

The mystery and romanticism associated with Mongolia has always piqued my curiosity, and recently I finally had the time to visit. Although my trip was short (4 days), it was enough time for me to have an eye-opening experience in this rugged country that appears to be stuck in time. From the rustic nomadic living conditions out in the steppes to the Soviet-era sights and buildings scattered around Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia took me back to scenes from simpler times.

The Mongolian steppes are arid, dry, and cold, but living things manage to tough it out

Getting In/Out

The main route into Mongolia is simply through its capital and largest city, Ulaanbaatar. Ulaanbaatar (or “UB” for short) is served by a few airlines, with the prominent ones being Turkish Airlines and Mongolia’s national carrier, Mongolian Airlines. The airport of UB is small and flights are infrequent, with only several flights departing per day. Connections include major capitals in the region such as Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, and Istanbul.

When arriving at UB airport, transportation methods into the city are limited, so you more or less have to go with one of the taxi drivers/touts at the Arrivals area. Be firm on the price, and you should pay no more than 20,000-30,000 MNT (1 USD = 2700 MNT in late-2019) to go to the city centre. You can use the ATMs at the Arrivals hall to withdraw local currency, or if you have USD cash you can exchange some at the exchange office upstairs (Departures), which actually has very good rates (only 8 MNT buy-sell spread from the mid-market rate).

Alternatively, many Western travellers arrive in Ulaanbaatar via the gruelling Trans-Siberian railway (aka “the Vodka Train”), either from Moscow or from Beijing.

Ulaanbaatar – the City

Ulaanbaatar is home to half of the entire country’s 3-million population, and is a city in transition, trying to balance the new and modern with its nomadic roots and a Soviet-influenced past. The city of Ulaanbaatar is centered around Sukhbaatar Square, the main square in the city. Around this massive Soviet-style square are the city’s most historically important buildings including the Mongolian government palace, the museum, opera house, post office, and others. Several skyscrapers and high-end hotels can be found in the vicinity of the square, showing off the modern side of Ulaanbaatar.

The imposing statue of Genghis Khan in his throne at Sukhbaatar Square

Further out from the city center are Soviet-era apartment blocks and buildings reminiscent of an industrial Siberian town, grey and gloomy. On the furthest outskirts of the city are the uniquely infamous “ger districts” (yurt districts) of Ulaanbaatar, where many nomadic families have settled in search of work in the capital city. The hillsides north of Ulaanbaatar are blanketed with these ger districts, where many people still live in traditional yurts without modern amenities such as running water or electricity. From a distance, the appearance of these ger districts reminded me of the dense favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

One city, magnitudes of difference.

“Power Plant #3” of Ulaanbaatar, with the Tuul River in the foreground

Walking around the city, its post-Soviet vibes are still quite strong — I would say on par with some Siberian Russian cities. The Cyrillic alphabet was adopted for official Mongolian script, and signs in Cyrillic can be seen everywhere. Walking around UB on a gloomy day, you do get a little bit of that dystopian Soviet feeling from the architecture and signs around the city — not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not a feeling you can easily find in Europe or North America!

Looking northwest from Sukhbaatar Square, with the expansive ger districts on the distant hills

If you are visiting UB just for a couple of days, then chances are you will spend most of your time close to the city center, where everything is within walking distance. Ulaanbaatar is quite spread out though, so if you are interested in exploring the ger districts or the outskirts of the city, you’ll have to either take a taxi, hitchhike, or ride the crowded public bus. English proficiency among the locals is low, so communication could be an issue if you are trying to negotiate for a ride. To make things easy, it’s best to have the destination address written in Mongolian Cyrillic and simply show the driver how much money you agree to pay prior to starting the trip.

Food & Drink

Vegans, please close your eyes.

Ulaanbaatar is heaven for a meat lover like myself, especially after living in China where quality red meat is expensive and hard to come by. The nomadic Mongolian diet is similar to those of their Central Asian neighbours (e.g. Kazkahs, Tatars, etc.), and consist heavily of livestock meat and dairy, as well as dumplings. Some very common and popular national dishes include Khuushur and Buuz, which are meat dumplings (similar to Baozi in China) either deep fried or steamed, respectively.

I had a fantastic time sampling restaurants in UB, and I certainly enjoyed the variety of meat options ranging from Mongolian BBQ to Mongolian hotpot to self-grilled steaks of a wide variety. If you are up for trying some slightly exotic red meats, I would recommend visiting Khainag Restaurant in the City Tower — it’s a cool rooftop restaurant with a helipad, and Korean -style BBQ tables where you can select and grill your own steaks. I tried horse, yak, and camel steak here, and they were absolutely devine.

