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But how did Ulaanbaatar fare? Did the brutal cold make me want to leave and never come back? Was the meat-heavy cuisine bland or was it surprisingly appealing? Was there much to do or see? Were the women much to look at? How about the cost of living/traveling? Surely Ulaanbaatar isn’t that expensive of a place to travel, no? These are the kinds of questions I plan to address in this here trip report. I’m going to break my report into two separate entries – the first entry will be about my eight days in the city center and surrounding area, and the second entry will be about my two days living in a yurt with locals on the outskirts of the city. If after reading this trip report you’ve made a decision about whether or not a trip to Mongolia should be on your agenda, then I consider this trip report a success.
Like always, all the photos you see in this trip report were taken and created by me, unless otherwise noted. For those who want to know, I use a Pentax K-3, and I have three prime lenses and one telephoto zoom lens to go along with it. I often use a tripod as well. I should also note that my trip took place in late December 2015. And a quick background about me: I’m a white American guy in my late twenties. I lived two and half years in Dalian, China, then three years in Bangkok, Thailand, and I’ve spent the last half year living in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture. Now let’s get this trip report started and shine a light on what Ulaanbaatar is really all about!
Ulaanbaatar is a landlocked city around north-central Mongolia. If Wikipedia is anything to go by, then the city has a population of around 1.35 million, whereas the country of Mongolia itself has a population of only about 2.85 million. That means roughly half of the country’s population is packed into Ulaanbaatar.
The second I stepped out of the airport, I was smacked in the face by an ashy, coal smell that penetrated my lungs. This smell would linger the entire span of my trip, and it’s a smell that reminds me of industrial Northeast China. Literally every time I stepped outside from being inside for an extended period of time, I had to cough to help my body adjust to the ashy fumes. I don’t consider myself weak or sensitive to polluted air at all, and I’ve been around the polluted China block, so take that for what it’s worth. At certain hours of the day, especially around sunset, the sky would look hazy and unclear, whereas at other hours of the day the sky would look blue and gorgeous. The colors and visibility of the sky would literally change from hour to hour. One hour the sky was amazing, and then the next I couldn’t see what was only 100 meters in front of me.
Other than just the ashy fumes, the layout and the architecture of Ulaanbaatar totally reminded me of Northeast China. The ugly, Communist-era apartment buildings everywhere, the drab colors, the sidewalk tiles, the dirty snow lingering on the sidewalks - it was all very dongbei, indeed. As a matter of fact, if you’ve ever been to Harbin, then you should have a pretty good idea of what Ulaanbaatar visually looks like, as the two cities are very similar in this regard.
Needless to say, weather-wise Ulaanbaatar was freezing. Daytime temperatures usually hovered between -10 to -25 degrees Celsius (14 to -13 degrees Fahrenheit), and nighttime temperatures usually hovered between -20 to -35 degrees Celsius (-4 to -31 degrees Fahrenheit). Just like the sky’s visibility, the temperatures also changed from hour to hour, with midday usually being the warmest and midnight being the coldest.
As a photographer, I welcomed the challenge of shooting in a super cold environment, as most of my previous experience was in tropical or not-that-cold environments. And what a challenge it turned out to be! For starters, my camera has a solid all-metal body, so it would get cold to the touch after being outside for only a few minutes. It’s weatherproof, so it breaking wasn’t really a concern, but touching my camera became a chore, as anytime I wanted to use it, my hands would be in pain from having to grasp something that felt like a solid block of ice. My favorite lens also has a metal body, so it would constantly freeze, which made turning it to focus a monumental task.
And besides just photography, going outside became a huge chore due to the sheer number of layers I had to wear every time I wanted to step out the door. Here’s what I was wearing every time I went outside: boxer shorts, thermal long johns, sweat pants, windproof jeans, a thermal undershirt, a thermal long-sleeved shirt, a thick jacket, a coat to go over the jacket, a scarf, a beanie, a pair of finger-less gloves, a thick pair of gloves to go over the finger-less gloves, two pairs of socks, and boots. As you can imagine, putting on so much clothes day by day became a huge hassle. Nonetheless, I welcomed the cold environment, as it was a challenge I wanted to face.
