Trans Siberian Railroad: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Trans Siberian Railroad: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Trans Siberian Railroad: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Oct 25-27, 2011

I’m not sure I really “understand” Ulaanbaatar, home to half the population of Mongolia. But there may not be much to get. Mongolia is a massive place but very sparsely populated. More people live in Chicago than all of Mongolia. As a result it’s easy for the world to overlook the country and it’s cities.

Ger District

Ulaanbaatar has experienced explosive growth and currently it’s a chaotic, sprawling, busy place with a big traffic problem. It’s the coldest capital city in the world, with average January temperatures at 4F for the high and -15F for the low. Those are averages and it routinely gets much colder – the record low is -47F. Infrastructure is fairly good: running water, electricity, and heat all worked fine when we were there (although I’m told power outages are fairly common.) The roads need some work and the traffic culture is too new to be anything but wildly chaotic. Like a lot of Asian cities, air pollution is bad – especially in winter. Suburbia in Ulaanbaatar consists of nomadic families who have set up their gers on the outskirts of the city.

Mongol at Bar

To me there is something very, very cool about people who not only survive, but live their lives in so severe a climate. Ulaanbaatar has always fascinated me for that reason and after years of dreaming of going there, I finally got to see it first hand. The food was great and mostly cheap, although prices varied enormously. At one local restaurant we had 3 large beers and lots of food for about $6 US dollars; at another, we paid about what you’d expect for a night out in Chicago.

Ulaanbaatar Train Station

The people we talked to were quite friendly, from the Genghis Khan-looking maffia guy who wanted me to feel how big his forearms were (about the size of my upper leg), to the restaurant employees who were patient with us even though we were completely lost with the language. There is a bit of a pickpocket problem but it’s opportunistic. I kept my camera inside my coat and valuables in a money belt. If it’s real danger you’re after, just cross the street. This is true of many places in Asia but perhaps none more so than in Ulaanbaatar. My street-crossing technique when traveling is to ‘shadow’ a local: they know what they’re doing and can safely get you across.

Mongolian Sunrise

Ulaanbaatar has always been fascinating to me. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s the people. Maybe the history. Seeing it firsthand was a huge highlight of the trip. We saw lots in the days we spent there, and eventually I’d like to return. For the time being though, it was time to move on to our next destination: Terelj National Park.

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