By Josh Weil
August 2, 2013
Districts of yurts surround Ulan Bator. Josh Weil for The New York Times
In September the hills around Ulan Bator, the rough and roiling capital of Mongolia, are flecked with wildflowers. Below them, districts of gers, or yurts, encircle the city. The circular canvas structures, insulated with felt and supported by poles, have housed central Asian nomads since before the time of Genghis Khan — before there even was a Mongolia. Now, half of the nation’s population lives permanently in or near the capital. Look beyond the gers, to where the offices and condominiums rise, and you’ll see why: Ulan Bator is booming. Construction cranes spike the sky. Traffic — Hummers and Lexuses, jacked-up jalopies and crammed city buses — churns. It’s impossible to ignore the economic surge that copper, gold and coal mining have brought to the city in recent years.
It has brought visitors, too. In the past decade, as Mongolia’s G.D.P. has more than doubled, tourism has increased along with it. In the first half of last year more than 280,000 travelers visited Mongolia (mostly from China, Russia and South Korea, with Americans the fourth-largest group), on track to beat by 50 percent the number of annual visitors just a decade ago. Yet, despite this influx, Mongolia remains the world’s least densely populated country — just over three million people inhabit its 600,000 square miles. This is a land where, in the vast sweep of endless steppes, you can lose yourself in quietude.
Unless you’re still in Ulan Bator, along with nearly half the country’s population.
“U.B.,” Dan Bailey told me on my first day in the city, “is the worst part of Mongolia.” As a fishing guide who leads treks along the country’s rivers, he should know. And by evening I was ready to agree with him. After all, I hadn’t come to Mongolia to see a city. Hardly anybody does. Most tourists find themselves in Ulan Bator because that’s where Genghis Khan International Airport is; they tend to leave as soon as they can.
But in a week of wandering its streets I got to know two Ulan Bators: the clamorous one of concrete and crowds that assaults you upon arrival, and the culturally rich, charismatic one that embraces you once you give it a chance. In 1990 protesters threw off the yoke of a splintering Soviet Union. Though that uprising might seem fitting for a land that was once home to an irrepressible horde of conquering horsemen, the current economic revolution has led to an industrial boom at odds with the pastoral Mongolia many visitors hope to find. This is a city of smog and snarled traffic, of 50 Cent blasting from a screen opposite the State Department Store; a place where a Versace outlet encroaches on the square where Lenin’s statue stood until last October, when it was hoisted away and auctioned off.
This is the Ulan Bator that Jan Wigsten, the Swedish founder of the tour company Nomadic Journeys, means when he speaks of a capital in the “overdrive of transition.” Mr. Wigsten has been going to Mongolia for more than 30 years. He has seen building entrances shift from courtyards that featured playgrounds and gardens (“that Communist idea of communal use”) to doors that open directly onto the street. He has seen the swarms of street kids that once suffused the city with a sense of desperation, and the way economic expansion swept the streets clean of them. “It’s like being in the ’50s,” he said of the economic boom and all its social implications.
Indeed, the Ulan Bator I first stepped out into did seem like a city at the beginning of a prosperous decade: avenues clogged with more cars than they could handle, people hurrying to work, restaurants with signs advertising fast food. But the signs weren’t advertising burgers and fries; instead, chains like Khaan Buuz and Mongol Khuushur dish up buuz (steamed mutton dumplings) and khuushuur (the same, deep fried). I drank suutei tsai — salty milk tea with a sheen of fat — and ate with my hands until my fingers glistened. This seemed the quickest way to get close to the culture, at least until I could get out into the rural Mongolia I’d come for.
The second Ulan Bator is the city I could only appreciate weeks later, after days of hitching my way across the central steppe, nights camping in a storm-battered tent, and another stretch riding a half-wild horse through the mountains that border Siberia. And then there were the endless meals of gristly mutton eaten around smoky stoves inside herders’ gers, the unceasing cups of greasy tea.
But, upon my return to Ulan Bator, I discovered a variety of cosmopolitan cuisines uniquely fitting to a culture created by conquering — and uniting — so many disparate corners of the world.
My culinary journey began in the Sansar neighborhood, behind the wrestling stadium, at an incongruously tranquil restaurant, Hazara, named for the north Indian tribe that, in the 13th century, followed Genghis Khan’s army back to the Mongolian Steppe. After weeks of bland Mongolian food, I nearly swooned at the mammoth leg of cardomom-scented lamb marinated in rum and baked in a tandoori oven, served alongside baingan bharta (mashed eggplant, tomatoes and onions spiced with chiles and coriander), then sank into a satisfied stupor amid the larch logs and curtains that make each table its own secluded hideaway.
Another outstanding eating experience awaited me at Urlag, tucked inside the Culture Palace. Urlag is not just a Korean restaurant, but a North Korean one. Despite the novelty of an opera honoring “Dear Leader” looped on the TV, it was the food that surprised me: a cold dish of glassy buckwheat noodles set afire with a kimchi sauce, and roast duck so delicious it brought me back the next night.
At Naran Tuul, the bustling market east of the city, where furriers hawk hats that dangle fox paws, and smartphones are sold alongside horse tack, I stopped by a tsainy gazar, or teahouse. There I found a plate of tsuban (noodles and mutton) accompanied by shreds of honest-to-God carrots, not to mention coleslaw and potato salad and fresh steamed mantuu buns.