Once again, if you’ve been in Harbin in the wintertime, you can probably imagine Ulaanbaatar’s extreme wintertime weather, although I think Ulaanbaatar just barely takes the cake for being the colder of the two cities. All I can say is, if you’re gonna be in UB in the winter, prepare for extreme cold. But it’s worth seeing the cold Mongolian culture, so don’t let that scare you away. When I envisioned Mongolia prior to my trip, I pictured a very cold place, so I wanted to see Mongolia the way I had envisioned it. And in retrospect, I don’t regret that at all, but I think if I were to return in the future, I’d go in the summertime, that way I could see the other side of the Mongolia coin.
The food in Mongolia really shocked me in a pleasant way. Not necessarily the local cuisine, but the urban Mongolians’ eating habits. Would you believe me if I told you that Ulaanbaatar is somewhat of a food heaven if you’re wanting to eat all kinds of international cuisine? Well believe it, because there’s so much international cuisine in UB that you’ll never run out of choices. Just in my ten days in the city, I not only came across countless Korean and pizza restaurants, but also Mexican, Cuban, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and so much more.
And not only that, the Mongolians (just like their American counterparts) are very skilled at cooking foreign cuisine. I don’t think I had a single foreign meal over ten days that I considered average or below average. And on top of that, eating at all of these restaurants is very affordable - 10 to 20,000 tugrik ($5 to $10) is all you need to have a giant meal. And you won’t be served any of these ridiculously small, “need-to-order-countless-dishes-to-be-satisfied”-sized dishes that are so prevalent in Thailand and Japan. No, no, no. Mongolian portion sizes are huge and give American portion sizes a run for their money. I found myself eating obese-sized plates of chicken tikka at Mughur Indian Restaurant (see photo) day after day, as it was so delicious, lean protein-packed, and only cost me about 12,000 tugrik ($6). All in all, you can’t go wrong with foreign cuisine in Ulaanbaatar, and chances are you’ll find yourself eating more foreign than local cuisine.
As for the local Mongolian cuisine, it was more of less what I had envisioned – Chinese cuisine blended with Russian cuisine. The local cuisine is very meat heavy (like most American cuisine), with a strong emphasis on beef, and there are lots of root vegetables incorporated into every dish – potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions, etc. Many dishes also incorporated a lot of flour, whether that be in the noodles or in the shells of the dumplings. Many dishes also included potato salad as a side. Sounds a lot like Chinese and Russian cuisine fused together, right?
One dish that kept popping up on my trip again and again was a baozi-like (steamed bun with filling) dish that is filled to the brim with beef and onions. These “dumplings” were pretty tasty, but a little too rich and oily, so I didn’t eat them very often. I also ate lots of soups, most of which were filled with beef, carrots, potatoes, and/or onions. I think I personally enjoyed the soup dishes the most, as I quite enjoy a bowl of soup when it’s so f’ing cold outside.
And just like the foreign dishes, local dishes’ portion sizes were also huge. Sometimes I’d order two dishes just wanting to get a variety of flavors, then only to regret that decision later because I simply had way too much food on my table for me to finish. Slabs of meat, potatoes, and mayonnaise (a common sauce/dressing) tend to fill you up pretty quick. Even considering how much food and meat I had on my table, I don’t think I ever paid more than 6,000 tugrik ($3) for any of my Mongolian meals.
The food was tasty and a good value, but the excessive amount of superior and just as affordable foreign cuisine led to me eating way more foreign than local food. Foreign restaurants are just as ubiquitous, if not more, than Mongolian restaurants. It genuinely felt harder to find local cuisine than foreign cuisine in central UB. Mongolian cuisine is also a little too rich for my health-conscious ass, so I had no choice but to eat less of it. Overall, I was satisfied with Mongolian cuisine, but similar to Japanese and Cambodian cuisine, I don’t think I’m gonna miss much when I’m away.
I found many Mongolian people to be mostly pretty cool, which isn’t a word I’d use to describe most Asians. I appreciated how the men were actually masculine for a change – none of this super metrosexual crap that’s so common in Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. And none of the overly nerdiness so common to mainland China. It seemed most Mongolian men were somewhat tall and bulky, which made their presence somewhat intimidating. They also had a very good sense of style, quite similar to their urban Russian male counterparts. I also cannot count how many genuinely good-looking men I saw. Good-looking, masculine men are not something I see much of in all of the rest of Asia. Of all the Asian men I’ve seen over the years, Mongolian dudes were by far the best-looking, with their Singaporean brothers coming in second.
