We arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, at 8:45 am, and my hostel had told me to expect someone to pick me up for free. Before boarding the train from Irkutsk, I emailed them saying that I had realized we didn’t have any details for the meetup, so I described what I was wearing: gray pants, a camouflage jacket, and a black hat. When I got off the train, there was someone holding a sign with my name, and he had worn the exact same outfit as me. It was one of the most hilarious moments of my life.
After checking into my hostel and dropping my bags, I messaged the girl from Florida I met on the train, and we met up to walk around for the day. We started with the giant monastery, which was really impressive and had a lot of activity going on in the numerous temples and buildings.
After that, we meandered through the city doing some people-watching and then to an ancient temple that’s no longer in operation but is preserved in the heart of the city. The architectural style and aesthetics were simply amazing. I was really blown away, but we weren’t allowed to take many pictures.
We decided to try a Korean restaurant nearby, and that was definitely an experience. They didn’t speak any English, nor did they have English on the menu, so we ordered by pointing at things. My tofu & vegetables soup was great, but the fried tofu came with a sauce on top that I found very skeptical. Someone at the restaurant helped us translate and promised that there was no meat in the sauce. About 4 seconds later, I picked up some meat with my chopsticks and proved him wrong, so we canceled the tofu, paid, and went on our way. The whole thing was quite a show, though, because the waitress couldn’t grasp the fact that I was canceling food, and multiple customers got involved.
After lunch, we walked back through the city, passed an international exhibition from a local school, and wound up back at my hostel to ask about day trips for the next day. The same tour being offered at my hostel included multiple other sites for the same price at my friend’s hostel, so she went back to book that.
For dinner, I saw some recommendations of a vegan restaurant near my hostel, so we decided to go there. I wanted to try some traditional Mongolian dishes, and this was my chance. Luna Blanca was absolutely amazing! The prices were good, the food was delicious, and the chocolate cake was absolutely unreal. It was a great meal!
After some more sightseeing and perusing, we went back to our respective hostels and planned for our day tour the next day to several sites outside the city.
9am the next morning, we were ready to go. Site 1 was the Bogd Khan palace complex south of the city, which was gorgeous in numerous ways. It included both a Summer and Winter residence, numerous temples, and some really bad taxidermy. Again, pictures were forbidden in most spots, and descriptions won’t do it justice.
Next up was the Zaisan Memorial to the partnership of Soviet and Mongolian soldiers fighting against Japan during WW2. It’s at the top of a giant hill south of the city, and the views from there are incredible. The memorial is really cool, also. Of course, Hammer & Sickle symbols abound, but the design and art are beautiful.
Third on the agenda was the giant statue of Chinggis Khan on horse, east of the city. On the way there, we stopped at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant for lunch, and the experience was quite entertaining. The food wasn’t spectacular, but they were really surprised at the 2 foreigners entering their empty restaurant, the bathroom was an outhouse, and the experience far outweighed the quality of what we ate.
At the statue, the overwhelming question was, “Why?” It’s a giant, metal statue of a warlord on a horse, out in the middle of nowhere. It’s cool, but why? We climbed up into the head of the horse and also watched a nomad fashion show in the base, which was another “why?” moment. Awesome, though.
Last on the agenda was the national park. We stopped at several spots: the river, turtle rock, and a Buddhist temple at the back end. The park is full of tourists camping in what they probably thought would be authentic, Mongolian nomad tents, but they’re just butted up against each other in large groups next to another camp site next door. However, the park is insanely beautiful. The general reaction was, “Damn, I should’ve stayed in Mongolia longer and gotten out of the city.” I said that multiple times, and so did my friend.
The hike to the temple included some signs with thoughts upon which to meditate, but some of them were hilariously awful, and I took pictures, of course.
In the evening, we returned to the city and thanked our guide. Turns out, we were his first tour ever, and it went really well, so we were stoked and gave him a nice tip. After splitting up and going to our hostels, I ventured out to the Loving Hut nearby. I had the CRAZIEST experience when I arrived. I ran into a guy from Finland who I met in Norway through a friend of a friend in 2009 and haven’t seen or talked to since, but he recognized me right away, and I knew that he looked familiar. He sat with me while I ate, and we talked for quite a while. Of all places, we ran into each other in Mongolia, nearly 7 years later.
I picked up some food for the train the next day then packed up to head out on the train and my first trip to China. I asked around at the hostel to find someone going on my same train the next morning, hoping to share a taxi to the train station. After finding an Austrian guy who was on my train, we realized that it was only 20-30min walking to the train station in the morning, so we decided to walk together after breakfast.
Mongolia was amazing. I really need to go back, get out of the city, and see the desert, the wilderness, and the authentic life of the nomads. I was pumped to go to China but also sad to leave Mongolia after seeing so little of it. The Austrian’s pictures looked amazing and made me nothing but jealous of his time out in the middle of Mongolia.
I need to come back some day.
Next post: train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing.
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