Yak, camel, horse. In that order. Reserve your judgment.

You won’t find many vegetables in the nomadic diet, since few vegetables can grow in this arid and cold part of the world. The “common” vegetables you would find in a Mongolian diet are simple things like cucumbers and onions, but not much else. However, there are a variety of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese restaurants in UB, so if heavy carnivorism isn’t your thing, you do have some other options.

Niislel, or “the Capital” in English

Alcohol is very commonplace in Mongolia, not dissimilar to other cold and desolate parts of the world (e.g. Siberia, Canadian Prairies). When it’s cold out and you are in the middle of nowhere with a couple of friends/family, there’s not much else to do other than getting wasted. Drinking in UB is very cheap, and you can find several varieties of local and foreign brews. The main local beer brands include Niislel (“The Capital”), Chinggis (local brewery), and Golden Gobi. Vodka is, of course, also very popular here, but I am more of a whiskey or gin person so I kinda stayed away.

Getting Out

Mongolia is a very sparsely populated country — in fact, one of the least densely populated countries in the world. That combined with the nation’s trailing development in comparison with its neighbours, means that public infrastructure in Mongolia is severely lacking. There are very few roads outside the capital city, with most parts of the country only reachable via off-road vehicles (Soviet 4×4’s) or horseback. This means that, in order to explore remote areas of the country or to experience life with a real nomadic tribe, a lot of time is required (2 weeks recommended).

Paved roads like this one are few and far in between in Mongolia

Since I only had 4 days in Mongolia, I decided to only venture out to Gorkhi Terelj National Park, a vast area of barren steppes and rocky mountains roughly 50km east of Ulaanbaatar. There is no public transit for getting there from UB, at the time of writing, since the road to Terelj is under construction and public buses are discontinued. You will need to hire a driver (or arrange one through your accommodation) for getting to Terelj from UB. Since the main road is under construction, the only way to get there currently is a gravel/dirt road alongside the main road. It’s a bumpy ride that takes roughly 1-1.5 hours, and you better be prepared if you are prone to car sickness.

Despite the not-so-simple route, Terelj is still the closest and most easily accessible natural park region from Ulaanbaatar. It is also the only one that has somewhat developed accommodation for tourists — you can find a range of options varying from a luxury wooden lodge to simple ger camps without running water. Personally, I went for the ger experience, and I stayed in a decently “touristy” ger camp that had a toilet building with running water, and a restaurant where the owners made meals for us. A one night stay in October (start of low season) cost about $30 USD, meals and activities excluded.

My beautiful ger (yurt) with the barren backdrop of Terelj National Park

Living in a ger is interesting, and a very unique (albeit not super comfortable) experience. In the summer, I imagine it would be very nice to relax in a ger and open your door to face the stunning nature. In the winter, however, temperature management in the ger can be tricky, depending on the state of your coal-burning stove. I made the mistake of shoving too much coal into my stove before bed, and the inside of my tent soon felt like a Finnish sauna. I literally had to leave the door open to the brisk outside air (-10 Celsius outside) for an hour before it was comfortable enough inside the tent for me to fall asleep without sweating. In the morning however, I woke up to a rather frigid tent, since the fire had burned out.

The stove is the most important part of a Mongolian ger (especially in winter)

No doubt that staying in a Mongolian ger was an unique experience, but I’m not gonna lie — as a spoiled city boy I preferred my temperature-controlled hotel room in Ulaanbaatar more. 😛

The best part about being in Mongolia’s nature is that there are almost no boundaries — you are free to go whichever direction you want and wherever you want, as long as you are not trespassing into someone’s pasture. This is so different from national parks or natural regions in more developed and more populated countries, where you are typically only allowed to follow certain paths or camp in certain assigned locations. In the Mongolian wilderness, you can walk/run/bike/ride in whichever direction you want, and you can literally pitch your tent or build a fence wherever you want. A rustic sense of freedom!

Pure blue skies and wide open spaces

In Conclusion

Mongolia is a stunning country, and there are few others in the world like it. It’s a land of endless blue sky and endless stretches of grass and rock, with more animals than humans. Despite the ruggedness and some inconveniences for a typical Western visitor, Mongolia offers beautiful scenery, nutritious food, a proud people, and a glorious sense of detachment from the world we are so used to.

Make your visit, sooner rather than later. At the meantime, check out my Instagram for more pics from Mongolia and beyond.

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