But on the downside, Mongolian guys often carry this obnoxious macho attitude, quite similar to what you’d expect from a Western bodybuilder – way too over-the-top and attention-seeking. Mongolian men were also very loud, very much unlike most Mongolian women. This is very different than China, as in China both men AND women are obnoxiously loud. Mongolian dudes also like to hit the alcohol bottle pretty hard, which is a common theme in Northeast Asian men, but the Mongolian dudes were often sloppy, vomiting-on-the-sidewalk drunk. In other words, they didn’t hold their liquor well. In other Northeast Asian countries, dudes love to get drunk, but getting sloppy drunk is kind of a no-no. I noticed all of this drunken, obnoxious behavior by simply taking walks around the city late at night. I cannot count how many large packs of drunken, loud Mongolian men I saw on my daily late night walks. Due to their loud voices and speaking habits, I could usually hear them coming from half a kilometer away.
As for Mongolian women, I have almost nothing but praise for them. They absolutely blew me away. It was like being in China for the first time all over again. My best way to describe Mongolian women would be: similar look to Northeastern Chinese women, but with sharper oriental features (very slanted eyes, round cheeks, long jet black hair, etc.) and with the fashion style of Russian women. In other words, mix a Chinese girl’s body with a Russian girl’s style, and there you have a Mongolian girl. You can’t go wrong with that combo!
I was happy to see that the local women used make-up mostly to highlight their features, rather than to create their entire face (something common with Japanese, Korean, and Thai women). I also never saw any women wearing those ridiculous colored contacts so popular with Asian women, and I also didn’t see too many women with dyed hair (other than the typical auburn hair color popular with Asian women). Open tattoos and unusual piercings also didn’t seem that common. And last but not least, I didn’t notice very many smartphone zombies among Mongolian women. These are all big pluses in my book, and I can’t help but wonder for how long Mongolian women can stay this good.
Walking around the streets of Ulaanbaatar, I was getting eyed pretty hard by the local women, and I couldn’t help but eye their beautiful faces right back. The women had slim, feminine and somewhat curvy body shapes. Even women in their middle age were still extremely good-looking and classy. Fatness was very uncommon in all but the grandmother-aged women. Up to this point in my life and travels, I can boldly say that Mongolian women are the most beautiful group of women I’ve ever seen in my life. We all have different tastes in women, and Mongolian women fit my tastes to the T.
Mongolian women are feminine, have a great sense of fashion (none of that overt mismatching business so prevalent with Chinese chicks), speak softly, can often speak a myriad of languages (Mongolian, Russian, English, Korean, etc.), and they seem very open, at least towards me, in being pursued by a white foreign man. Granted, I didn’t meet that many Mongolian women, but the few I did meet seemed pleasant, feminine, and intelligent. Doing a simple "Look Around" on WeChat proved somewhat fruitful, even though it's a dying fad in other parts of Asia, especially in China. I'd say on average I had about three to five mostly good-looking women trying to add me (not the other way around) on WeChat each day. If I were a single dude, I know exactly where I’d want to be playing the field. And as a side note, I saw very very few obvious non-Asian foreigners in Ulaanbaatar. In ten days I couldn’t have seen more than 20, and I was outside pounding the pavement hours upon hours each and every day. If you’re a foreign dude, that just means less competition for you. Ulaanbaatar is definitely a much underrated place for foreign men seeking an Asian woman. Something to consider.
Communicating with the locals in Ulaanbaatar was also mostly problem-free. Out of ten days of interactions, I only remember meeting a handful of locals who spoke zero English, and most of them were black (illegal) cab drivers. It seemed like everyone else spoke at least basic conversational English, and not only that, it seemed like they actually wanted to communicate with me in English. I didn’t get any of the awkwardness I often get when I say one word of English to a local in Japan, nor any of the passive-aggressive hatred I receive when speaking English to a Thai.
Overall, I’d say the English situation (at least in Ulaanbaatar) was very comparable to Malaysia – most people speak basic, or even very good, conversational English, and they don’t hold any animosity against you whatsoever for not speaking their language. You’ll still run into the occasional non-speaker, though. Hey Japan, are you listening? If Mongolia, an off-the-grid country that is far less developed and educated than you, can have so many good English speakers, why can’t you, a supposed “modernized” developed country that leads the world in change and innovation? In our modern times, Japan has absolutely no excuse for being so monolingual, especially considering the Japanese language is not a lingua franca, nor does it cross country borders or ethnicities. It never ceases to amaze me how monolingual the Japanese are, nor how stubborn they are in doing anything about it.
