Our arrival into Ulaanbaatar was unlike our previous trips. We didn’t have a place to stay and we didn’t have local currency (which is practically impossible to get outside of Mongolia); we were so busy prior to our trip that we didn’t get a chance for any meaningful research, but at least we had a guidebook that we had purchased just hours prior to hopping on our flight. Despite all of this, we were pretty excited about our trip and our first destination: Mongolia. We’re big fans of the travel show Departures, and after watching the episodes on Mongolia, we both decided that it was a country we wanted to see for ourselves.
For Canadians, getting the visa is the first step. In order to get a visa you need to get an invitation letter from a tour company in Mongolia. We managed to get a letter through one of the guesthouses in Ulaanbaatar, however we had to make a booking with them as well. Only problem was that they only had availability for the day AFTER we arrived. No problem, we’ll find a guesthouse when we arrive.
Or so we thought.
After flying into the Chinggis Khan Airport, we grabbed our bags and walked out into the terminal area. With no Tugrik in hand (Mongolian currency) we withdrew some from one of the ATM’s (which there are now plenty of all over Mongolia that work with Canadian debit cards even though the guidebook suggests otherwise).
By this point the terminal was empty, and the only people staring at us were overzealous taxi drivers. With a help of one local, we managed to explain to a taxi driver that we were looking for a guesthouse to stay at. We had tried several via email/phone while in Hong Kong, but got no responses. The payphones in the airport did not work at all and I had yet to get a prepaid SIM (which are cheaply purchased for around $7CDN for a SIM and a bunch of minutes).
We piled in the unmarked taxi and proceeded to visit 5 different guesthouses over the next hour. Yes, all of the guesthouses were completely packed, but luckily by nightfall, we managed to find a room at a guesthouse.
The next day we moved over to another guesthouse where we met with Sarah and Riyad who are from NYC and are currently traveling for one year. We decided they would be great companions to join us on our 9 day adventure through the Gobi and Central Mongolia, but we pushed our trip forward a few days as they wrestled with the Russian Embassy to get their transit visa.
In the meantime we visited some of the sights of Ulaanbaatar, braved the insane traffic crossing streets as pedestrians, and headed out to Terelj National Park for our first night out of Ulaanbaatar and a our first night in a ger.
Khongor Guesthouse and Expeditions // Not the swankiest guesthouse, but it’s clean, affordable and popular with independent travellers – many taking the Trans-Siberian Railway. But best of all are the staff which are friendly and very helpful. We booked our Gobi tour with them and were really happy with our experience.
Veranda // If you are craving some wine, Italian food, and relaxing ambiance, head to this restaurant next to Choijin Lama Museum.
Michele’s French Bakery // We were missing our homemade lattes when we stumbled on this cafe, which offers great espresso and fresh croissants and other French baked fare.
Nomin Supermarket // This grocery store is conveniently located on the ground floor of the State Department Store, great for picking up food prior to tours and train rides.
Do & See:
Zaisan Memorial // A short climb up stairs to this Soviet-era memorial. It’s a shame about the balloon game vendors at the top of the memorial, but the view of the city is beautiful – aim for sunset if you can. We caught bus #7 heading south on Chingis Orgon Road across from the National Library for 400 Tugriks – Zaisan is the last stop of the bus line.
Naran Tuul // We headed to the “Black Market” (which is not an illegal market – the term black market is used differently in Mongolia) to pick up some riding boots for our planned horseback journey in northern Mongolia. The market is huge – it sells everything including new and used clothing, shoes, fabric, furniture, dels (Mongolian coats), stoves, etc. It’s a great way to see the hustle and bustle of the city residents. You should keep an eye on your belongings and bags, because like most places in Ulaanbaatar, pickpockets abound. We tried to catch a metered taxi to this market, but after some difficulty (taxis that refused to turn on the meter), we ended up waiting for a bus #23. Buses in Ulaanbaatar are frequent – you rarely have to wait for more than a couple mins for the popular routes. Naran Tuul is the last stop of the route for #23. Follow the locals on the bus to the entrance of the market where there is a nominal 50 Tugrik entrance fee.
Sukhbaatar Square // This iconic outdoor square is the major landmark for most travellers; it is home to a large Chinggis Khan statue, features WiFi (oddly enough), and is centrally located close to restaurants, sights, and museums.