Out of all the places I’ve visited, Mongolia has left me with the craving to return more than any other.
The first video I saw of the country was this one. The production value and old style of the video paints this picture of somewhere so removed from anywhere else I’ve visited and had me fascinated, with both the capital city and the rest of the country.
That seems like a fair split for Mongolia – there’s the capital city then there’s everywhere else. Mongolia is one of the world’s biggest countries but it’s the third least densely populated, sitting ahead of the Falkland Islands and Greenland. The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, has around 1.4 million people and it represents pretty much all of developed Mongolia. There are some small towns scattered around but in terms of metro areas, it’s Ulaanbaatar and that’s all. Travel guides for Mongolia are fairly consistent about Ulaanbaatar: it’s an interesting place for a day or so but it’s not the reason to visit the country. In my case it was useful as a base for a few days but I spent very little time in the city.
I arrived on the overnight train from Ulan-Ude, having spent 24 hours to travel just 360 miles. The traffic chaos outside the station and towards the city centre was reminiscent of India and there was a busy market across from the station, which looked quite impromptu, and had a variety of basic-looking food for sale. I turned right and walked a mile or so along Peace Avenue towards Sukhbaatar Square.
Giving myself a day in the city was enough time to see the main square, Choijin Lama Temple, have a bit of a wander around, a short visit to a brewpub (trying the local beer somewhere is a must!) and to pick up train tickets to Beijing for later on. There is a bit more to see if you have the appetite – another temple, a couple of museums – but I had little interest in staying in the city for long.
Heading east towards Terelj National Park, and a stand out in the middle of nowhere on a flat plain, there’s the Genghis Khan Statue Complex. It’s a fairly recent build and is impressive, imposing. Genghis Khan looks out towards China, guarding Mongolia against an historic enemy.
Dotted around the national park in all directions are gers, the homes of the Mongolian nomads. I had a couple of meals in gers and was surprised at what’s inside. Nomadic life paints a picture of basic living, simplicity, rather than the one I saw with TV, a desktop computer and high-speed Internet.
To the west of Ulaanbaatar is Hustai National Park, with plains, sand dunes and endless rolling hills. In the right spot there’s a chance to see wild horses.
The Mongolian countryside is wonderfully desolate and a spectacular place to spend time. Straying further from the capital there’s the snow-peaked mountains to the west and the vast emptiness of the Gobi desert to the south; an area where the occasional dusty village sits isolated, hours from its nearest neighbour. It is a fascinating country.
Mongolian food was basic but delicious and it’s certainly not a place for vegetarians. My favourite was buuz, which I ended up eating some variety of almost every day. And it went down well with homebrew Mongolian vodka, distilled from curdled milk, served by a family in a ger in Hustai National Park alongside lunch.
From my hotel rooftop I had a great view over Ulaanbaatar. Unlike so many other cities where the suburbs disappear into the distance, from this point I could see the well-defined edge of the city in all directions. And this was it. Outside of this area is 1.5m square kilometres of countryside and a few small towns. From that spot I had the feeling that nothing major could happen in the city without being aware of it.
I tend to enjoy most places I visit and would happily return to them, even if there’s no rush to do so. Mongolia, however, left me with a craving to return, soon, for a much longer trip.