As for things to do, I’d say Ulaanbaatar was about average. I was there ten days, and I didn’t start to feel boredom setting in until the last couple of days of the trip. Despite the absurd weather, I mostly had a great time and enjoyed myself. Simply walking around, trying different restaurants, lifting weights at the local gym, eyeing up all the female eye candy everywhere, and taking winter-esque photos kept me very well-occupied 90% of the time.
My favorite activities included: strolling around Chinggis Khan Square to soak up the environment and see all the Christmas decorations, going to local spas to get very affordable deep tissue massages and to warm up from the outside weather, walking around the sidewalk market on Ikh Toiruu, popping into the occasional (and downright cheap) bar to have a snack and a drink, and checking out the occasional Buddhist temple whenever I passed one by. I should also note that I not once paid any kind of entry fee to get into anywhere that I went, though some places supposedly do have acceptably-priced entrance fees, though I never saw any myself.
When I travel abroad, my main goal is always to see what it would be like if I were to actually live in said location. Other than my photography, I rarely engage in overly touristy behavior, and I don’t allot much time to tourist sites. Sure, I’ll pop by a tourist site or two, but those are only a mere side note to what else I’m doing on my trip. I’m usually out walking around and making observations during the majority of my trip.
Ulaanbaatar really wasn’t a very expensive place. I already told you how cheap food and meat are in Mongolia, but the good values don’t end there. My hotel, called Zaya Guest House, only cost me about $18 a night for a double room with a private bathroom. Twin bed rooms with a shared public bathroom were only about $15 a night. A single room would obviously cost even less. Don’t let the shared bathroom part scare you away, as the shared bathrooms were private (one person at a time), big, clean, and well-designed, and there were plenty of them throughout the guesthouse. The guesthouse itself was super clean, well-decorated, and quiet.
They cooked eggs, toast, and cereal for all the guests for breakfast every day. There is an awesome lounge room with a big screen TV and tons of international channels, and there is also a modern, virus-free computer in the lounge, and it was seemingly never being used by anyone else. The guesthouse owner is a cool young Mongolian dude who lived in America for a number of years and speaks excellent English. The guesthouse is also in a prime location on Peace Avenue, the primary artery of the city. And finally, the maids were cute young girls who spoke good English and were open to a chat. If you’re ever going to travel to Ulaanbaatar, do yourself a favor and please stay at Zaya Guest House for the length of your trip.
After my plane tickets and accommodation were paid for, I budgeted 60,000 tugrik ($30) a day for myself to spend on food or whatever while in Ulaanbaatar. I felt that was just enough, and I didn’t feel like I had to scrimp on anything to enjoy myself. Yes, traveling in UB is that cheap. I’d say 30,000 tugrik ($15) would be the minimum I’d budget for a day, and 100,000 tugrik ($50) a day would be well more than you need. I went to the gym almost every day (10,000 tugrik / $5 per visit), ate two giant meat-filled meals at a restaurant every day, bought some drinks and snacks from convenience stores, had a few amazing massages, bought a handful of wool and cashmere products (as they’re cheap in Mongolia), had some small snacks and one beer in some bars, and took the occasional black taxi or public bus. All this and yet I still didn’t go over my budget of 60,000 tugrik ($30) a day (or 600,000 tugrik / $300 for the whole ten days).
Ulaanbaatar really isn’t all that big, and its streets mostly consist of a few main arteries with minor streets breaking off from the main arteries. The layout seems mostly logical, and not once did I lose my sense of direction or feel like I was lost. None of the scatterbrain layouts of Southeast Asian cities were to be found in UB, at least none that I had noticed.
As for getting around, I walked on foot 98% of time. Buses run down all of the main arteries and some of the minor streets. A single bus ride costs 500 tugrik (25 cents). Taking a black taxi practically anywhere in the urban area of the city was never more than 6,000 tugrik ($3), though the ride from the airport cost me 20,000 tugrik ($10) each way (two different black taxi drivers asked for the same amount). My advice is to walk to most places, take the bus if it’s more than a few kilometers, or take a black taxi if your destination is far and/or you have no idea where to find it. Use the black taxis with caution, but I never personally felt like I got ripped off, even though it was mostly obvious that I was a tourist. Just stand next to the curb, stick your hand out, and a black cab will pull up to you in seconds. This is similar to Phnom Penh, where every regular motorcycle driver wants to make some extra cash by hauling passengers around.
