Mongolia Travel: 5 Places to Discover in Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia, Tours & Attractions — By on August 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Wedged between Russia and the People’s Republic of China lies Mongolia…a sometimes forgotten country for Western travelers. The land has been passed around and fought over from Asian empire to Asian empire, and over 500 years ago the country came under rule of Tibetan Buddhism. Just after the first World War ended, Mongolia came under Russian Soviet influences which lasted until the 1990s when the country underwent its own democratic revolution. It’s the 19th largest and most sparsely populated country in the world, which means there’s a lot to learn, and a lot left undiscovered. Lost Girl Julie Falconer (Asia travel website) took a trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, earlier this summer to learn more about…

Off the beaten path, Mongolia offers a wealth of sightseeing opportunities for lost girls across the world. From the capital of Ulaanbaatar to the famous Gobi Desert, the country’s diverse landscapes are ripe for exploration. Most visitors spend at least a day in Ulaanbaatar before embarking on adventures further into Mongolia. I was lucky enough to spend almost a week there when a Mongolian friend of mine invited me to visit. While I was there, I checked out many of the city’s famous (and not-so-famous) sights…below are my favorite five top sightseeing spots in Ulaanbaatar.

Gandan Monastery

Officially called the Gandantegchinleng Khiid, Ulaanbaatar’s Gandan monastery is the largest and most important Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Built in 1835, it was one of the only monasteries to survive the large-scale closure and destruction of temples when the Soviet regime banned religious practices.

I visited the Gandan monastery complex on a beautiful sunny day. On our walk through the grounds, I couldn’t help but marveled at the Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara with its 26 meter gold-and-jewel statue of Migjid Janraisig (“the Lord who looks in every direction”). The statue was build to commemorate Mongolia’s independence from China in the early 1900’s and it literally weighs over 90 tons. About 2100 precious stones were embedded in and used to decorate the statue.  Devout worshipers spin the cylindrical prayer wheels as they walk by.

The complex also houses a university, several colleges, and a number of other temples. The whole space is very active–while I was there, I saw several monks walking the monastery grounds or chanting prayers.

Zaisan Monument

From the soft green hillsides that sweep in a large arc around the city, to the cold stone monuments that sit quietly far above the bustle below, I could feel the tension of the very different eras–Cold War meets 21st Century.  WHen we first got there, our attention was drawn to the Mongolian-funded Soviet tank perched on a stone that commemorates the fall of Berlin in World War II. Then we climbed a set of 300 steps leads up a hill. By the time I reached the top, I was breathing hard, partly because frankly, 300 steps is a lot, and partly because the spectacular views of Ulaanbaatar are literally breathtaking.

Zaisan is  an impressive circular monument honoring fallen Soviet soldiers. Mosaics in the Socialist Realism style depict war victories and scenes of friendship between the USSR and Mongolia. On one side stands a huge stone statue of a soldier holding a tall banner with the Soviet hammer and sickle.

Aside from the history lesson, the monument offered spectacular views over Ulaanbaatar. Awed, I spent more time than I had anticipated taking photographs and admiring the surrounding green hills on the outskirts of the city.

Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan

The Bogd Khan (similar to an emperor) was both a Buddhist leader and the emperor of Mongolia when the country declared its independence in 1911. This winter palace has been converted into a museum in the southern part of Ulaanbaatar.

I noticed the palace almost immediately the first time I drove by. Its traditional architecture and low-lying buildings stood out among the modern surroundings.

The impressive complex is home to art, temples, the Bogd Khan’s personal library, and a ceremonial ger. It also displays some of the Bogd Khan’s personal possessions.

Sukhbaatar Square

Sukhbaatar Square is in the heart of the city. We spent a lot of time here during my week in Mongolia, and on my first of many visits, I immediately noticed the massive Government Palace with its equally grand statue of Genghis Khan (the founder of the Mongol empire).

Other buildings that line the square include the Mongolian Stock Exchange, which I was lucky enough to visit one afternoon just after the markets closed. We walked in and noticed right away the stark white desks sat eerily empty on the trading floor, with remnants of the day’s activities all but gone.

Back in Sukhbaatar Square there is a large statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar (the square is named after him), who led the 1921 revolution in Mongolia. The area around the statue has historically been the location for major political and cultural events in Ulaanbaatar. Luckily for me, I happened to be there during the Naadam Festival. The Naadam is the biggest festival of the year in Mongolia and usually happens in July, running for a total of three days. It showcases Mongolia’s top athletes in horse racing, archery, and wrestling. We watched the fireworks and joined in with the crowd in this big celebration.

Hotel Mongolia

Hotel Mongolia bills itself as the only ‘resort hotel’ in Ulaanbaatar and is located on the outskirts of the city. It is beautifully designed in traditional Mongolian style featuring an abundance of hand-carved wood. There is a range of accommodation on offer, from western-style hotel rooms to traditional gers. A ger is round, cone-shaped tent with one door and no windows. It is a Mongolian-style traditional house and is made out of boards with a wool covering.

Even non-guests can visit Hotel Mongolia to walk along the shore of the Tuul River or have dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants. My host took me to the Great Empire Restaurant, which is set in a beautiful free-standing building designed to look like a historic temple pagoda.

The restaurant offers cuisine from different parts of Asia and Europe and the surrounding veranda is a perfect place for a pre-dinner cocktail. On deck, I found myself gazing up to the mountains in the distance, soaking in Ulaanbaatar’s beauty. Mongolia was new, uncharted territory for me and I was excited to explore the rest of the country beyond the capital city.

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  • Nancy Keith says:

    While the Gandan Temple is an imposing site, far more interesting is the Chojin Lama Temple Museum, a small walled compound of monastery and temple builldings in the heart of Ulaanbaatar. It was built in 1904 under the Manchurian influence in Mongolia. The buildings were preserved as a museum by the Soviets who otherwise tried to wipe out Buddhism. The main temple is filled with the statues of Buddhist dieties and sculptures and artworks of all kinds. During the summer months, nitely concerts of traditional Mongolian music are offered and there is a small gift shop that features more Mongolian items than I found anywhere else.