Airag, Genghis, and Oktoberfest – Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s Capital

Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator may not be a great showcase for beautiful Mongolia (well, scratch that may – it is not!). However, it prooved to be a good entrance – although I became a pickpocket’s victim for the first time. But the hospitality of the Mongolians was overwhelming. 

Highlights:

  • Being invited to a private Mongolian house warming party
  • Experience the friendliness and hospitality of Mongolian people
  • Exploring the Mongolian National Museum, local black market, winter palace, and monastery Ghandan Khiid
  • Tasting Mongolian cuisine: from very typical airag (fermented mere’s milk) to non-typical but wonderful bakeries
  • Visiting the National Opera
  • Partying on an ale-bench with a German-style beer in my hand at the local Oktoberfest

Taking the Trans-Siberian train from Irkutsk to Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator (UB) held no major surprises. I was quite lucky again with my fellow travellers and finally arrived very early in the morning and got picked up by my couchsurfing host Brigid. The first days were marked by

At the Russian-Mongolian Border - better don't laugh out there!

At the Russian-Mongolian Border – better don’t laugh out there!

discovery strolls throughout the city. Several people told me about UB being a terrible city so combined with the idea of a capital city to a nomadic people, I pictured it a little like Phnom Penh in Cambodia how I saw it in 2005 – mainly without paved roads. I was very surprised when I found that UB is just like most other capital cities: Big, with modern buildings (many glas buildings and many more are to come) mainly scattered around the central Genghis Square. There, behind huges memorials for Genghis Khan and his son and grandson is the country’s legislative located.

There were some cultural highlights in UB, i.e. my visit to the Mongolian National Museum. Here one could learn loads about the glorious past of the Mongolians, foremost about the Great Mongolian Empire. That did not last too long, but it was the greatest empire ever ruled upon, stretching from Korea over China, Russia until the heart of Europe. Mongolians today obviously see this long-gone part of their history as their zenith. Especially interesting for me were the many different styles of beautiful clothing. I also learned about a custom I immediately liked: Whenever two Mongolians met, each of them brought out a beautiful flask. These, mostly made of stone or bone, contained snuff tobacco which then was exchanged in order to greet the other.

Great places to eat:
– Main Department Store, 5th floor – cheap, great variety and many locals go there
– several western bakeries serving awesome cakes and pastries (my favorite: the Жүр үр кафе)
– Mongolian BBQ – Mongolian meat is great – where you select the meat and the staff grills it for you

Also my two visits to the National Opera were very nice (okay, only the second one): There I saw the opera “Genghis Khan” which was about the early years in life of the man who later started to build up the Great Mongolian Empire. With all it’s magnificent clothing and nice story the opera was great.

Some historical sights are also well worth a visit: the winter palace, the final place of dwelling for the last Mongolian king before he abdicated in 1911. There I saw a ger and a special coat made out of hundreds of fers. Or the monastery Ghandan Khiid, were I sat with couchsurfer Asia (who hosted me during my second time in UB) quietly in a buddhist temple, listening in awe to the monks chanting in slumbrous manner before we visited a huge buddha statue.

Watching a play in the National Opera is 10,000 Tughrik (a little over 4 Euro)! Watch out that it is a play where there is an actual orchestra. And the opera tends to be rather cold inside.

Besides, the hospitality of Mongolians itself was a highlight: During my search for a tour operator i met a Spanish couple who were accompanied by a Mongolian friend. We started talking how to organize a tour through Mongolia. When I admitted I had not drank airag (fermented horse milk) yet, I was invited to the friend’s house warming party spontaneously. That turned out to be the highlight of my stay in UB: When I arrived at the party I was assigned a place to sit and given three (!) big (!) bowls of airag scooped out of a huge bowl that was refilled out of a huuuuge barrel as a common welcome… I drank all of them and may say that this most typical Mongolian drink is not among my favorites but it is far from terrible. If one likes Kefir – this one reminds you a little bit. I was also given dried milk (tasted like chalk, brrr), delicious vegetables and meat as well as a lot of vodka. The main responsibility of the (male) host was to make sure that everybody got vodka. In order to ensure that, two small silver cups were passed around clockwise: the one getting downed while the other was refilled. This ensured a) constantly awareness which guest had how much vodka, b) make sure he drank more, and c) that if one of the big round was sick – everybody would soon share his pains…

Mongolian Party - a LOT of food and good to see: Airag, fermented horse milk

Mongolian Party – a LOT of food and good to see: Airag, fermented horse milk

Looking around, I saw one of the snuff flasks I saw in the National Museum earlier on a home altar. Upon my question if I would be allowed to see, my host was quite happy about my request and started passing the flask around. Everybody opened it just a little and sniffed carefully – until the flask reached me. Before I took it, an elderly Mongolian took it over and opened it all the way, putting actually a small amount of the snuff on his hand. And *swoosh* it was gone and he sneezed heartily. He indicated me to do just the same and my nose followed his instantly! I actually liked this tradition so much that I bought a flask, bag, and tobacco two days later at the huge black (local) market (besides some camel socks, yak hat and a new front backpack). It now travels with me, greeting other travelers and hosts.

There was another tradition at the party I liked: With the night advancing, one guest after another around the food-loaden table rose, made a toast to the hosts and stroke up a song. As for the Mongolians, they could be sure that everybody else would soon join in and sing along. The Spanish couple sang together a children’s song. And me? Hating to sing all my life, I guess the vodka did his share to convince me – and I surely did not want to spoil this tradition. So I rose, introduced my song including a brief translation and sang a famous German good-night tune: “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” – I was happy nobody left the room!

Finding a flask is not too difficult on the black market (Naran Tuul). But prices vary greatly, starting around 15,000 Tughrik for small flasks for women, reaching several hundreds of thousands – then for example with gilded head. I paid 40,000 for mine and was very happy as several Mongolians told me it was a good price. Besides, Mongolia is famous for Kashmir wool products – however, because nearly all of it is exported and locals don’t wear it, I decided not to buy anything. Clothing made from camel and yak wool is widely used and very cheap to get at the market.

Besides private parties, there are also quite a few “official” places to do some partying at night. But mind you, everything closes at midnight (although I was told that some clubs and bars open again soon after the curfew started and the cops left the place…)! Together with Asia, the Spaniards, and some Mongolians I went to a “beer festival” – and was amazed it being an Oktoberfest-style party in an Mongolian microbrewery. It was somewhere between funny and ridiculous to see Mongolian waitresses and waiters running around in bad looking (and fitting) Dirndl and Lederhosen. But the great beer sure made up for it! Dancing with Asia to German and Mongolian tunes until midnight was great. And again I met Mongolian hospitality when a sturdy young Mongolian made his way through the masses towards me (I actually braced for a fight) and upon reaching me said without any smile but very sincere: “Welcome to Mongolia!” – and went his way.

Although UB is surely not my favorite city and even less my favorite capital – I liked it somehow. It’s a little rough here and there – like Mongolia is in general. The traffic is pretty bad and drivers warn pedestrians by speeding up – very effective but quite dangerous. Also, after smiling about so many warnings concerning pickpockets I quit after literally my last step on Mongolian soil – onto the Trans-Siberian to Beijing – was used to snatch my camera. Still – the obvious hospitality of Mongolians was enough to like the least Mongolian place in this beautiful country.

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