"Oh, because you’re a writer,” said the middle-aged Italian woman, with a look of relief.
Just moments earlier, as we stood waiting at a dusty bus station, she had adopted a look of utter bewilderment and almost offence as I replied to the often-asked question of how long I had been in Ulan Bator: three weeks.
This is not a common answer. Most people visiting Mongolia treat the capital city as nothing more than a stepping off point to the vast plains; a place to get into, book your tours and get out of as quickly as possible before there is time to be pick-pocketed, accosted by drunks or intimidated by the poverty and disrepair of Soviet-era buildings.
Yet Ulan Bator is undergoing rapid change – and it deserves more than a fleeting glance.
The central Sukhbaatar Square is surrounded by startlingly modern architecture, including a towering Gucci and Burberry-filled shopping mall and a massive parliamentary building in front of which sits a statue of Genghis Khan, the father of the country. To the south stands the tallest building in the city – the sail-like Blue Sky Hotel and Tower, which opened in 2011 and offers boutique accommodation. On the street around me one morning strolled both Mongolians in traditional robes and young office workers in smart suits.
In many ways Ulan Bator has always been a city of contradictions – the permanent capital of a country of once nomadic herders. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it literally moved according to people’s needs and along with the seasons, and was known as the City of Felt in reference to the fabric of the yurt tents that made up the vast majority of its buildings. In modern history, the city was under Communist rule for seven decades (ending in 1991). Functional yet aesthetically unappealing architecture took over, detracting from the stark, poetic beauty of the surrounding steppes.
Today, the busy streets are filled with the chaos of modern life and urban development, funded by the influx of cash that has accompanied the discovery of natural resources including copper, gold and coal. Luxury retailers such as Louis Vuitton and Emporio Armani offer diversions for the lucky ones who have benefited; the wealthy can also spend on their money on penthouse digs that sell for more than $8,000 a square metre.
“Ulan Bator has changed so much in the last few years, it is a lot more accessible to visitors but things have gotten more expensive and the new buildings are really sprawling out,” Batsuren Byambasuren, a young, foreign-educated Mongolian who had showed me around the city on my first visit back in 2010, told me recently. “The central area is much more organized and clean now.”
In the evenings, downtown Ulan Bator comes alive with young families, couples and men out drinking. Around the bars and restaurants on central Peace Avenue drunken fights occasionally break out, but on the whole the atmosphere is relaxed and family-friendly.
Sukhbaatar Square itself fills with life, as young children run around in the open space and concerts attract thousands of young city dwellers, who come to listen to the local rap and pop acts. Many of the rappers focus their lyrics on the struggles of their country – the corruption, unemployment and alcoholism – yet their words are often tinged with a clear sense of Mongolian pride.
Soon after I arrived, I headed up to the ancient Gandan Khiid Monastery hoping to get a sense of the nation’s rich history. Gandan was one of the few Buddhist monasteries to survive the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, which destroyed most of the religious institutions here. Before that Mongolia was heavily Buddhist, with monks making up a considerable proportion of the population.
The walk, about 20 minutes from downtown (you can also take a bus), takes you through one of the yurt quarters that sprawl out from the city centre. As recent immigrants from the countryside continue to arrive they pitch their tents in what have become vast and ill-planned districts of semi-permanent dwellings; by some estimates 700,000 of the city’s 1.2 million inhabitants live in these settlements. I passed by a group of traditional shamans who offered to read my palms – for a price – but decided to keep my future a mystery.
The most eye-catching site at the monastery is a 26-metre-high copper Buddha, whose hollow interior is said to contain 27 tons of medicinal herbs, two million bundles of mantras and an entire yurt with furniture. Around me prayed young monks clad in red, just some of the hundreds of who regularly worship here as the country struggles to return to its Buddhist roots.
In the south of the city, a war memorial perched on a small hilltop tells of a different period of Ulan Bator’s history. The communist-era Zaisan memorial features a large mural with scenes celebrating the Russian victory over Germany in the Second World War, and the strong relationship between the former Soviet Union and Mongolia (although how accurate this sentiment actually was at the time of construction is open to debate).
It also, after a climb of 300 steps, delivers imposing views of the entire city. On a nearby hill a giant portrait of Genghis Khan has been created out of white blocks of rock, staring out over the city and keeping watch over the Mongolian lands.
It doesn’t take that kind of perspective – or a three-week visit – to realize that Ulan Bator is never going to be on the top of most travellers’ bucket lists. But those who can appreciate the grit and urban adventure on offer will find few other places like it.
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO SEE
Gandan Khiid Monastery One of the few Buddhist monasteries to survive the Communist purges of the 1930s.
Bogd Khan Palace Museum The Winter Palace of the last Bogd Khan is a stunning if dilapidated complex located in the south of the city.
Genghis Khan Complex Find a 40-metre high statue of the infamous leader 54 kilometres east of the city. It’s also home to a gallery and restaurant.
Naadam Festival In mid-July the city comes to a standstill for a four-day tournament of wrestling, archery and horse racing.
WHERE TO STAY
Blue Sky TowerThe luxury hotel dominates the skyline, amenities include a 20-metre long lap pool. Rooms from $150. blueskytower.mn
Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace Another high-end choice this one with spa and sauna. Rooms from $168. kempinski.com K.G.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated Ulan Bator's Naadam Festival occurs in mid-August. It runs in mid-July.