A short break in... Ulan Bator

The days when you had to have an invitation to go to Mongolia are over. So, throwing on her thickest jacket, Rachelle Thackray set off for Ulan Bator, a capital city of concrete buildings and felt tents where everyone's cheeks are rosy

OUTER MONGOLIA has become something of a byword for the last place anyone would want to go to on earth, along with Timbuktu. In fact, it is one of Asia's best kept secrets for those not averse to a little basic living and chilly nights.

Perhaps best described as a poor man's Colorado Springs, the capital, Ulan Bator ("Red Hero"), is a small city, easily negotiable on foot, with a chirpy, lively feel to match the general joie de vivre of its red-cheeked citizens. It has become increasingly Westernised in the past few years, but it is still more akin to the Wild West than a European capital, and there are few tourists, particularly in the winter. Cafes, bars and discos have sprung up with privatisation (the Democrats were elected in 1996, although the country at present has no government) but standards are often poor, and creature comforts are sparse.

The most fascinating thing about the capital is the juxtaposition of ancient and modern; traditional round "gers" (felt tents) are pitched next to Soviet-style apartment blocks and the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe. Meanwhile, just a few miles out, you will find the descendants of Genghis Khan herding their yaks on horseback; some will be dressed in the Mongol costume of the "del" and "bus" (a long dress with waistband), while others wear Nike baseball caps back-to-front, with Marlboros drooping from their lips.

Why go there?

Mongolia is a country on the brink of change; while life in many places is like 1950s Britain, there are parts where it is fast becoming bang up to date. Ulan Bator became the country's capital in 1924, and is its largest city, with more than a quarter of the population as its inhabitants.

Built along the Tuul river, there are mountains on all sides, and most days bring blue skies and bright sunshine, but when you venture outside the capital you can see the cloud of smog from the power stations. (It was reported in last week's local papers that Mongolians should invest in extra sweaters because power supplies during winter would be low, due to unpaid bills.) There are plenty of sites of cultural and historic interest, although the Soviets destroyed many temples and monasteries, and many of those that remain are deserted.

When to go

Most tourists visit in summer, when the weather is generally warm, but even in October it is possible to wear a T-shirt and shorts if you go down to the Gobi desert (about 550km from Ulan Bator). In autumn and winter, it is bright but chilly during the day; you will need a warm jacket. At night, it is often below -15C, fine if you are sleeping in a warm "ger", but not so good if you are in a hotel and the power supplies are cut.

July sees the celebrated Naadam Festival, when Mongolia's three national sports (wrestling, riding and archery) are showcased; the procession to the special Naadam stadium, south of the city, starts outside UB's main Sukhbaatar Square. In November, locals mark Mongolian Republic Day, and in January or February, there is a three-day national holiday to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Getting there

There are no direct flights to Mongolia from the UK, so either take the scenic route (five days on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow, or a day-and-a-half from Peking), or fly using local airline MIAT from Russia or China.

From Peking, a single train ticket costs around pounds 65 for a second-class sleeper (including a bunk, blankets and two meals). You can buy tickets from the China International Travel Service in Peking (tel: 010 6515 0232) at the International Hotel, or in Moscow, from the building next door to Yaroslav station. Trains leave Peking on Wednesday, arriving in UB on Thursday morning, and Moscow on Tuesday, arriving at UB on Sunday morning. Flights from China to UB (one-way) are around $200 (pounds 120) - call MIAT (tel: 010 6507 9297). From Russia, you can fly Aeroflot for about $350 one-way, or MIAT for $390 (tel: 095 241 3757).

Getting around

Unlike a sprawling metropolis such as London or Peking, UB is pint-sized. A brisk walk from the station into town takes 20 minutes. But the best thing about the capital is the taxi system. Nowhere else in the world can you hail a passing BMW or Mercedes-Benz (albeit a beaten-up one) and have it take you a couple of miles for just 30p. Nearly every car will stop for you, and there is a standard rate of 250 tugriks (17p) per kilometre. The only difficulty is making yourself understood to the driver. If you are on foot, don't count on the locals to help you find places. Asking in halting Mongolian often results in more confusion than clarity.

