Upon our return to Ulaanbaatar, I emailed Bolormaa and organised to meet her at Súkhbaatar Square. I had met this lovely local lady at the train station while waiting to be collected for our Dream Adventure in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
We left our concrete AirBnB apartment block, through its massive Soviet-style steel front door, by foot. It was about a 20-minute walk to the centrally-located Súkhbaatar Square. Despite the size of the square, we easily spotted Bolormaa.
She kindly guided us around town, showing us the highlights. We also managed to visit a couple of souvenir shops along the way. Here’s where she took us:
Súkhbaatar Square: at the head of this central square sits an imposing Chinggis Khan (or Genghis Khan) in front of Government House, with his four heroes on horseback on either side of him. That sunny morning we visited, there was a gathering on the steps of the building. People, dressed in traditional, bright-coloured silk garbs or in military uniforms with rows of medals, lined up for group photos. We never found out what was the occasion.
On the other sides of the square are the Opera House, the Workers Union Building, the City Council office, the Stock Exchange and a coffee shop. We headed into the latter. As we sat under the large paintings in the elegant space and drank our cappuccinos, Bolormaa told us about her life and living in Mongolia.
National Museum of Mongolia: next stop on Bolormaa’s tour was the National Museum, where we learnt about the history of the country and its 20 ethnic groups. The exhibitions covered the history of the Mongols and Chinggis Khan, the traditional nomadic culture, and influences from the more recent relationship with the Soviet Union (it wasn’t until 1996 that the first non-communist government was elected in Mongolia).
The sections were labelled as follows: 1) Prehistoric Mongolia; 2) Ancient states; 3) Traditional clothing and jewellery; 4) The Mongolian Empire; 5) Mongolian traditional culture; 6) Mongolian traditional life; 7) Mongolia (17th-20th centuries); 8) Socialist Mongolia (1921-1990); and 9) Democratic Mongolia (1990 – present).
At the Museum, we also learnt that although Mongolians now use the Cyrillic alphabet, their original calligraphy was written vertically, rather than horizontally. Their writing developed this way because it was easier to write down the page whilst on horseback.
Price: MNT 8,000 (photography surcharge MNT 10,000)
Beatle Square: located in front of the State Department Store, this square takes its name from its sculpture of the Fab Four. On the other side of the apple-shaped sculpture is a lone guitarist sitting in a stairwell strumming his guitar, commemorating the 1970s when groups of teenagers gathered in such stairwells to sing songs learnt from their contraband records, smuggled from Western Europe.
The State Department Store: there are six shopping floors in this shopping centre, built in 1924 with golden-reflective glass. On the first floor, we stocked up on supplies and Mongolian sweets for our train journey to Irkutsk. The third floor was completely dedicated to cashmere clothing at extremely cheap prices, which I couldn’t resist. The seventh floor is home to a Mongolian cafeteria with good views over the city. We invited our guide to lunch, although she had to order for us.
Then it came time to say our goodbyes. Bolormaa had been a great local guide and we will be forever grateful for the kindness she showed us. We retraced our steps, past the unfinished multi-storey buildings that had been abandoned, the footpaths in serious need of repair with gaping holes where manhole covers had once been, and a general air of neglect, interspersed by some modern banks where money appeared to be no problem.
We also passed the Hard Rock Café in Naran Plaza, where we had had dinner the night before. Dining there had given us a unique opportunity to people watch, particularly the numerous glamourous women stationed at the tables. It seemed like the Hard Rock Café was the place to be seen.
Our hostess at the AirBnb organised a taxi to take us to the train station, which she said should cost no more than 5,000 tŏgrŏg. Bolormaa had said the same thing. When we arrived at the station the meter read 4,800, but the taxi driver insisted on 7,000, saying it cost extra to pick us up, plus the parking fees at the station. He ripped us off, but the difference between 4,800 and 7,000 was only about A$1.50, so not worth a battle.
At 8:40pm, the next leg of our Trans Mongolian journey departed en route for Irkutsk. Our carriage was Russian and had a Russian attendant, though the adjacent carriages were Mongolian, as were the two locomotives pulling us.
Accommodation: we stayed in an Airbnb apartment, which was very clean and traditionally furnished. Despite the cold, grey exterior of the block, the apartment itself was cosy.
Transport: Ulaanbaatar is relatively flat so we walked as much as possible. There are taxis available – be careful to organise your price beforehand. We were ripped off!
Local tour guide: if you’re looking for a local tour guide, I recommend Bolormaa Erdenebaatar. You can find her on Facebook (Badam Tsend Mongolian Travel Company).
Travel advice: the city does appear to be a little rough at times, so take care, particularly when walking around at night.
Photo: locals chat after an event at the Government House in Súkhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia