I got off the Trans-Siberian at 7 am after four nights of irregular sleep. While placing my dusty shoes on the pavement of the Ulaanbataar railway station, I looked around the area. When tired and hungry, you are an easy target for the shadowy existences walking around here. Luckily it is Sunday morning and the locals tend to sleep a lot.
Before I even got off the train I saw someone taking a dump next to the railway track. Welcome to Mongolia.
The city was originally founded back in 1639, but redesigned by the Soviets in the 1940s and clearly not made for this amount of personal vehicles. The traffic was crazy and within ten minutes I saw my first collision. I read that only half of the vehicles in Mongolia are left-handed, even though the traffic drives on the right side. This seems to be linked to a preference for Japanese imports. As you might expect, there is a lot of honking going on here.
We crossed the Tuul river and went up to a nearby hilltop to get a look at the polluted city, where ugly power stations and shining Buddha statues were uneasy neighbors.
With a large coal power plant visible outside the city, the smog is quite heavy and someone told me that during winter the sight range can be down to ten meters. The capital is the second most polluted city in the world (as New Delhi wins the first place).
We visited the impressive Gandantegchinlen monastery, where we gazed upon the 26 meter tall statue inside a large building. This temple was built in 1911 and devoted to Janraiseg, the Boddhisattva of Compassion. That didn’t stop the Russians from destroying the statue, but it was rebuilt in 1996 and the building is today a symbol of independence for the Mongolians.
In the evening we crossed the large Sükhbaatar Square. According to legend, the horse of revolutionary leader Damdin Sükhbaatar stopped to pee at the location in 1921. It was considered a good omen so they founded the city on the same spot. Three years later the city was renamed Ulaanbaatar (“red hero”) in his honor. He can be found depicted as a large statue on the square, as well as on the lesser bank notes.
After listening to a performance with horse-headed fiddles and the odd Mongolian throat singing, we found our way to a Mongolian Barbecue where the cooks had t-shirts that said “Go mongo”.