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Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia

Like nearly one half of the Mongolian population, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is herself a nomad. The city has changed locations more than twenty times over the past 350 years before taking root in her current location in a sweeping valley bounded by four sacred peaks, including Bogd Khan mountain to the south. Along with her location, the capital has changed names over the years, having been called Urguu from 1639to 1706, Ih Huree from 1706 to 1911, Niislel Huree from 1911 –to 1923, and finally Ulaanbaatar since 1924). But despite her many transformations, Mongolia’s capital has remained constant as the political, economic, and cultural center of the nation, and as a city rich in both character and contrast. Indeed there aren’t many world capitals in which you can ride a horse, visit a nomadic family, and enjoy fine dining and luxurious spa treatments all in the same day.

Ulaanbaatar today is a vibrant city of more than one million residents. The city reflects a close and sometimes amusing juxtaposition of nomadic traditions and modern society, perhaps best summarized by her skyline dotted with both gers (felt tents) and towering skyscrapers. The city’s contrast can also be found among those who call it home, from traditional-clothing-clad herders, to Armani-suit-wearing business men and women, to a growing number of ex-patriots hailing from nearly every corner of the globe. Only in Ulaanbaatar might you find a horse cart bouncing down the central avenue alongside a Mercedes Benz, or a market selling both livestock and designer clothing. In short, there is something for everyone, and always a site to behold in Ulaanbaatar.

If cities have a heart, and they certainly do, then the heart of Ulaanbaatar is Sukhbaatar Square. This sprawling plaza situated in front of the capital building, is THE PLACE where residents and visitors gather for celebrations, exhibitions, and concerts, or just for a leisurely stroll with friends. Running along the southern edge of the square is Enkh Taivny Orgon Choloo ( Peace Avenue), Ulaanbaatar’s main thoroughfare, which spans from East to West across the city. On Peace Avenue, you’ll find a myriad of shopping hotspots, selling everything from cashmere, to antiques and souvenirs, to high fashion couture. You’ll also find a surprising variety of restaurants, bars, and cafes, serving up Italian, French, Korean, Chinese, Turkish, American, and Mongolian cuisines, to name but a few.

Besides serving as the jumping off point for all travel throughout the country, Ulaanbaatar has much to offer visitors. The city’s eight museums are bursting at the seams with treasures such as 3,000 year old Hunnu artifacts, prehistoric dinosaur bones, and Chinggis Khaan-era armor and weapons. Dozens of cultural venues throughout the city present daily performances of dance, theatre, music, and contortionism. The city is also home to one of the world’s largest open air markets, Narantuul, with more than 250 vendors selling everything under the sun.

Gandan Monastery

The Gandan-tegchinlen Monastery, formerly known as Gandan Monastery, is a Tibetan style monastery in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar that has been restored and revitalized since 1990. The Tibetan name translates to the “Great Place of Complete Joy.” It currently has over 400 monks in residence. It features a 26.5 meter-high statue of Migjid Janraisig, a Buddhist bodhisattva also known as Avalokitesvara. It came under state protection in 1994. The monastery was established in 1835 by the Fifth Jebtsundamba, then Mongolia’s highest reincarnated lama. It would become the principal center of Buddhist learning in Mongolia. In the 1930s, the Communist government of Mongolia, under the leadership of Horloogiyn Choybalsan and under strong pressure from Joseph Stalin, destroyed over 700 Mongolian monasteries and massacred over 10,000 Buddhist monks. However, the Gandantegchinlen Khiid monastery escaped this destruction. It was closed in 1938 but reopened in 1944 and allowed to continue as a functioning Buddhist monastery, under a skeleton staff and named Gandan (or Ganden) Monastery, as a token homage to traditional Mongolian culture and religion. With the end of communism in Mongolia in 1990, restrictions on worship were lifted. The intricate rooftops of the monasteries depict the artistic techniques polished by the ages and that have been passed through generations. The cobblestones of Gandantegchilen, Dashchoilin Khiid, and Choijing Lama monasteries, the latter turned into a museum, whisper the stories of the early settlers that takes you back as early as the 17th century.