Old and New

Sunday was spent exploring glorious, scenic Ulan-Baatar. Thanks to Soviet planners (and a huge amount of concrete) the city centre lacks character, and modern changes aren’t necessarily an improvement – several large, glass-walled high-rise developments look more suited to Dubai than Mongolia. But the centre is compact, pleasant to stroll around (apart from when the air is filled with dust) and low-stress. The hostel was busy, staffed by friendly people and well-located – also they pick you up from the station, one of those little things that makes such a huge difference at 7am off a train.

The major tourist site in the city is the Buddhist monastery1 of Gandantegchinlen Khiid. While on a smaller scale than other sites I’ve visited, this has some pleasing touches, such as countless prayer wheels to set spinning. Less helpful was nearby and loud campaigning for the upcoming general election.2. The major draw is a 25-metre high Buddha, actually a state-funded replica of one relocated by the Soviets to, of all places, St Petersburg, in 1938.

The natural history museum contains the expected assortment of the taxidermist’s art, but is most notable for an impressive collection of dinosaur fossils, locally sourced from the Gobi. There’s a great range of specimens, including eggs, hatchlings, the usual massive bipedal carnivore (with tiny fore-arms), but most impressive was a triceratops-style quadruped locked in battle with a velociraptor. The piece captures a very dynamic scene, with the velociraptor clawing at the quadruped’s face, while it plants a heavy foreleg on the raptor’s chest.

Food-wise, UB is much cheaper than Russia – and whilst ‘traditional Mongolian’ food seems to be as rare as hen’s teeth, there’s plenty of good things on offer, such as an American-style restaurant, with pancakes and hash-browns for breakfast. Unfortunately a side-effect of the modern re-development is that various places listed by the book seemed to have vanished (though one was merely hiding down a back alley, it transpired).

  1. like a convent, but with male nuns []
  2. Which was also an issue at dinner one evening – the restaurant apparently having been adopted for some kind of rally or pre-election junket []
Posted Monday, June 30th, 2008 under travel.

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