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Ulaanbaatar

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Dec 17, 2021

Ulaanbaatar(Улаанбаатар) — also Ulan Bator, UB, or in the local language, Khot (“the city”) — is the capital and the largest city in Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar is disproportionately larger than all other cities in the country: with a population of 1.34 million as of January 2016, approximately 44% of the country lives here. It is located just east of the center of the country in the forest-steppe region close to the birthplace of Genghis Khan. Ulaanbaatar is a city where authentic Mongol culture thrives in an urban setting, which has made it a destination in its own right.

After stagnating in the 1990s, the economic situation in Ulaanbaatar has improved — nowadays the city center is clean and developed, with modern skyscrapers, hotels, and malls showcasing local and international brands. The city is known for its impressive museums, old monasteries, high quality restaurants, cinemas, theatres, and proximity to scenic natural spots. In 2016, after extensive preparations, the city hosted the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting.

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Ulaanbaatar (Urga) in 1913
Downtown Ulaanbaatar today

Ulaanbaatar is a city of many different and distinct layers. Long gone are the days when this city was just a typical, drab Soviet-bloc town in the middle of nowhere.

The first layer, the natural setting, is what may be called pre-1778 Ulaanbaatar. Ulaanbaatar lies in the Altan Tevshiin Kundii (Valley of the Golden Cradle), a scenic spot was chosen by the lamas and nobles in 1778 as the permanent site of the city. Here the rivers Selbe and Tuul meet at the foot of the imposing Bogd Uul Mountain. Located in the forested and watered zone of northern Mongolia, it resides near the 2,000-year-old royal tombs of the Xiongnu, the 8th-century Turkic inscription of General Tonyukuk, and the birthplace of Genghis Khan. From the 20,000-year-old Paleolithic settlement on the Zaisan monument to the 12th-century palace of the Nestorian Christian monarch Toghrul, there is a lot to learn and discover about this deep first layer of Ulaanbaatar.

The second layer is the Urga of 1639-1778, the unique mobile monastery that survives today as cultural forms (Genghisid memory, Mongolian temple architecture, wooden fenced ger districts, Mongolian script, and Buddhism, traditional clothing, festivals, wrestling, music), and as physical artifacts kept in museums (Zanabazar masterpieces). The third layer is the Urga of 1778-1924 which can be found in surviving buildings such as the Gandan monastery.

The fourth layer is the socialist period of 1924-1990 which saw the destruction of temples, the confiscation of private property, and Stalinist purges, but also the emergence of Mongolia as a modern, independent nation with Ulaanbaatar as its main showcase. The fifth layer, corresponding to the decade of the 1990s, was a stagnant period marked by poverty and bread lines which left a poor impression on the few visitors who passed through the city after its opening from communism.

The sixth layer is the Ulaanbaatar of 2000 to the present: modern and cosmopolitan. Despite this new layer, the city is ringed by less developed ger districts that cause air pollution in winter that lasts through March.

Peace Avenue (Enkh Taivny Örgön Chölöö) is the main street, stretching from east to west through the center with shopping and restaurants all along it. This street dates back to old Urga when it was called the Chölöö (Broad Avenue). The Chinese financed its paving in the 1950s. The street passes by the southern edge of the central square, Chinggis Square (formerly known as Sükhbaatar Square), which has roots in the central square of old Urga. The tourist information office is located in the south flank of the town hall in the western corner of Chinggis Square.

The city center is defined by the Ikh Toiruu (Great Ring Road) which has its origin in the prayer route of pilgrims circling the central temple-palace complex of Urga. Peace Avenue crosses the middle of the ring road horizontally while the southern part of the ring road is the Narni Zam road (“Road of the Sun” built with Japanese support). South of the Narni Zam road is the affluent southern part of Ulaanbaatar with luxury apartments lining the Tuul River.

Ger districts line the northern part of the city center and stretch 7 km north to the Dambadarjaalin Monastery built in 1765. North of Dambadarjaalin Monastery starts the Zuslan or summer vacation area, where charming summer houses stretching 14 km to Khandgait.

Almost every family in Ulaanbaatar has a zuslan building where they spend the summer among the forests and natural scenery of the Selbe river valley. Some herding families graze their horses and cows freely in this area. The scenery gets more dramatic going east towards the Terelj area with big rock formations and wildflower valleys. Tours go past Terelj to the 1740 Gunjiin Sum Princess Temple and the Khagiin Khar lake.

The southern edge of Ulaanbaatar is marked by its boundary with the town of Zuunmod on the south side of the Bogd Uul mountain. The 1778 shrine of Tsetsee Gun on the peak and the 1747 ruins of the Manjusri Monastery are located on top of the mountain. South of the mountain starts an endless sea of grassland steppe gradually merging into the Gobi Desert 300 km south of UB. Day trips to the east include the Tsonjin Boldog Genghis Khan Statue. Day trips to the west include the Khustain Nuruu National Park, Aglag Meditation Center and Ögii Lake.

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