Ulan Bator Cityscape

A First Impression of Ulan Bator and the Black Market

Following the Footsteps of Genghis Khan – Mongolia Day 2: Arriving in Ulan Bator by the Trans-Siberian train from Beijing then finding a place to stay and making an impromptu trip to the black market.

At 4 a.m. the sun shining directly into my eyes rudely woke me up. I turned over and try to go back to sleep on the small bottom bunk of the shaky Trans-Siberian train car. With a few more hours left until Mongolia, Christina, our new Mongolian friends and I eventually got up and went for breakfast in the dining car.

At the restaurant car, they gave us an extensive menu to browse through and when we were finally ready to order, they advised that they were out of everything but three items. She could have told us that 15 minutes ago when she gave us the menus… So we ordered beef sheep liver and another egg plate. With it we had coffee and salty milk tea. The food was very mediocre.

Back to the cabin we found our other Chinese roommate eating instant noodles, a good choice given the quality of the restaurant.

The landscape has been flat plains and clear blue skies as far as the eye can see. The occasional ger and flock of sheep or horses would appear. I only saw a few small settlements throughout the ride in Mongolia. Surprisingly we didn’t see any desert.

With our bellies full, we relaxed a bit and we were in the capital, Ulan Bator, before we knew it.

We saw our friend, Tseren, being reunited with his baby daughter and wife which was very touching. Then said our goodbyes and went off in search of a hotel.

We caught up and ended up joining a group that was going to the Sunpath Hostel. They gave us a ride downtown to the hostel and we got our bearings on what to do. Checking the facilities and the tours offered, we decided to stay and go on one of the tours they organized.

We met a whole bunch of travelers of all ages from many different countries (US, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc.). There was talk of going to the “black market” which would be closed starting tomorrow for a week as it was the national holiday. So we joined the group and managed to cram 10 people in two taxis.

The traffic was awful but it gave us time to get to know our fellow travelers!

The Black Market (Naran Tuul Market)

The market is one of the biggest in Asia and consisted of a large hangar-like building on one side and a maze of covered stalls selling everything from cashmere to food. There were a lot of people and the crowds alone could make one claustrophobic.

Within minutes of arriving I was almost pick-pocketed. As I was walking through the isle, a guy with a jacket slung over his arm walked alongside me and I instinctively put my hand to my pocket where I felt someone’s fingers. I stopped in my tracks and the group of people near me kept walking. I couldn’t tell if the thief was the guy next to me, one of the guys behind me or all of them. Either way they were deft at their trade and if I acted a second later, my wallet would have found a new home.

I warned everyone in our group. Apparently this is very common here.

We continued exploring the market, browsing fox furs, camel and yak wool knit articles, Mongolian wrestling belts, fake clothing, bags, and jewelry.

Christina and I eventually bought some camel fur scarves and yak socks. I spent some time hunting down my Mongolian TOC (T-shirt of the Country) and was surprised to see many shirts with the nazi swastika for sale. So this was the Mongolian neo-nazi movement I heard about.

At the exit we munched on some fresh produce from the fruit stands before getting a ride back.

Hailing a taxi proved to be more difficult than we thought. Many would pull over and drive off when they noticed we couldn’t speak Mongolian or when they found out where we were going.

Taxis in Ulan Bator are not the licensed cabs with the white plastic “Taxi” sign on top of the car. They are unmarked but also not “black cabs”. Every car on the road could be your taxi, because there is a culture of giving rides to people with their hands out for a small negotiated sum. Another way of looking at it, every person getting a ride is a hitchhiker. What a great culture of trust and assistance!

Back at the hostel we put away our purchases before heading to dinner.

We walked along the main street and found a random Mongolian place that again served nothing on their menu. Everything we pointed at was a shake of the waiter’s head. We eventually gestured at the food on our neighbor’s plate and received a nod. He later brought out these fried dumplings filled with onion and lamb, served with warm salty milk. The meal was extremely satisfying.

At dinner we laughed about how hard it was to get food on the table with our new friends. The two girls from Canada were on vacation (a geophysicist and a teacher) and the photographer from New York was traveling for 5 months.

After dinner we stopped by a store to pick up some beers and ice cream since they had neither at the restaurant.

We sat and chat over beers in the lounge before going out for a walk. We didn’t make it too far though, as the temperature at night dropped rapidly and became quite chilly.

With no accommodation or plan this morning arriving into Ulan Bator, we felt pretty good about how everything fell into place. We had a full schedule planned for tomorrow, so we called it night!

David De Clercq

About David De Clercq

Founder and writer at World-Adventurer.com, David is on a mission to travel to every country in the world and has less than 10 countries left! He loves new adventures, unique cultures, historic landmarks, and luxurious hotels. Follow along as David shares a journey of a lifetime!