Ulaanbaatar – Mongolia’s Capital City

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Ulaanbaatar  – Mongolia’s Capital City

Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a city I call home, a place that tends to evoke strong feelings among its visitors. People usually either fall in love with it or find it challenging to appreciate. Personally, I love it.

For visitors with limited time, Mongolia’s vast wilderness landscapes are understandably the main attraction. However, while UB might be difficult to get to know and even like at first, it shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. It’s a city worth spending time in.

Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia's capital city

Ulaanbaatar Statistics

They’re actually quite interesting!

According to the 2020 Census, Ulaanbaatar accounts for 46 percent of Mongolia’s total population, with approximately 1.4 million people residing in the city. Given Mongolia’s total population of only 3.2 million, this figure highlights UB’s significance. In fact, the actual number of residents is likely higher, as the population in capital cities and major conurbations tends to be fluid.

In 2000, the population density of UB was 162 persons per square kilometer. By 2010, this had increased to 246 persons per square kilometer, and as of the 2020 Census, it stands at approximately 312 persons per square kilometer. In stark contrast, the average population density of Mongolia outside Ulaanbaatar is just 2.0 persons per square kilometer (2020 Census).

A modern city with a nomadic heart

Ulaanbaatar is keeping pace with the beat of the 21st century, where commerce and technology coexist with tradition.

Originally, UB was a nomadic monastic city, moving to find pasture for the livestock owned by its various monasteries and temples. It settled in its present location in the Tuul River Valley in 1778, becoming a center for pilgrimage, religious teaching, and international commerce. The city attracted camel caravans, international traders, and featured unique 18th-century Buddhist architecture.

Today, over 60% of UB’s population live in ger districts, which surround the modern downtown hub. These areas are home to extended families residing within hashas—plots of land featuring traditional felt tents or self-built detached houses. These ger districts have been an integral part of UB since the city was established in the 17th century

The colourful roofs of a ger district area of Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia's capital city. This is the real Mongolia

Changes Within Ulaanbaatar

This image below is of Gandan Monastery, taken in 1913 (Wikipedia). Notice how this Buddhist monastery dominates the city skyline? You can also see the ger districts surrounding it.

Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia's capital city

The following 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 still surround Gandan Monastery.

Red Hero

From 1924 until the early 1990s, Mongolia was governed from the Kremlin, following a path of socialist development closely modeled on the Soviet experience. During this period, the socialist city of Ulaanbaatar lost virtually all its oriental character, which was deemed incompatible with socialism.

UB has had various names over the centuries, but its final name, Ulaanbaatar, translates to “Red Hero.” This name was given in 1924 when the city became the capital of the new Mongolian People’s Republic.

The Zaisan Memorial in Ulaanbaatar

 21st Century Ulaanbaatar

UB has its issues, including planning challenges, traffic congestion, pollution, garbage disposal problems, sewage and waste management infrastructure deficits, social inequality, and a lack of investment in public transportation. It is also said to be the coldest capital in the world.

Despite these challenges, UB is a tough, modern, and cosmopolitan city full of contrasts and extremes. It is the cultural and business center of Mongolia and a thriving urban hub, maintaining a strong Mongolian identity of its own.

As a traveler, you will likely bring your guidebook, but why not ditch it for a while and discover a new side to this city that is now my home? UB offers only a hint of the people and the varied, rich culture that preceded the modern city. Consider the contrasting stories and different layers of history that have shaped its fascinating past. This perspective will help you appreciate the city more deeply and make it come alive for you.

You never know, you may even like it.

For every guest who joins an EL experience, we offer a complimentary, informal, and relaxed tour of Ulaanbaatar as well as our free guidebook, sharing a more local side of the city. However, if you’re not traveling with us but would still like to experience a more personal side of UB, why not try one of our Mongolia one-day experiences? Alternatively, take a look at our suggestions on how you can discover a more local side of the city in this blog post – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/exploring-ulaanbaatar-the-squares-panoramic-views-and-hidden-gardens/

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I'm Jess Brooks, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
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