My time in the land of Ghenghis Khan happened in February, and the negative temperatures were a constant reminder that this place is in a league of its own. I arrived only days after the recent cold snap finished which found a temperature of -40 degrees at night. That temperature makes the -10 I experienced seem like a bright summer day.
The people here don't care though, because for them, this is life in Mongolia and things are different here. You won't find any McDonalds but you will find more Westerners than in other international cities. It makes for an easy place for Americans to arrive as we need no pre authorization visa nor do we need to pay any entree visa fee. We simply land and walk in.
It sometimes feels as though Ghenghis Khan is still walking the streets of Ulan Bator, or at least supervises from the great throne in the sky. Why do so many statues, paintings and souvenirs bare his likeness? He brought together the Mongol people and created an empire built for fighting. While that empire didn't last much past a few generations, it was one of the greatest in history, expanding from Turkey to Korea.
For a particularly in depth look into the life of Ghenghis, you must see the National Museum of Mongolian History. This is truly the best introduction to Mongolia and its rich blood spilt history. It provides exceptional insight into the Khan family, how they lived and what they left in their footsteps. I.e.: China
The city of Ulan Bator also cherishes its own form of Mongolian Buddhism. Gangan Khiid is the main temple visited by tourists and is conveniently located right in town, only a short walk from the center.
The people of Mongolia are some of the nicest in Asia, with enough of the population speaking English, thus allowing me to continue feeling foreign when I get lost in translation. The younger folks are taught English in school, so if you have a question, look for the younger ones.
I learned quite a bit about Mongolia during my the eight days I spent here. For example, this place is surprisingly international, and the good kind of international too. No McDonalds in sight, but you have a German bakery, the Amsterdam Cafe, and an American style Mongolian BBQ restaurant. Add to that the best Indian food being served upstairs to a coffee shop, plus several pizza places and the obligatory Irish pub all within walking distance.
Expats are every where. They sit in the cafes and talk about there government jobs. They own and operate small businesses and walk around town with confidence as I slowly discover why their letter "X" sounds like my letter "K". As for the locals, well, they are beautiful. The people are built taller and more rugged than southern Asian people. Mongolians are people who come from a lineage of warriors and it shows in the strong genes they pass. In fact, DNA tests have shown that a surprising percentage of people living in the former Mongol empire are actually related to Ghenghis Khan. When he got around, he really got around.
They have a serious problem here with pick pockets and petty theft. It was a warning I read prior to arriving that this could be an issue for the unaware traveler, but I had no idea to the extent.
When we arrived, two people met us at the airport to drive us to the hostel. It was only a 30 minute drive into town, but it came with a warning not to be taken lightly. Thieves people here are good.
They work in groups of 2 to 6 people as they distract you from your bags and make off with whatever personal effect you used to own.
They know where to find the most tourists: the state department store, Gangan Khiid monastery, and in summer at the Naadan festival.
Even in the dead of winter, I was present when a Belgium couple staying in the guesthouse was robbed of their most precious travel items. The money, passport and credit cards were all taken from their bags as they were right outside the state department store. Sure, the passport is replaceable, but it is also going to be a little bit more difficult when there isn't a Belgium Embassy in Mongolia. It's pretty safe to say that their plans were changed. You were warned.
In other writings, Ulan Bator gets put down as a city with few recognizable features, a lot of pollution and a pick pocket problem. Those could be arguable points, but I thought it was a great city with plenty to do and a very welcoming people. That is, as long as they don't have your wallet.
One major complaint of the few other travelers at my guesthouse, was of the pollution being bad. Having just arrived from Beijing, I thought it felt clean like a spring breeze. In winter the pollution does get worse, as many in the city stay warm with wood or coal fires combined with the nearby industry exhaust.
One last note, when you leave the country be sure to change whatever Tugriks you have left back into the currency of your choice. Because it is not a regularly traded currency, you won't find anywhere else to exchange it. Not in Beijing Airport, Shanghai Airport or London. If, however you find yourself on the market to purchase $200,000 Tugriks, please get a hold of me. I have a few I could afford to get rid of.
Heading into the Mongolian country side - We're leaving Ulan Bator for Gorkhi-Terelj National Park where we get stuck in the snow and come out of Ghenghis Khans crotch to see an unmatched view of the Mongolian countryside. Oh yeah, we also stay in a Ger and do other awesome stuff.
The world is too amazing not to share.