Waiting in Ulan Bator

I would not have chosen to stay in the Mongolian capital for almost a week, but that was how long it took the Chinese embassy to process my visa application. Applying there had felt difficult and uncertain at the time, but I had done my homework and in hindsight it was actually a very easy and inexpensive way to obtain a Chinese visa!


I used the “waiting time” to explore this unusual city: Ulan Bator (or Ulaanbaatar) accommodates around 1.5 Million people, almost half of the country’s population. Here you can find traditional gers (round tents) right next to modern hotels, buddhist temples in front of banking towers.


A city full of surprises. There is an astonishing number of hybrid cars on the roads (sometimes every third car would be a Prius) but that does not prevent the city air from becoming unbreathable in the evenings. When everyone lights the iron stove in their ger the smell of coal almost chokes you…

Supermarket shelves are stuffed with imported products from England and Germany – they seem fine with keeping the foreign packaging and not being able to read the ingredients lists. Western products stand for quality, I hear, but they actually end up buying our cheapest foods at inflated prices.


Even more shocking to me was the omnipresence of American fast food restaurants in the city. You rarely had to walk further than to the next intersection to find a selection of chains selling their not-so-Mongolian foods.

But there were still some unspoiled points of interest:

The Gandan Temple:



A big buddhist monastery situated in a somewhat run-down living area it is supposedly the core around which the city evolved, before it was moved one last time, to this location. (Back in time there were no cities in Mongolia, all dwellings and buildings, including monasteries, had to be mobile and were moved around, nomad style.)

Monks are still practicing their religion in this place, walking between the buildings you could hear people chanting and watch believers spin prayer mills. The main temple is sheltering a gigantic golden buddha plus a lot of smaller sculptures. I found this temple to be more “real” than any other Buddhist temples I have visited afterwards…


The Black Market:


This is where you can really feel the Asian vibe. Apparently you can get everything in this giant market. Although I met two guys who were desperately looking for a (not too uncommon) spare part for their motorcycle – they finally ended up buying it online…

But I saw a maze of stands selling all kinds of clothing and an almost equally large area dedicated to the commercial distribution of shoes and accessories. There were places for buying patterned fabric, used smartphones and bicycles; the open air furniture section had a huge variety of glass tables, wardrobes and sofa beds and over at the antiquities I found statues of the worlds top dictators and tyrants…



I also liked the ger supply stands where you could get everything from a spare pole to your own new traditional round tent.


Another thing I really enjoyed was visiting the International Intellectual Museum. On four floors a competition-winning Mongolian puzzle creator exhibits all kinds of board games (mainly chess sets), wooden puzzles, magic toys and many more weird artefacts, most of which he invented and built himself. It was incredible to see how much this single creative person was able to achieve!


Just south of the city there is Bogd Khan Uul, a towering mountain massif. One day I went on an exhausting hike up one of its peaks. In the city it had been cold, but up there it was freezing (it must have been below -20°C)! But it was absolutely beautiful. And the view over the city is great as well – the mountain literally starts where the city ends.



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