When you think of place to travel to, Mongolia may not be the top of that list, but get ready to be surprised. Ulaanbaatar often gets a bad reputation for being the coldest capital city in the world, but don't worry: it's got four very distinct seasons, and the summers are drastically different from the winters! Mongolia is a beautiful and picturesque country, where nomadism is still a way of life for a lot of people and camping can be had without permits. Ulaanbaatar is a hidden gem that is definitely more than just a stopover on the Trans-Mongolian railway from Moscow to Beijing! Here are five places that you should definitely make sure to check out:
1. Sukhbaatar Square
The main square in downtown Mongolia is bordered by the government palace, the Central Cultural Palace, and other buildings. The colonnaded front of the government palace contains statues of Genghis Khan, Ögedei Khan, and Kublai Khan. In the middle of the square is a statue of a triumphant Sukhbaatar (one of the heroes of the 1921 revolution) on horseback. The square and its surrounding buildings display some very impressive architecture, and many high-end hotels and shops are located in the area.
2. Gandantegchinlen Monastery
Mongolia has a primarily Buddhist population, but due to its history of socialism and close ties with the Soviet Republic in the late 20th century, you'll find that many monasteries and other places of worship across the country were razed or coopted for other purposes. Not so with Gandantegchinlen Monastery, or Gandan Khiid, which is one of the most important centers of Buddhism in the country due to its location in Ulaanbaatar. Here, you'll find monks, prayer wheels, and a fully-functioning monastery. It's definitely an interesting place from both a historical and cultural standpoint.
3. Zaisan Memorial
As mentioned, Ulaanbaatar had close ties with the Soviet Republic for a while. Zaisan Memorial, located just south of downtown, pays tribute to those ties and honors the Soviet soldiers killed during WWII. The memorial depicts Mongolian–Soviet friendship throughout the years. Even if you aren't interested in the historical aspects of the memorial, you'll get great views of the city from the hill on a clear day. There's also a nearby 75ft. Buddha statue that's worth seeing.
4. The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan
This palace, built in the late 19th century, is one of four palaces once frequented by the emperor of Mongolia. As with Gandantegchinlen Monastery, it's one of the few historical buildings that survived destruction during Mongolia's socialist period. These days, the palace functions as a museum, with plenty of artifacts from the late emperor's life, and a look into Buddhist architecture and iconography, with its six temple buildings on site. The ornamented gates are easily recognizable and offer only a glimpse into the wonders you'll see inside.
Granted this one is rather non-specific, but you should definitely try and be in Ulaanbaatar during one of its annual festivals if you can. These festivals offer you a unique view into traditional life in the country, as locals both participate in time-honored sports as well as serving up some delicious Mongolian food. Visit during the winter and you can see the festival on the River Tuul, where you'll find archery, anklebone shooting, skating competitions, and more—or visit during the summer's Naadam Festival and you'll be able to see competitions in Mongolia's three main sports: horseback riding, archery, and wrestling.
Although Ulaanbaatar isn't part of the typical tourist track, it's a city that definitely has its charms and is unlike anywhere else in the world. From the Buddhist temples to the festivals, you're sure to have a fascinating time as you learn to understand and appreciate this rich history and unique culture of nomadism.