A few other small observations I made: first, there are no coins in Ulaanbaatar. Be prepared to have a wallet full of cash, most of it worth only cents, and be prepared to get very confused with the giant numbers in Mongolian currency (very similar to Vietnamese dong). There are also lots of stray dogs throughout UB, which is very similar to what you’d see in Bangkok. Most of them don’t seem vicious, that is until you get into the ger neighborhoods (more on that later). Mongolians are like Russians in that they don’t tend to smile for no reason. Be prepared to see lots of neutral, unsmiling faces. However, once you smile at them, they’re quick to smile back. This is unlike China, as in China many people walk around with a frowny face, and they often don’t smile back even when you smile at them first (from my experience).
The Mongolians also do not fear the cold. They really are a "cold" race of people. Even though there were always subzero temperatures outside, I'd constantly see people just standing outside nonchalantly chatting and having a smoke, as if they weren't the slightest bit cold. Yet even though I was wearing ten layers of clothes, I was practically sprinting to hurry up and get back indoors somewhere. Also, seemingly every night of the week, the streets stayed busy with activity very late into the night. Even at 2 AM, I could hear people talking outside my guest house window, as well as all the cars honking their horns. I could also hear music playing into the wee hours of the night at the countless clubs and karaoke bars around the city. This is very different from China, where people greatly fear the cold. In the wintertime, cold cities like Dalian almost become a ghost town after the sun goes down. Not so in Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolians seem like they just don't give too much a damn about the ridiculous temperatures - the cold is the least of their problems. I should also note that Ulaanbaatar has a pretty bustling nightlife scene, though I'm not much of a nightlife guy myself. The nightlife was way better than any Chinese city I've ever been to, and I've been to a lot.
Mongolians, especially the men, have somewhat aggressive body language, quite like the Chinese, and very much unlike the Japanese and many Southeast Asians. They walk aggressively, and I often felt like I was about to get plowed over on the sidewalk, even though I myself walk firmly and somewhat fast. And the Mongolians drive like the typical asshole drivers you find all over the developing world, especially China. They honk their horns a lot, but not as much as the Chinese. They fail to yield for pedestrians, even at crosswalks, and they put the pedal to the metal in all driving situations. Needless to say, watch out when dealing with the traffic or crossing the road. Medium-sized traffic jams were common on all of the city’s the main arteries, but they definitely weren’t as bad as what you’d see in Beijing or Bangkok.
In retrospect my trip to Ulaanbaatar was enjoyable, unique, fun, interesting, and way better than I had expected. Mongolia really is a unique country, especially when compared to the rest of Asia. The people may look Asian, but they and their country seem far more Russian-like. I’m guessing central Asia in general is probably a lot like this. The guys were good-looking and had a cool vibe to them, but their overt machoism was kind of annoying and a turn-off. The women were stunning and second-to-none in my book, but people’s tastes in women are too personal and subjective, so of course not everyone’s gonna agree with me. Mongolian women seemed like they could hold a light to Chinese women, my favorite women in Asia. They also struck me as very wifeable.
Mongolian cuisine is average overall, but good enough for a short trip. It’s cheap, meat-heavy, and tasty, but also rich, filling, and not that good for your health. On the other hand, well-cooked foreign cuisine is anywhere and everywhere in central UB, and it’s very affordable and true-to-form by Asian standards, especially considering most of it is cooked by the Mongolians themselves. From my experience, Asians on the whole aren’t very good at cooking foreign, especially Western, cuisine, but the Mongolians luckily don’t fit under that broad generalization. Traveling in Mongolia is very affordable, especially if you’re using your overseas income from a developed country. Even if you’re on a developing country income, it’s still very affordable. While there’s not an endless amount of things to do in UB, I still felt very occupied and satisfied throughout my trip. It took a very long time for me to feel bored. From a street and travel photographer’s point-of-view, it was a very fun and challenging place to photograph.