There are also plenty of buses, but the key thing to remember is to watch your wallet; the famed "Mongolian scramble" is an ideal opportunity for pickpockets. If you want to take a trip out of town to one of the country's "aimags", or provinces, it is best to hire a sturdy Jeep plus guide.

What to do and see

The Gandan Monastery (tel: 342195), to the west of town, is a bit of a showcase. It is home to a huge golden Buddha surrounded by thousands of smaller statues perched in the glass cases which line the walls of the main hall. The monastery's llamas were killed on Stalin's orders in 1937, but there are still around 150 living there. The ubiquitous turquoise "hadag" (peace scarf) is much in evidence, as are grubby banknotes shoved into the cases as offerings; it is just a shame that the 19th-century brightly painted buildings are splattered with pigeon droppings. Entrance is free.

Just off the main square is the Mongolian Art Gallery (tel: 327177), which was opened in 1989 and charges around T500 for entrance (about 35p). Although the place feels like a giant school gymnasium (squeaky wooden floors, dying pot plants in orange plastic basins and magenta-painted benches), the paintings - sadly, in curling mounts and battered frames - are vibrant and often titled in English.

To see a performance of Mongolian contortionists (young girls trained from the age of seven to twist their bodies into amazing positions) try the State Circus (tel: 320795) to the south of the main square, at the end of Tserendoriin Gudamj. The main square also boasts the grandly named Palace of Culture (tel: 328486), and the bright pink State Opera and Ballet Theatre (tel: 322854), although these both seem to shut down over the winter.

The city also has two main museums: the Museum of Natural History (tel: 321716), on the corner of Sukhbaataryn Gudamj, and the National Museum of Mongolian History (tel: 326802), just down the road. Entrance for both is around T300, although it is more if you want to take photographs.

To buy Mongolian souvenirs, try the Black Market (around 8km from the city centre, on a football pitch-sized field) - but watch your pockets, don't expect anything exotic, and don't go on a Saturday when it gets overwhelmingly crowded. The State Department Store (tel: 320506), on Peace Avenue, is rather dingy, but sells traditional clothing plus miniature model gers and CDs (you can buy anything from Gary Barlow to a Princess Di tribute album for less than a fiver). You can also stop for coffee at the "bakery" on the ground floor.

To relax, try the Japanese Bath-house at the Flower Hotel (tel: 358330) on Zaluuchuudyn Orgon Choloo, which is cheaper than the $60 sauna at the Ulan Bator Hotel (see below).

Food and drink

Until relatively recently, UB had only two restaurants and one disco - at the Ulan Bator Hotel (tel: 320237; fax: 324485) and the Bayangol (tel: 312255). Now, although eateries have sprung up all over, the UB Hotel is still recognised as top-notch, although soup, spaghetti bolognese and a good bottle of Hungarian wine still only came to around pounds 6. Most Mongolian restaurants have a menu with English equivalents, although in the unnamed Turkish restaurant on Khuvsgalchdyn Orgon - a vault of a place with a gargantuan bust of Lenin protruding from the far wall - the menu featured "fright egg" and "rise", and warned customers to "please control your bill", whatever that means. Beef stroganoff and ice-cream costs around pounds 4.

For anglophiles, and anyone sick of mutton, Churchill's, set up by Briton Barrie Evans, offers pizza, hot dogs and great coffee for less than a fiver, at 31 Baga Toiruu, opposite the German Embassy (no telephone).

There are several good restaurants serving traditional fare; try the Elephant Restaurant on Peace Avenue, or the Dulgunuur Tuya just down the road and near to the State Department Store. If you get the chance to visit a ger in the city or countryside, you will most likely be fed free of charge; although the mutton-and-pastry soup is greasy, the bread and pastries, spread with home-made clotted cream and washed down with a bowl of "char" - milky tea - are delicious.

Where to stay

The Ulan Bator Hotel has an aura of faded grandeur, with English-speaking and polite staff, extortionate prices for laundry and massage, and the occasional limo parked outside. Rooms cost around pounds 50 in winter, more in summer. The Bayangol is also popular with up-market travellers (see "Food and drink" for both numbers). The Tuvshin Hotel (tel: 323162), just north of the Palace of Culture on the main square, is slightly more classy, and has a business centre with e-mail facilities and back copies of English-language newspapers, the Mongol Messenger and the UB Post. Rooms cost from pounds 30 per night.

