Mongolia didn’t really have a “capital city” until the end of the C19th – instead the Royal Court migrated around the country, following an accepted route dictated by the festivals of the Buddhist Calendar. It was the arrival of the telegraph-wire from Russia that caused the Royal Court to spend increasingly long periods at Urga – now renamed Ulaanbaatar. Even so, Urga was a small settlement made up almost entirely of gers (camel-felt tents) at the time of the Socialist Revolution of 1924 which freed Mongolia from Chinese rule, and permitted Mongolian to be spoken and printed once more. The only buildings which were not gers were the temples and residences of the monastic community. It was the USSR which built-up Urga into modern Ulaanbaatar, and it did so without any real consideration for aesthetic concerns. Factories and power-plants were plonked directly into the centre of the city, where the soviet planners believed they were most needed. Although some measures have been taken to relocate some of these facilities, Ulaanbaatar’s unfortunate legacy from this period is that it looks more soviet than Central-Asian. However, despite their romantic appeal to westerners, life in the ger-suburbs was mostly quite squalid, and few inhabitants of the soviet high-rise housing blocks which surround the city would swap their centrally-heated, indoor-plumbed, double-glazed, electrically-lit apartments for a ger for any kind of financial incentive. Beyond these high-rises, however, lies a new accretion of ger housing – mostly put-up without any official permission or control, and consequently haphazard in planning and layout, with few or any amenities provided.
All of this is in sharp contrast with what most visitors see in Ulaanbaatar – the newly-developed main street of Peace Avenue (aka Enkhtaivany Boulevard in Mongolian). Former soviet ministry buildings rub shoulders with Belgian bakeries, internet cafes and new-age bookshops – with a fair spattering of imported Chinese pirated brand goods on sale too. Mongolia is increasingly rethinking its ancient animosity towards China (taught officially in schools during the Communist era) and coming to terms with living as neighbours of a superpower. This remains a hard pill to swallow whilst China occupies a huge area of what used to be Mongolia – “Inner Mongolia”. The term “Inner Mongolia” only makes sense when used in connection with Beijing… it was the part of Mongolia that was closest to Imperial control, and thus easiest to rule. “Outer Mongolia” – the part of Mongolia which is now the People’s Republic of Mongolia – was the remote part beyond the Gobi Desert where the Chinese Emperors admitted that their rule was weak and barely effective in practice. When Mongolia split from China, China cut its losses and only bothered to defend the bit it wanted to keep – “Inner Mongolia”, which remains a part of China to this day. Although Mongolians living in “Inner Mongolia” are afforded some token minority rights by the Chinese, the complete suppression of Buddhism, the enforced collective farming… and the importation of 20 ethnic Chinese citizens for every one Mongolian… has effectively destroyed Mongolian culture within Inner Mongolia. This issue poisons every attempt at reconciliation with China – including an upgrading of the absurdly inadequate once-per-week rail service between the two capitals.
What to see in and around Ulaanbaatar
The Gandan Monastery…
which is properly known as the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, and like most monasteries and religious buildings in Mongolia has a name in classical Tibetan (it’s not a Mongolian name. Few Mongolians read Tibetan, except those training to be monks). Gandan is the principal monastery in the entire country, and there are several large temples within the monastery. Most notable for visitors is the Great Buddha Temple – containing a huge statue of the Buddha within its tower-shaped walls. Provied that you are not deliberately disrespectful, the monks welcome visitors to attend any and all of the ceremonies, as they wish to. However, the most rewarding time is usually the morning, when the most elaborate and well-attended ceremonies take place.
The Choijin Monastery Museum
Choijin was once a monastery on a similar scale to Gandan, but was closed-down during the Communist era (Gandan was left open by the Communists – allegedly to show the Mongolian people “the error of their ways”). Choijin was later reopened as a Museum, and most of the religious artifacts there are original – they were hidden by the faithful during the years of persecution, and mysteriously “reappeared” when it was safe.
Mongolian Traditional Dance & Song Performances.
There are 2-3 different troupes offering these performances – with quite an amount of overlap between the groups. Your local interpreter will have information about which shows are on where during the time you are there. Some performances take place at the Opera House – others in purpose-built venues for this kind of show.
The Mongolian National Opera & Ballet
As a kind of soviet-era legacy the Opera & Ballet needs to be seen – high-spirited performances of the classics, interspersed with some modern Mongolian ballets and operas… mostly from communist era and often about the idealized life of tractor-drivers. It makes a change from La Boheme, anyhow. The standard of the ballet is particularly good, even if you don’t especially like the works they are performing.
The Central Department Store
The Central Department Store is like a bizarre kaleidoscopic view of what is important to modern Mongolians. Imported French perfumes on the ground floor, flat-screen tvs on the second… but on the third floor you buy new furniture for your ger or get a new muurin-khuur (horse-head lyre) if you’ve worn yours out. Plus handy facilities like print-from-memory-card photo service, several atms around the building, and the eclectic collection of souvenirs on the top floor.
The Natural History Museum
A rich collection of artifacts which is sadly poorly displayed – almost nothing is marked in any language except Mongolian, and quite a lot of things aren’t even marked in Mongolian either. A few large Gobi dinosaurs, although the foreign excavators escaped with all the best exhibits by bribing Government officials of the 1930s – a tragedy which seems impossible to redress now.
The City Market…
… a cheerful mixture of basic staples with odd souvenirs and outrageously fake “antiques”.