Going to Mongolia feels adventurous and off-the-beaten track, so I recommend a trip there for brave travelers and/or travelers wanting a change from the same ol’ same ol’ in Asia. Mongolia is an anomaly of an Asian country. Don’t just take my word for it, rather go there and find out if you like it yourself. We all have different personalities, have had different traveling experiences, and we all have different tastes. You’ll never know if you like Mongolia until you’ve been there and seen it with your own eyes. I quite enjoyed traveling there, though living there would obviously be a different story. I imagine someday I’ll be back to Mongolia in the summertime, but who knows when. For now, I say +1 for Ulaanbaatar.
Part two, my experience of living in a yurt for two days and two nights with locals, is coming soon.
If you enjoyed this trip report, you might also like my other trip reports:
Taiwan - Taipei
China - Shanghai, Dalian, Harbin, Mudanjiang, Beijing, Changsha, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming
Malaysia - Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Langkawi
Laos - Vang Vieng and Vientiane
You might also like:
Excellent Resources for Learning Mandarin Chinese
Useful websites for travelers and expats in Asia
Thanks for reading!
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Excellent pictures by the way. The food pics seem straight out of a a magazine lol
I'm getting a bit enthused about taking nice photos lately, unfortunately I'm still using my smartphone and
it doesn't have a great brightness range. I can appreciate now the difference a good camera makes.
2)Everybody is full of it. What's your hypocrisy?
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As you read before, I spent ten days in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Some like to call it “the world’s coldest capital city.” Two out of ten of those days were spent living in a yurt, a traditional Mongolian tent home that’s portable (also sometimes referred to as a “ger”). Ulaanbaatar’s city center is mostly filled with regular ol’ buildings and apartments that can be found in practically any other Asian city, but the outskirts of the city are filled with houses and yurts. The Mongolians have been living in yurts for thousands of years, so entering a ger neighborhood is somewhat like walking into the past.
I spent my two days and two nights living in a yurt alongside my hostess, a middle-aged unmarried Mongolian woman. I’ll refer to her as “Oy” from this point forward. I found Oy by responding to her ad on Airbnb for a Mongolian family homestay – about $45 per night, which is not exactly cheap by Mongolian standards, but a fair deal considering she stayed with me 24/7 and cooked all my meals.
Oy was a somewhat strange woman – not in a creepy way, rather in an absent-minded kind of way. She was nice and generous, but by the end of my two days with her, I couldn’t wait to get away. This was mostly due to the fact that communicating with her in English proved very difficult, and also due to how overbearing she was.
It seemed like she had a good English vocabulary, yet when I would say something simple to her like – “Should we start cooking dinner now?” – she would just look at me, give no reply, and then continue to go about doing whatever it was she was already doing. This must’ve happened hundreds of times in the span of two days. It seemed like she could speak English fairly well, but she would selectively listen to what I said to her.
Nonetheless, I eventually just learned to expect Oy’s strange behavior, and I tried my best to cope.I could tell she hated silence and felt uncomfortable when no one was talking. This is the opposite of me, as I prefer silence when there’s nothing good to talk about, or if I simply need a break from being social. She would tell me small bits about Mongolia’s culture, food, and history – some of which I found interesting.
As for her being so overbearing, this is also common in mainland Chinese people. They like to “micro host” whenever they have a guest in their home, especially if that guest is a foreigner from a land far, far away. This is nice and all, but usually I wish the host would just chill out and stop trying so hard, as most of the time I don’t actually need anything. But by telling a Chinese host you don’t need anything, they assume you’re simply trying to be humble and modest, as that’s what “good” guests do in China. But in my case, I’m not exactly trying got be modest, I just genuinely don’t want or need anything, but it’s impossible to convince my hosts of that. Well apparently some Mongolian people also play the “overbearing host” role, as Oy sure did. I appreciate the effort, but I sincerely don't need much.
The inside of my yurt was about the size of a small bedroom, maybe 15 to 20 square (circular?) meters or so. Even though there were usually three to four people in the yurt at any given time, it never really felt too crowded. There were three separate makeshift beds, a dining table, two small dressers, a cooking shelf, and a coal furnace in the yurt. The furnace double functioned as both a heater and a stove top. You could place pots and pans on top of the furnace to cook food. The furnace also helped to keep the inside of the yurt nice and toasty, but almost too toasty for my liking. I would practically be sweating anytime the furnace was burning coal. However, whenever the furnace went out, the yurt’s temperature would quickly plunge to subzero. It was hard to get the inside temperature just right, as it was always either too hot or too cold.
Going to the bathroom meant going to an outhouse, as there generally aren’t any toilets in yurts. As you can imagine, having to go to the bathroom outside, especially number two, when the temperatures are well below zero is certainly no fun. Times this by three when it’s the middle of the night.
