I woke up one Christmas day thinking about snow (I am random like that). I could not figure out why, but then I remembered looking at an image — in a magazine — of a statue of Genghis Khan and the snowy mountains surrounding it. I knew winter, with temperatures reaching -50°C, was not the best time to go. I mean who visits Mongolia in the dead of winter? Well, I did.
It was a cold and windy morning when I reached Ulaanbaatar after a stopover in Incheon, South Korea. The pilot could not land on his first two attempts as the wind was too strong. Looking at a foreign land from above excites me. The whole place was covered in thick snow.
The snow simply means you cannot travel extensively around the country. I wanted to see the Gobi Desert from Dalandzadagad and Karakorum, the capital of what was once the mighty Mongol Empire. But I knew this had to take place at a later date, preferably in summer or autumn, when I could sleep in the desert under the stars.
This winter trip was to discover a land I had been curious to see since I was a young student in London. In fact, I remember picking up a travel guide on Mongolia when I was in Belarus. And so here I was, on a ridiculously short trip trying to discover the place and, guess what, I fell head over heels in love.
Mongolia is stunning. And Ulaanbaatar is set to become a thriving metropolis just like any other city in the developing world. I set out early to discover as much of Mongolia as I could. I knew the first stop had to be the statue of Genghis Khan on horseback. I mean, seriously, some might find the whole idea corny but, hey, that statue of the mighty Khan located in Tsonjin Boldog, about 55km east of Ulaanbaatar, is a stunner. Legend has it that this was the place where he found a golden whip.
If you think the Eiffel Tower is amazing, be prepared to be blown away by the beauty of this 250-tonne, 40m-high monument. With a blanket on top of my super warm Moncler jacket, I took shot after shot of the stainless steel statue sitting on a 10m high base that houses two museums and a restaurant.
My guide, Bat Nyangar, whom I lovingly referred to as my batman, was more than happy to play photographer too. Bat was a character. I mean, imagine driving a Hummer in the dead of winter singing The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Did I tell you that the Mongolians love the Fab Four? They know all their hits; you even hear them on the radio in their homes. Well, I am happy, I am a fan. We had Hey Jude on repeat. And somehow, it was just perfect with the gorgeous landscape of snowy mountains.
The climb up to the horse’s head is worth the journey as the view is simply out of this world. The beauty of travelling in winter is that you have the whole place to yourself. If you are a history buff, there is a pretty decent museum at the base of the statue that highlights Bronze Age artefacts and other Mongolian finds.
Here is a tip: Do not leave the monument complex without taking a photo with a trained eagle or vulture. It is not easy to have a huge bird perched on your arm, but for Instagram’s sake, just do it! My photo, with a vulture on my arm and the monument at the back, is in a frame on my bedside table. Priceless.
The next stop was a place I had seen on The Amazing Race. The Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is the nearest to Ulaanbaatar. In winter, you have the whole place to yourself. I was determined to go on horseback to discover the monastery and the stunning Turtle Rock despite the harsh weather (it was sunny but windy). I wanted to be outdoors and my decision paid off with the number of amazing photos I captured. A key feature of the park, Turtle Rock, was absolutely stunning. In the summer, this monolith is a rock climber’s dream. If you are lucky, you might spot another famous rock formation simply known as the Praying Lama Rock. It is not easy, I tell you.
We then continued inland to the Ariyabal meditation temple and the monastery to get a bird’s-eye view of the park. The climb was not easy but it was pretty. The details of the temple are beautiful and the colours are vibrant, but it is the view that people come for. The mountains and the plains below were covered in fresh snow and it must have been my lucky day as I spotted the elusive bears of the park. However, I was not quick enough to get a shot of the mother and her cubs. Some moments are meant to be experienced, I told myself, and experience I did.
Eighty kilometres inland is the Khagiin Khar — a deep glacial lake covered in ice. If you are lucky (and again, I was) you will see Mongolian men in their national costumes playing a national sport called ice ankle-bone shooting. Be prepared to become addicted. I meant to watch for a couple of minutes but I ended up enjoying the sport for an hour, and even tried my hand at it. It was fun!
A point to note: Insist on having lunch with a Mongolian family in their ger, a traditional Mongolian tent. I had a friendly host who was kind enough to tune in to MTV and I was soon happily listening to The Weeknd’s Starboy. Yes, believe it or not, that is how modern Mongolia has become. But I have to be honest; I was not a fan of the dish that was served — a simple noodle with mutton and camel meat. The smell was overpowering and I had difficulty finishing it, but I did, out of respect for my lovely host. Bring candies or toys for the children, should you decide have this experience.
Mongolia is stunning. And Ulaanbaatar is set to become a thriving metropolis just like any other city in the developing world
Back in the capital city, I took a long bath in my lovely room at the Shangri-La Hotel. Few things beat having a soak after being out in the cold for hours. Ulaanbaatar (simply known to the locals as UB) is not exactly a small city. In recent years, a huge migration from the countryside has caused pollution and dwelling issues in the city. The pollution was obvious even in winter. Nonetheless, it is a charming place once you discover its streets and alleyways.
Mongolia in winter was an experience. With stunning landscapes and friendly locals, the place is a joy to discover. I recommend getting a guide to take you around. Do take note that it is huge country and the distance from one place to another is far. My advice is to go with the flow. Relax and enjoy Mongolia’s most important feature — its out-of-this-world stunning landscape.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW AT A GLANCE
No visit to Ulaanbaatar is complete without a jaunt to the massive Sükhbaatar Square, now known as Chinggis Square. This is the focal point for both locals and tourists, with all sorts of activities organised all year round. The statue of the revolution hero Damdin Sükhbaatar can be found here, along with one of Genghis Khan. In winter, there is an ice-skating rink and some lovely shops selling traditional Mongolian handicraft, food and costumes. Spend some time to admire the beautiful buildings and architecture. Stunning! Peace Avenue, which runs from west to east on the southern end of the square, is an important thoroughfare where most restaurants, shops and hotels are located. To be honest, there is nothing beautiful about the street but it is the best place to stock up on your snacks for that long trip across the country.
Gandantegchinlen Monastery, located northwest of Ulaanbaatar city, is a definite must-visit. The most important landmark here is the stunning 26m-tall statue of Megjid Janraisag. To get a good feel of the place, visit early before the tourist buses arrive. Not far from the monastery is the amazing Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts. I was planning to spend an hour there but I ended up staying for three. The museum houses artefacts and items that date back to the Stone Age. My favourite is the collection of sculptures by G Zanabazar. The museum has a pretty decent shop selling some cool stuff by Mongolian artistes.
Other places that should not be missed include the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan with its stunning prayer temples that contain Buddhist artwork, including sculptures and thangka. To get a bird’s-eye view of the city, climb the Zaisan Memorial, which was built to honour Soviet soldiers killed during World War II.
Traditional Mongolian handicraft such as dolls made of wool. The State Department Store, which is locally known as Ikh Delguur, is the best place to shop for this handicraft, along with Mongolian costumes. Also, buy the cashmere sweaters and shawls, which are well priced and of high quality. I bought a cashmere cape for only US$75!
Mongolian food is an acquired taste but I do like the vegetarian restaurant Luna Blanca on Tourist Street 16. Try the Luna Blanca special soup, which is perfect after a walk in the cold. Another favourite is the Luna Blanca Mongol Platter, which offers delicious local fare such as bansh, buuz and khuushuur dumplings. Hazara is a good option for North Indian food. Located behind the Wrestling Palace, the restaurant is an institution in UB. Try its murgh malai and signature raan e hazara, a lamb dish.