Flying into UB was unlike anywhere else I have flown to. We flew over vast mountainous land and ongoing plains. We could see no car lights, buildings or roads, then all of a sudden, our landing gear went down. We arranged a $15 pickup to Sunpath Guesthouse and were welcomed to the country with blaring Mongolian hip hop music and learned how to buy a cigarette through the window of your vehicle from a neighboring car. It was interesting to see the inconsistency of driver side seats as half of the cars are imported from Japan and the others from Korea. Nick and I were on our way to a 45 day adventure.
We spent time exploring the city, walking to the Genghis (Chinggis) Khaan Square and running errands. We headed to the top floor of the State Department Store to purchase a local sim with 5GB for $13. Although the 3 workers at Mobicom barely spoke any English, the process was easy. I was shocked by how large the department store is and the variety of goods they sell. (If you want peanut butter for trek buy it here, as you won’t find it at the local grocery stores.)
We took the number 7 bus for 500 T ($.25) and headed to immigration, as any US citizen planning to stay more than 30 days must register. While on the bus, we noticed a young local lady handing the older bus driver a baby, he stood up and took a seat with the baby in the back of the bus. The women took off her purse and started to drive, we loved this shift change! Although immigration was only a few miles away, the bus took about 45 minutes each way and the process took about 1 hour. We needed photo copies of our passports, passport photos, 1,600 T ($.75) and a lot of patience. Later in the day we stopped by Seven Summits (the outdoor gear shop of Mongolia) for a map and some friendly advice.
The next morning (9 am) we attended morning prayer at Gandan Khiid. After the religious purges of 1937, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Mongolians openly practiced Buddhism again. These temples were built in 1838, fell in 1937 and were reopened in 1994. There are a variety of temples where you can see monks chanting, meditating, eating breakfast and the novices learning the sutras. Migjid Janraisig Süm, the main attraction, displays a 26m tall Buddha and hundreds of images of Ayush, the Buddha of longevity. The large hollow Buddha statue contains 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 2 million bundles of mantras, 334 sutras, an entire ger and furniture. Listening to the monks chant takes over your body and reminds you that everything is okay.
Some of our favorite eats in UB were Luna Blanca, Pyongyang, Namaste, and Millie’s Cafe. Luna Blanca is Mongolia’s first vegan restaurant and we indulged in delicious Mongolian dumplings (meat free!), kimchi and ginger sesame seed tea. Another great way to end the day is to walk up the steps of the Zaisan Memorial and enjoy the sunset and overlook of the city. You can also catch the bus and head to the black market (Naram Tull) where you’ll find a maze of cheap goods ranging from hardware to traditional Mongolian clothing.
Overall UB is feels run down, underdeveloped and unmaintained. There are buildings half constructed and abandoned, particulate pollution (caution to all contact wearers), and a present alcohol problem. However, the people are the gem of the city. They are not necessarily friendly or overly excited to see Western tourists but so beautiful and every face tells a story. Drive 10 minutes outside of the city and see a whole other world where there is beauty in the animals, sunsets, desert, mountains, rivers, gers and steps (grasslands).