Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a city I call home. It often divides visitors into two strong categories of love or hate…two opposing corners of take it or leave it. I happen to love it.
Yes, as a visitor with a restricted time schedule, it is Mongolia’s wilderness landscapes that have the greatest draw – completely understandable. UB can be a difficult city to get to know (not on a logistical basis) and sometimes even like. But, don’t dismiss it too quickly, it’s a city worth spending time in.
They’re actually quite interesting!
According to the 2020 Census, Ulaanbaatar makes up 46 percent of the total population of Mongolia. Approximately, 1.4 million people live in Ulaanbaatar (the population of Mongolia is only 3.2 million). In fact, this number for the resident population of UB is fairly sure an underestimate. The population, as with most capital cities and major conurbations, is organic.
The population density of UB in 2000 was 162 persons per square kilometres; it increased to 246 persons in 2010 (2010 Census) and is now approximately 312 persons per square kilometres (2020 Census). Compare that to the average population density of Mongolia outside of Ulaanbaatar – 2.0 per square kilometre (2020 Census).
A modern city with a nomadic heart
Ulaanbaatar is strongly keeping time with the beat of the 21st century. But commerce and technology rub shoulders with tradition.
It’s origins were as a nomadic monastic city – seeking pasture for the livestock that the various monasteries and temples owned. It settled in its present location in the Tuul River Valley in 1778 where it became a centre for pilgrimage, religious teaching and international commerce with a mix of camel caravans, international traders and unique 18th-century Buddhist architecture. According to current statistics, over 60% of UB’s population live in the ger districts – these are areas surrounding the modern downtown hub consisting of extended families living in the traditional felt tents. There have been ger districts in UB since the city was established in the 17th century.
This image below is of Gandan Monastery taken in 1913 (Wikipedia). See how this Buddhist monastery dominates the city skyline? See the ger districts surrounding it?
This image was taken by an EL guest and shows the ovoo from where the above image was approximately taken. There’s over a century between the two images but the ger districts are still surrounding Gandan Monastery.
From 1924 until the early 1990s, Mongolia was run from the Kremlin and a course of socialist development was undertaken that was very close to the replica of the Soviet experience. The socialist city of UB lost virtually all its oriental character – it was ripped from its heart as being incompatible with socialism.
UB has had various names over the centuries but its final name – Ulaanbaatar – translates into Red Hero. It was given in 1924 when the city became the capital of the new Mongolian People’s Republic.
21st Century Ulaanbaatar
UB has its issues. To name a few…Planning. Traffic congestion. Pollution. Issues with garbage disposal, sewage, and other waste management infrastructure. Social inequality. Lack of investment in public transportation. It is also said to be the coldest capital in the world.
It is a tough, modern and cosmopolitan city full of contrasts and extremes. It is also the cultural and business centre of Mongolia and a thriving urban hub. It maintains a strong Mongolian identity of its own.
As a traveller, you will more than likely bring your guidebook but why not ditch the guidebook for a while and discover a new side to this city that is now my home. UB only offers a hint of the people and the varied and rich culture that have preceded the modern city. Think of the contrasting stories and different layers of history that have created its fascinating history. It helps put the city that you are experiencing into perspective and will make it more alive to you.
You never know, you may even like it.
The plug (of course!) If you would like to experience Ulaanbaatar why not try one of our Mongolia one-day experiences?