Food wasn’t the only thing I came to appreciate in Ulan Bator. Though traveling through the steppe had imbued me with admiration for those who live there, mostly nomadic herders of horses, sheep, goats and yaks, it was in Ulan Bator that I encountered the history that gives them such fortitude. A metropolis established just over 200 years ago as a nomadic encampment called the City of Felt, Ulan Bator isn’t much for ancient architecture. And in a country purged by Soviets of monks and monasteries, the unremarkable Buddhist monasteries of Choijin Lama and Gandan Khiid are likely to disappoint.
But the core of this country’s past is in the centuries before the capital existed, and that history comes most powerfully to life in the National Museum of Mongolian History. Here in a concrete building west of Sukhbaatar Square, quotes from the nation’s founder line the walls. Walking among armor and trumpets made from human bones, I could almost hear Genghis Khan’s voice: “Listen, my sons, my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is for you.”
Today, Mongolia is 15 times smaller than at the empire’s peak, but still far too large to explore in the month I had there. So it was in the little-visited halls of the locked-up Wildlife Museum that I came closest to comprehending the country’s vast natural world. Once I’d found the key-keeper, and he’d lighted the dusty taxidermy displays — from wolves caught midsnarl to ram skulls sprouting huge horns — the realization hit me: how wondrous an array of animals, and how precious the dwindling wildlife that’s left.
Which is just another reason to see this country now. Although the Ministry of Nature Environment and Tourism has set aside almost 15 percent of the land in protected areas like Mongol Daguur and Khustain National Park, the mining boom continues to rip away grassland from the gazelles that graze in the east, dig in to the desert home of rare wild camels and Gobi bears, and eat away at the habitat of reindeer, wolves and the last snow leopards in the northern mountains.
If Mongolia guards its natural treasures as well as it does its cultural ones (including the 17th-century Buddhist figures and self-portraits of its greatest artist, Zanabazar, in the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts; and the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble’s air-rattling throat singing and contortionist performances), it will only grow more popular. And Ulan Bator will become an increasingly welcome reprieve from the rigors of the wilds.
Near the end of my visit, I walked west from the square, seeking the Center of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication. I found a pair of dusty gers enclosed by a chain-linked fence. Planted in the dirt in front of them were spirit banners — the tails of horses once owned by the dead, strung now to spear tips. The gate was locked, the center closed. So I kept walking, toward the hills, into the tumble of ger slums at the city’s edge. Soon I found myself inside a sprawling cemetery; Ulan Bator’s skyline glinted in the distance. There, among the new high-rises, the grandest of them gleamed: the Blue Sky, a 200-room luxury hotel. With its 25 stories of blue glass, the building and its name recall the central image in Mongolian spiritualism, the Eternal Blue Sky. Throughout the country I’d seen blue ribbons marking sacred places, tied to ancient trees at mountain passes and on the headstones scattered around me now.
The next day, I would watch the Grand National Orchestra — with its carved horse-head violins and cow-horn winds — play a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions.” But it was that afternoon, standing among the wildflowers and the shards of vodka bottles that glittered among them, that I understood how the windswept plains behind me and the modern city rising before me were equal parts of the country’s character, inseparable from the history that binds them both.
IF YOU GO
No visa is required for American citizens for a visit of up to 90 days.
WHERE TO STAY
(Baga Toiruu Street West, building A4; nassantours.com): Perhaps the most helpful guesthouse manager in Ulan Bator, matched by the clean rooms and hot showers. Dorm rooms: $7 a person, per night; $30 for a whole room, which sleeps four or more. The guesthouse and Blue Sky, below, give prices in U.S. dollars.
The Blue Sky Hotel and Tower
(Peace Avenue. 17; blueskytower.mn): Ulan Bator’s premiere luxury hotel, near Sukhbaatar Square, with a health club, nightclub, restaurants and an unbeatable view from the open-air lounge ($192 to $3,000).
WHERE TO EAT
(Amaryn Gudamj Street, inside the Culture Palace; 976-9907-9894; facebook.com/urlagrestaurant): North Korean restaurant with patriotic operas on television and sublime dishes on the plates. (Main courses, 9,000 Mongolian tugrik, $6.35 at 1,420 tugrik to the dollar.)
(Peace Avenue 16, behind the Wrestling Palace; 976-9919-5007): An elegant atmosphere matched by attentive service and sophisticated and unusual Indian cuisine — in unexpectedly large portions. (Main dishes, about 11,000 to 25,000 tugrik; wines, 13,000 to 91,000 tugrik.)
(Amarsanaa Street, west side, north of Damdinbazar Street; 976-1136-1520; facebook.com/gobicave): With over-the-top cavern-themed décor, this Turkish restaurant is unlike any other place in Ulan Bator, and maybe anywhere. Fun to sit in, and good food, too. (Main courses, 7,000 tugrik.)
Tsainy Gazar No. 2
(Naran Tuul Market, metal hangar, back entrance): A great place to try traditional Mongolian food. Clean with quick service and more complexity (and vegetables) than usual. (Lunch plates for 3,000 tugrik.)
WHERE TO DRINK
Budweiser Bar (Sukhbaataryn Gudamj Street, northwest corner of Sukhbaatar Square): Good Czech beer and great views of the city’s main square.
The Cherry Lounge (Tokyogiin Gudamj Street, west side, north of the Wrestling Palace): Once named the Sexy Jazz Lounge, it still has the vibe — cozy with low lighting and red walls hung with black-and-white photos of jazz greats.