Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia‘s capital, is home to half this enormous country’s population – about one million. Though the centre is pretty modern, the outskirts are made up of wooden shacks and felt tents called gers, the traditional dwelling of the Mongolian nomad. It is a good place to prepare for or recuperate after your exploration of the rest of Mongolia.
Although of course accessible by air, Ulaanbaatar is also a major stop on one of the Trans-Mongolian Railway. The Trans-Mongolian branches off the Trans-Siberian at the Russian town of Ulan Ude and crosses Mongolia to arrive in Beijing, the capital of China. However, travelers can save A LOT of money and even time by taking local buses and trains rather than the direct Ulan Ude – Ulaanbaatar and Ulaanbaatar – Beijing trains. For example, coming from Beijing you should get the bus to the border town of Erlian / Erenhot, cross the border yourself to Zamyn Uud and get another train to Ulaanbaatar. It takes slightly longer than the direct train but saves a lot of money. Coming from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar there is a direct bus which saves you time and money over the train.
Coming from Siberia you will of course cross into Northern Mongolia. Coming from China you will cross into Southern Mongolia. Though the Northern Mongolia border crossing with Russia is geographically closer to destinations such as the Darkhad Depression and Lake Khovsgol, finding transport there and, if needed, guides straight after crossing the border from Russia is much harder than in Ulaanbaatar. Likewise, though the Southern Mongolia border crossing with China is much closer to the Gobi Desert, guides and transport are harder to find than in Ulaanbaatar. For this reason many travelers head straight for Ulaanbaatar after entering Mongolia. In the capital there are lots of cheap guest houses who can organise transport and, if necessary, English speaking guides. See the main Mongolia page for information on hiring your own vehicle and driver and its pros and cons in relation to travel by public transport.
A scattering of monasteries and museums make Ulaanbaatar a worthy destination in itself for a day or two. The Choijin Lama Temple museum, housed in a former monastery, provides a particularly interesting insight into Mongolian Buddhism.
Click here for my blog on Ulaanbaatar. It’s 3412 words and 16 photos.
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