Our stop in Hong Kong was originally supposed to be used for arranging a visa to China. Our plan was to take the overland route to Mongolia, but we changed our plans last minute and decided to escape the Chinese visa trouble and fly directly to Mongolia.
We couldn’t hold back on our excitement as we sat on the airport in Hong Kong waiting for our flight to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. After a few months in South East Asia we were ready for the coldest capital in the world! (average -1.3 celcius).
Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong
Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Ulaanbaatar – World’s Coldest Capital
We landed shortly after midnight, feeling relaxed after a comfy flight, which unexpectedly included complimentary meals and drinks onboard..love that! The airport is located 20 km outside the city center so as we walked out a few locals offered to drive us to our guesthouse. We had read about the taxi system in Mongolia, so we were prepared to bargain with the locals. Apparently in Mongolia there are not many legit taxis, it’s more just local people stopping to earn some extra money. It didn’t take us long to find a young man who was willing to drive us to our guesthouse for a fair amount.
We arrived at Top Tour Guesthouse at 1:00 am but our driver (who had agreed on a fixed price of 20.000 tugrik = 10$) suddenly demanded 30 US dollars! After 20 minutes of arguing and waking everyone up in our dorm we left 20.000 tugrik beside him and went to sleep (sadly, not the best first local impression).
The next morning we walked to the State Department Store, a relatively small mall complex (still one of the largest in Mongolia) selling everything from souvenirs, groceries and outdoor equipment. This leftover of the Soviet occupation is where most travellers gear up before heading out of the capital.
We felt like little kids when we found the candy section in the State Department Store. After 2,5 months in SE Asia we haven’t found much variety other than the out of proportion expensive Snickers and Pringles. Mongolians seem to share our love for candy; here we found a variety that resembled what we love back home, especially chocolate and jelly sweets.
Trying on some traditional clothes
We hadn’t done much research before arriving to Mongolia so we were quite surprised how much Russian/Soviet influence is noticeable everywhere; especially the Cyrillic alphabet, their love of vodka and the soviet architecture in larger cities (UB and Erdenet). There is long history of brotherhood between the two countries, ever since the Soviet Red Army helped the Mongols ward off the invasion from China 1919. After a few discussions with locals you quickly realise their love for Russia and their dislike of China.
Ása in front of the Lenin museum
Genghis Khan Square
There are so many monuments and statues dedicated to the founder and father of the Mongolian empire, Genghis Khan…his name is on several local vodka brands as well. Today he is held in high regards and is the main pride of Mongolia. We visited the Genghis Khan square on our first day in UB. This is the dead center of the capital and we were surprised how deserted it was. We counted around 10-15 Mongols and no foreign tourists in sight. Mongolia is actually one of the least populated countries on earth, with only 3 million inhabitants, one third living in the capital. We’ve always thought Iceland had the winning with around 3.15 people per sq. km. but that blinks compared to Mongolia’s 1.92 people per sq. km.
Genghis Khan Square
Mongols wearing their traditional “Deel” at Genghis Khan Square
The Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar
On our second day we decided to walk north of the city to see the ger districts. A ger is a ring shaped tent that can be put up in less than 30 minutes and doesn’t cost more than 300-1000 US dollars, depending on size and quality. In the countryside, most Mongolians live nomadically but due to harsh winters many families have lost a significant amount of their livestock and have been forced to move to the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar to search for work and a better life. These ger districts have a resemblance to slums; paved roads are a rare sight and many places are without electricity or clean water. Today more than half of the Ulaanbaatar’s population lives in the ger districts.
Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar
On our way we bought some jelly sweets hanging in plastic bags in a street shop. We came across a cute little kid (4-5 years old) on the street playing outside his house. When we came over to say hi he gave us the middle finger, without saying a word, with an emotionless face. This surreal moment resulted with us exploding with laughter. I’m not sure he knew what he was doing but we gave him the rest of our jelly sweets which he accepted happily…but then he gave us the finger again! I guess we didn’t really help teaching him proper manners.
It was Sunday and most people in the ger districts seemed to have a day off. We walked along the muddy roads, between wooden fences that made it difficult to get a good view over the neighbourhood. Every other male we met reeked of vodka, a sad sight I must say. On the other hand, most of the kids seemed happy and were playing around jumping from one garden to the other. They were curious and tried their best to communicate with us and taught us a few Mongolian words.
As we mentioned earlier we didn’t have a clear itinerary for our time in Mongolia. One thing we were determined on; we had to meet the world’s last nomadic reindeer herders living in the taiga up north close the Siberian border. It is as remote as it gets, which meant the next couple of days would be spent in dodgy transport.
To get to the reindeer herders we had to take an overnight train to Erdenet, from there hitchhike to Möron, then a public transport to Tsaagan-Nuur, and finally ride a horse for 2 days to reach the taiga, a subarctic biome consisting mostly of coniferous forest. We didn’t know wether our journey would be successful, but we were ready to leave the big city and hit the road…if you can call them roads!
Check out our next blog: Erdenet, the home of the largest copper mine on earth!