Mid-range travellers could try the Flower Hotel (tel: 358330), which is a little out of the way on Zaluuchuudyn Orgon Choloo (but with lots of nearby shops) - single rooms cost around pounds 20 per night. Or you could succumb to the Hotel Urge (tel: 313722), on Khuldaldaany Gudamj, for around the same price (pounds 30 a double).

Perhaps the best option for budget travellers - and one which combines traditional with modern - is Gana's Guest House (tel/fax: 367343), just off the Ondor Geegen Zanabazaryn Gudamj. For pounds 3 a night, you'll sleep in an authentic ger (complete with barking dogs and smoking chimney), with very basic toilet facilities, a hot shower five minutes' walk away, and mutton dumplings and fried eggs for breakfast all thrown in. Gana himself speaks English and arranges tours at reasonable prices.

Nightlife

There is now a proliferation of clubs and bars around the main square, many serving ridiculously cheap Mongolian vodka at around 50p a (large) shot. Club Hollywood, in the Zaluus Youth and Cultural Centre on Zaluuchuudyn Orgon Choloo, doesn't come alive until after 11pm, but the Hard Rock Cafe, just behind the UB Hotel, has a teeny-bop disco on Saturdays, and from 10.30pm onwards, a show featuring scantily clad females, Mongolian Chippendales, and even "Spirit", Mongolia's answer to Take That, a young male foursome who smooch their way through a half-hour set. Entrance is around T3,000 (about pounds 2).

Most of the hotels have slightly more cosy, small bars, but if you are into a quieter type of music, try ringing the Tumen Ekh Song and Dance Ensemble (tel: 327279) to find out where they are next performing the unique Mongolian art of "throat-singing". The National Academic Drama Theatre (tel: 327916), on the corner of Natsagdorj Gudamj, also hosts performances of traditional Mongolian song and dance.

Out of town

Just a couple of hours' drive from UB are several small towns, such as Zunmood (to the south, near the Manzshir Khiid monastery) or Terelj, the beautiful national park to the east - a favourite with tourists in summer.

To arrange a trip, contact one of the city's travel agencies (try Juulchin, at the back of the Bayangol Hotel), or simply take a taxi (costing around pounds 10 for a 40km ride over extremely rough roads). Most gers will have horses nearby for rent: you could pay anything from pounds 3 an hour, although don't expect instruction, a guide or an easy ride unless you have specifically asked for it. Often, it is a case of jumping on and riding off into the distant grasslands - Mongolian horses understand only "choo" (the word for "go") and a tight pulling of the reins (to stop). You may be invited into a traditional ger for refreshments: saying "sain bainuu" ("hello") to your hosts is a good start.

Deals and packages

Getting a visa to Mongolia (pounds 25) from the embassy in London is now relatively easy; until recently, you had to prove you had been invited. To book a horse-riding trip in spring or summer, contact Equitour (tel: 01865 511642) - although with packages starting at pounds 1,500, it is cheaper to arrange things yourself when you arrive. Regent Holidays (tel: 0117 921 1711) specialises in travel to Mongolia; or try Voyages Jules Verne (tel: 0171- 616 1000).

Recommended reading

Peking-based Jasper Becker gives a detailed and readable account of the country in The Lost Country: Mongolia Revealed (1993). Or try Nick Middleton's 1980s account of Ulan Bator before modernisation, entitled The Last Disco in Outer Mongolia. Tim Severin's In Search of Genghis Khan (1991) is an excellent portrait of rural, nomadic Mongolia, and tells of his travels on horseback with the help of colour photographs.

Further information

Contact the Mongolian Embassy at 7 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL (tel: 0171-937 0150); or you could try the Lonely Planet website at :http://lonelyplanet.com/letters/nea/mon_pc.htm; or the virtual library at: http://www. bluemarble.net/mitch/monglinks.html.

You could also write to the Anglo-Mongolian Society, Dept of East Asian Studies, The University, Leeds LS2 9JT. Mongolia has no official tourist offices abroad, but when you arrive, try the Biz Info Center on the fourth floor of the UB Hotel. There is no hotel reservation service, and it is difficult to get through from the UK by phone, although some hotel business centres are now on e-mail.

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