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Ulaanbaatar - A view from our expert author


Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a thoroughly modern, concrete city, teeming with people and humming with taxis and buses, where only 100 years ago men on horseback drove camel caravans and mule wagons along unpaved streets.

Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a thoroughly modern, concrete city, teeming with people and humming with taxis and buses, where only 100 years ago men on horseback drove camel caravans and mule wagons along unpaved streets past hundreds of temple buildings, bells on the animal harnesses ringing loudly to attract attention to imported wares sold by Chinese, Russian and Mongol traders in the open-air markets.

Today it is the general base for all business and development and it is the natural headquarters from which to plan all major travels to the countryside. Tourism operates essentially from the capital. Make the most of this opportunity and organise events in advance if travelling outside a tour group. International companies, UN and other development agencies are located in the capital, and political and government life is centred here. 

View of Ulaanbaatar from the Zaisan memorial, Mongolia by Shoyuramen, WikipediaA view of colourful downtown Ulaanbaatar from the Zaisan memorial © Shoyuramen, Wikipedia

Ulaanbaatar is situated in the broad mountain valley of the River Tuul, surrounded by pine and fir forests that cover the hillsides. For much of its history, Ulaanbaatar was known as Urga, a name that originated from the word örgöö, meaning ‘a temple ger’. In the mid 17th century, the monk Zanabazar, who became Mongolia’s first religious leader (Öndör Gegeen), established a mobile capital. His residence moved from place to place along the Orkhon, Selenge and Tuul river valleys. In 1778, long after Zanabazar’s death, the mobile capital of Mongolia finally settled on its present site.

Thus Ulaanbaatar was once a felt-tented capital made up of thousands of gers and temples; indeed, it was known as Ikh Khüree Khot, the Great Monastery Town. Brick and stone temples were not constructed until 1837. In 1911, the city was renamed Niislel Khüree (Capital Monastery), when it became the political capital of autonomous Mongolia. In 1924, after further political upheaval, the city was renamed Ulaanbaatar after the revolutionary leader, Sükhbaatar. During the 20th century, most of the felt encampments gave way to high-rise apartment blocks and government buildings in the Soviet style. Most temple buildings were either destroyed or closed during the religious purges of the 1930s; one exception was Gandantegchinlen Monastery.

For much of its history, Ulaanbaatar was known as Urga, a name that originated from the word örgöö, meaning ‘a temple ger’.

In the 21st century there have been huge changes and development as mentioned, built around the new mining industry. The Guardian newspaper in the UK declared on 7th November 2011 that Mongolia was fast becoming ‘the centre of the planet’s greatest resource boom … On the brink of one of the most dramatic transformations in human history.’ On the ground things are sometimes seen differently and not everyone is on the receiving end of the benefits. But undeniably the country is changing fast.

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