Sights and activities in Ulaanbaatar when everything is closed due to Mongolian government Covid 19 restrictions
Well, I was not expecting to have five days trying to amuse myself in a city on lockdown.
Arriving in Ulaanbaatar on the Trans Mongolia train
I was so excited to cross the border from Russia to Mongolia on the Trans Mongolia train, expecting to meet my friend Paula who was flying in from New Zealand. We had arranged an eight day Gobi desert tour taking in a Bactrian camel festival and a golden eagle festival. Then we’d have a couple of weeks taking local buses to check out other areas.
But it was not to be. We already knew the Mongolian government had cancelled all public festivals due to Coronavirus concerns. Paula’s first flight, via Beijing was cancelled the previous week, with Mongolia refusing flights from China. And now, I learned her new flight via South Korea was also cancelled after the new outbreak there.
There was no now other way for Paula to get here. I was alone in Mongolia.
Not to worry I thought, I’ll amuse myself in Ulaanbaatar for a couple of days and try to find new friends to join me on a Gobi tour.
Then I discovered it’s Lunar New Year, meaning almost everything is closed for three days, including shops, restaurants and all museums. Then I discovered there’s a government ban on any travel in the country for a week. Then I discovered the government have closed all cultural and religious places (and schools) for a month, and severely limited opening hours for restaurants and bars. Great! All this added up to sensible precautions for a country that has a very low population and a poor healthcare system but of course made it very difficult for travellers stuck in Ulaanbaatar.
There wasn’t too much to do apart from wait out the travel restrictions, post a million messages on travel forums looking for tour mates and see what I could of the city.
Discovering the main sights of Ulaanbaatar – Day One
My mum was still with me for the first two days. We’d travelled across Russia on the Trans Mongolia trains, taking two weeks to do so, seeing six cities and Lake Baikal along the way. Have a look at my Travel Tips for Backpacking Russia here.
After a couple of hours rest, having arrived at 7am from Ulan Ude in Russia, we headed first for Sukhbaatar Square. This is the heart of the city, bisected by Peace Avenue which runs east to west. The square and its central horse-rider statue commemorates Damdin Sukhbaatar, the revolutionary hero, who in 1921 declared independence from China. Apparently it was briefly renamed Chinggis Square in 2013 (known better in the west as Genghis Khan) but a court battle by Sukhbaatar’s descendents had it changed back.
On the north side of the square is Government House, with large statues of Genghis and two other Mongol heroes. It’s really not a very attractive square, being large, bare and very urban. I wonder if it’s nicer in the summer at all – some street food and outdoor seating would be great!
Just off the square, we saw the outside of the National Museum of Mongolia. I’d been quite looking forward to visiting here. It contains stone age petroglyphs, dinosaur fossils and ceremonial costumes.
A couple of blocks south of the square we found the Choijin Lama Temple complex, also closed of course. This is a museum, not a functioning temple now. It dates from 1904 and escaped the communist era purges by being retained as a museum to showcase ‘feudal ways’.
The streets were almost empty, just a few people out and about but I’d noticed a couple of open coffee shops. We found one at the end of Beatles Street, where we spent the rest of the day reading.
Beatles Street, packed with cafes and bars, is known by its fab four monument, where for some reason Paul is barefoot and slightly apart from the others. Just as in Russia where we also saw a Beatles monument in Yekaterinburg, young people in Mongolia rebelled by listening to bootleg pop albums, playing guitars and singing in the stairwells of apartment blocks.
Exploring Gandan Temple in Ulaanbaatar – Day Two
We decided to walk up to Gandan temple today. Being the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations (the first three days are official holidays, but the celebration lasts a month) we were hopeful it might be open.
At the end of Peace Avenue across from the Holiday Inn, a rambshackle ger community surrounds the temple. We walked up a snow filled lane between dilapated wooden shacks and grubby gers, pumping out smoke from rooftop chimneys. Luckily the temple complex was open even though the individual buildings were closed.
