- Population: 1 372 000 inhabitants (2013)
- Density: 272 population/km²
- Area: 4 704 km2
- Altitude: 1350 m
Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia is a burgeoning neoliberal hodgepodge. Having taken to rapacious capitalist doctrine like fish to water, the nouveau riche drive around in clunky 4×4’s while the majority of people try to eke out a living. The streets are littered with small shops, congested with cars, and plastered with tacky billboards. But don’t let that put you off from visiting. After several weeks of isolation in the Mongolian countryside, Ulaanbaatar with its running hot water and electricity might not appear so bad.
Urgoo, the first capital was established in 1639, located 420 km from Ulaanbaatar in the Arkhangai province. The residents being nomads, the city migrated several times before settling in its current location in 1778. After the Russian and Chinese invasions, in 1924 the city was renamed Ulaanbaatar (red hero) in tribute to the triumph Communism.
In 1933, Ulaanbaatar became an independent administrative entity of the Tov aimag and in 1940 the Russians began laying down foundations for a more modern infrastructure, albeit in the brutalist soviet style: concrete apartment blocks, imposing government buildings and some more concrete.
During this period a plethora of old Russian buildings as well as hundreds of monasteries and temples were destroyed. Today, homogeneous glass high rises and empty gated apartment complexes pop up at an unprecedented rate, not too dissimilar from the ‘ghost cities’ of china. Amidst all this a fledgling cultural ‘renaissance’ continues to plod along.
Choijin Lama monastery
Located in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, just 10 minutes away from the central square, the Choijin Lama monastery consists of five temples whose construction began in 1904 and was completed in 1908.
In 1938 the site was transformed into a museum by the Stalinist Government, saving it from destruction. The temple is a jewel of architecture and the museum has a variety of early Buddhist art and artifacts on display.
Built in 1838, it is one of the largest in the country and a must see for any visitor. Its full name is “Gandantegtchinlin” meaning “place of supreme bliss”. It is one of the few religious sites that escaped destruction, opening its doors to foreign travelers in the 1940s. Only in 1990 religious ceremonies were allowed to resume and now it is home to more than 600 monks.
The main attraction of the monastery is the Megjid-Janraiseg temple which houses the 26 meter tall Megjid-Janraiseg statue. The temple itself contains 334 sutras, 2 million sets of mantras and a fully furnished ger. Built in 1911, the statue was destroyed in 1937 and rebuilt in the 1990s with Japanese and Nepalese support.
Chinggis Khaan square
Formerly known as Sükhbaatar square before it was renamed in 2013, it was here where Damdin Sükhbaatar declared Mongolia’s independence from China in 1921. At the center of the square is a commemorative statue of Sükhbaatar on his horse. A common place for public gathering, it was the backdrop to the anti-Communist demonstrations of the 1990’s, nowadays concerts, festivals, ceremonies draw in the crowd. East of the square is the cultural palace, southeast of the square is the state Opera and ballet theatre. To the southwest is the Mongolian Stock Exchange which opened in 1992. And finally to the north is the garish and ostentatious Parliament building .
National Museum of Mongolia
This museum traces the history of Mongolia from the Neolithic era to the present day. On display are stone age artifacts such as petroglyphs and deer stones. The other floors house costumes and accessories as well as armors of the Mongol horde dating from the 12th century. The final hall contains the more recent history of the country. Sadly the information has been cherry picked to omit the more uncomfortable truths of the hardships of the 1990’s.
The Tumen Ekh Song & Dance Ensemble
Founded in 1989, the ensemble performs regularly at the state youth & children’s theatre. One of the most popular cultural acts in the city, it features traditional throat singers, contortionists and dancers. The ensemble has performed in more than 40 countries, most notably at the World Music Center in New York city, the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and at Buckingham Palace in the United Kingdom.