There’s also no running water in most yurts, so people have to fetch water from a well or buy some from a local store. I often saw people hauling giant jugs of water on dollies throughout the ger neighborhood. And since there’s no running water, taking a shower in a yurt is usually not possible. Since I was only staying in my yurt two days, I opted to not to have to learn how to take a shower in a yurt. I can’t imagine it would be too fun. Spas are somewhat ubiquitous in Ulaanbaatar, so I can’t help but wonder if many people living in yurts frequent spas when it’s time to take a shower. Even though most Chinese homes have bathrooms with showers, lots of Chinese people still only bathe at public bathhouses and spas. Maybe some Mongolians are the same in this regard.
Other than a single overhead light bulb, my yurt had no electricity to speak of, and most certainly no electrical outlets. However, the yurt next door to mine had plenty of electricity. That specific yurt had a washing machine, a big screen LCD TV, lamps, outlets, and all of the other appliances and electronics you’d come to expect in a modern home. So yurts can certainly have plenty of electricity, but not all of them do. They can also look way more modern on the inside than they do on the outside.
Just like everywhere else in the city, the ger neighborhood badly reeked of burning coal, but it was much worse in the ger neighborhood than in the city center. This is mostly due to the fact that the yurts are the ones doing most of the coal burning. Like I said, coal-burning furnaces are the primary source of heat for most yurts, and since there are thousands of yurts all over Ulaanbaatar, the air quickly gets filled with coal exhaust, especially late at night when temperatures are the coldest.
As for things to do, there’s really not much to do in an electricity-less yurt. The best comparison I can come up with is to think of your home once the electricity goes out. That’s usually your cue to go do something outside, or rather to enjoy some of life’s more simple pleasures – reading a book, chatting face-to-face with friends and family, playing a board game, etc. When I wasn’t chatting with Oy, eating, or outside exploring, I mostly found myself reading an e-book on my mobile phone. I brought a back-up battery with me, so luckily my mobile phone never ran out of power.
Walking around the snow covered ger neighborhood, I felt like I was somewhere far, far away from home. I guess in fact I was. The neighborhood was not superficially pretty per say, but it just looked so foreign, exotic, and interesting to my American eyes. Rarely do I have that kind of feeling anymore when I travel in Asia, as I’ve seen so much of it, but it was nice to have that feeling all over again. I was having a blast just walking around soaking up the atmosphere and taking photos. It was beautiful in its own unique kind of way. I had similar “far away from home” feelings in Vang Vieng (Laos), Oriental Mindoro (the Philippines), and in the outskirts of Penang Island (Malaysia).
It was hard to judge whether or not the ger neighborhood is an “economically challenged” part of the city. On one hand, everything looked so poor and downtrodden, but on the other hand, people were driving up to their yurts in cars, and when they got out of their cars, they very much looked like middle class urbanites. Don’t get me wrong, the neighborhood didn’t look like a crime-ridden ghetto or anything, but it certainly looked undeveloped, much like the villages I often see in rural northeastern China. Yet the people themselves often looked anything but poor. My best guess is many people simply choose to live in a yurt by choice. Whether that be for tradition or for economic practicality, I really don’t know. At the very least, they are living in the yurts part-time, and then returning to their apartments in the city center when they want modern facilities.
Little convenience stores were peppered throughout the neighborhood. It seemed like most of them were within a two- to three-minute walk of one another. All the core necessities could be found at these little convenience stores – water, beverages, eggs, meat, snacks, toiletries, etc. It was comforting to know that a trip to the city center was not necessary for most everyday items. I’d often buy beverages from these convenience stores, and then leave the drinks outside of my yurt for a few minutes to chill them down. After all, the temperature outside was always colder than a freezer!
Ferocious-looking dogs were anywhere and everywhere in the ger neighborhood, and they were always barking their jaws off at me no matter where I was. Not a single one of these dogs seemed friendly, and I often got the impression that they were only a small trigger away from biting me. It was hard to tell whether these dogs were strays or if they belonged to someone, as they rarely were wearing a collar, yet seemingly every yurt in the neighborhood had a guard dog. I suppose unsurprisingly, most of these dogs looked like “cold” breeds – that is breeds of dogs that are native to freezing cold climates. Many of them had very thick coats of fur and lots of bulky muscles on their bones.