Gandantegchinlen roughly translates as ‘place of great joy’ and is Mongolia’s largest and most important temple complex. In 1991 at the end of the Soviet era, people began to openly practice Buddhism again and today around 75% of Mongolians identify as Buddhist.
We followed the traditional clockwise route around the main temples, spinning the prayer wheels and admiring the colourful artwork on the buildings. It was just as impressive as Ivolginsky Datsun temple in Ulan Ude. Have a look here to read about Russia’s Largest Buddhist Temple Complex.
After this there wasn’t much else to do, so we found a French bakery, which I later discovered is a chain across all of Ulaanbaatar. They had a great selection of cakes and pastries and we spent the afternoon reading and people watching.
To Chinggis Khaan Airport – Day Three
It was an early start, with a taxi booked at 7.40am to get my mum to the airport in time for her Turkish Airlines flight to London via Istanbul. Temperature checks were in operation at the airport before we were allowed in. Anyone with signs of a fever was being pulled to one side.
I was glad we’d been to the pharmacy the day before to buy face masks as they seemed to be compulsory here. In Ulaanbaatar most places had signs requesting customer to wear them, but I noticed not everyone was. And of course in the bakery coffee shop, everyone removed them to eat and drink.
After waving mum through airport control I decided to walk the 16km back to the city. It was pretty much a straight road and I’d noticed a pavement running alongside during the taxi ride. It was a bright sunny day, with great views of the snowy Bogdkhan mountains the whole way back to town.
The walk took me three hours and I felt great afterwards. And what a perfect excuse to return to the delightful French bakery, buy an iced bun and pass the afternoon watching Netflix!
Hiking up to the Zaisan Memorial – Day Four in Ulaanbaatar
Another walk was beckoning – this time to the Zaisan memorial, an hour ramble south of Sukhbaatar Square. Located on a hill, with the final section up some steep stairs, the memorial has great views of the city and the landscape behind. It was built by the Russians to commemorate various wars and the circular structure contains colourful murals of Soviet soldiers, workers and peasant supporters.
I also dropped into Buddha park, a small patch of green amid looming half-finished tower blocks. There’s not much to see apart from a giant golden Buddha statue and a heavily graffitied bell.
By now I was very very cold and dropped into a Tom N Tom’s coffee shop to warm up. These Starbucks wannabes are a South Korean chain and can be found all across the city.
Random Monuments and a sacred Ovoo – Day Five in Ulaanbaatar
I was definitely running out of things to do now! I decided to retrace my steps around Sukhbaatar Square and Peace Avenue searching for the random statues that seem to be everywhere. My favourite was definitely a statue of the alien from the movie Predator riding a motorcycle. At least that’s what one travel blog claimed it was when I Googled it. There’s no plaque or sign next to the statue, so who knows?!
I headed back over to the Gandan temples only to find the gates firmly locked and visitors being turned away by officials in hi-vis vests. Lunar New Year public holiday is officially over now, with offices and some shops having reopened, so I assume it’s back to the ‘closed until March 30th government regulation’.
Across from the temple there was a terraced hill with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. I reached the top to find Tasgany Ovoo, covered with offerings from rice to sweets to dried curd biscuits. An ovoo is a pyramid of stones, often found at mountain passes, where offerings to the spirits are made. You walk around the ovoo three times, add an offering, usually another stone and make a wish. At Tasgany a family was walking around throwing rice over their shoulders as they went, before adding a big bag of biscuits to the offering pile.
Back in town at, you guessed it, the bakery, I was relieved to discover on my email confirmation that a seven day tour to the Gobi desert was leaving Ulaanbaatar the next day. There was still two days of travel restrictions left but the tour owner had been to the government to get special permission to leave the city. Along with two boys I’d roped in from my guesthouse, I’d be on my way at 9am the next day, headed first for Terelj National Park. Hurray!
Next stop – the Gobi desert