In the yurt next to me was a large family consisting of all females. The sons had moved out of the yurt to greener pastures, while the daughters stuck around while they were still in college. What surprised me is how good-looking and sophisticated some of the girls in the yurt looked. They did not at all look like the kind of people I envisioned living in a yurt, rather they looked much more like your typical urban Asian females – nice fashionable clothes and lovely hair and make-up. And on top of that, many of the daughters could speak Russian and Korean on top of Mongolian, as well as a little bit of English. Pretty impressive for young people living in a cramped yurt. Pictured below are the mom and the aunt. Too bad the younger girls didn't want to be in the photograph!
In this regard, Mongolian women put most of their other Asian sisters to shame. It seemed like being bilingual was the norm for them, and some girls were even tri or quad lingual. Mongolian girls really have a big one-up over their mainland Chinese, Thai, and Japanese sisters, as girls from these three countries can rarely speak two or more languages well, especially the Japanese. I don’t know about you, but I think women who can speak multiple languages are very sexy.
The first night I was staying in the yurt, Oy and her adopted “sister” from the yurt next door made buuz, traditional Mongolian dumplings, for dinner. They made the buuz completely from scratch – they diced the beef, hand-rolled the flour, mixed the filling, and steamed the buuz in a metal tray. It was pretty neat seeing them make the dumplings. The process is 90% the same as when Chinese hand-make dumplings for the Chinese New Year – a process I have witnessed many times with my own eyes.
When the buuz were finished being cooked, Oy sliced up some pickled cucumbers to serve as a side. Other than the pickles and buuz, that was it for the meal. The buuz tasted like little hamburger patties - they were 80% beef after all. There were also diced onions and garlic in the filling, which gave the buuz a little bit of extra flavor. All in all, I liked the buzz, but they weren’t anything too extraordinary. If you’ve ever eaten xiaolongbao in China or other parts of the Sinosphere, then you should have a pretty good idea of what buuz are like, as the two dishes are very similar. The buuz were a tasty and filling meal, but definitely not something I would want to eat too often. In all fairness, they're considered a meal only for special occasions by the Mongolians themselves.
The second night we stayed in the yurt, Oy and her sister made beef soup for dinner. The soup was nothing too complex – basically just chopped onions, carrots, potatoes, and cuts of fatty beef served in a salty broth. I’m a big fan of soup whenever the weather is freezing cold outside, as the hot soup helps warm my body up. Of course the soup was tasty, but once again, it was nothing extraordinary. If you’ve ever had “yang tang” (lamb soup) in mainland China, then you’ve more or less also had Mongolian beef soup. Both dishes are good, especially in the winter, but neither are worth writing home about.
I think spending two days in the yurt was just the right amount of time. One day would have been just a little too short and brief, while three days would have been too long, which would of led to extreme boredom. It was interesting to see what the inside of a yurt looks like with my own eyes, and it was also interesting to see how many Mongolians still currently live. I definitely recommend the experience to others traveling to Ulaanbaatar. Just be aware that you and your host likely have two totally different ideas of how to communicate and pass the time. For me the photos alone were worth the money, time, and effort. But even if there were no photos to be had, it was still totally worth it. An experience I certainly won't be forgetting any time soon!
I want to let everyone out there know that I started my own blogging website. It's a work in process, but give me more time, and there will be all kinds of useful information written on it. I also post my own photos to all my articles. The article topics will center around living a life abroad, or more specifically a life abroad in Asia. I'll be writing trip reports, city guides, practical info for getting ESL work, tips on how to adapt to your new environment, dating advice, interviews with interesting expats, insights on the local culture, country/city comparisons, cost of living guides, and so much more. Right now, there's not much on the website, but I'll be posting about one article per week for at least the next year or so. Periodically check it for updates. Hopefully the website will take off into something bigger and better somewhere down the road. Here's the link:
Also please add me on Instagram if you enjoy my photography. Username: nessthenomad
Thanks for reading, everybody. Until next time.
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In your opinion, would you suggest Winston to visit Ulaanbaatar?
Is it still possible to see real Mongolian culture in Inner Mongolia? I recently read 'Wolf Totem' a Chinese novel about the destruction of the inner Mongolian wolf packs...so I'm guessing the answer to my question is no. Anyway your report has made me interested in the real Mongolia - although I'm not sure when I'll get there.
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