Ulaan Baatar

All visits to Mongolia start in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. In the valley of the Tuul River surrounded by four sacred peaks, it houses a third of the nation's population and tradition thrives amongst Soviet-era architecture and suburbs of gers (yurts). Tuts – small independently owned street kiosks - line the streets, milk is sold out of old-fashioned farm cans and devotees spin Buddhist prayer wheels in the temples.

Ulaan Baatar is surrounded by lush green pastures where it feels as if you've stepped into another century – the slower pace of the nomadic lifestyle. Mongolian culture is closely tied to livestock; meat and dairy being the predominant staples, while felt, wool and fabulous cashmere are produced everywhere. Meat filled dumplings or soups and stews with rice and noodles fill the air with inviting fragrance.

The entire city is spread out below you from your vantage point on Zaizan Hill. From here you can view the imposing Sukhbaatar Square with its statue of Sukhbaatar himself, the patriot for whom the city is named. Around the square are the Parliament House, Stock Exchange, Opera and Ballet Theatres, Museum of Mongolian History and the Cultural Palace – home of the National Art Gallery with its fine collection of vibrant Mongolian modern art. Stroll the square and enjoy the hustle and bustle under the watchful eye of the mighty bronze Genghis Khan on horseback.

Along the southern edge of the square is Peace Avenue, Ulaanbaatar's main thoroughfare. Here you'll find a wide variety of stores and restaurants. Shop for luxury cashmere, silk and wool clothing, rugs and handmade felt boots in the shops, stalls and State Department Store of the city. Enjoy a meal of any one of dozens of international or Mongolian cuisines in one of the many restaurants or cafes nearby.

At one time home to over 5000 monks, the Gandan Monastery of Ulaan Baatar, like all religious communities in Mongolia, was destroyed during the Stalinist purges of the 30's, leaving only a handful of temples as barracks and stables. It was reopened in 1944 under strict Soviet supervision. Today it is the largest active Buddhist temple in Ulaanbaatar with over 800 monks. It houses a new, gold-plated 40-metre high Buddha and attracts worshippers and tourists from all over.

The Bogd Khan Palace Museum was the winter residence of the last monarch. Built between 1893 and 1903 it contains collections reflecting his life and times. There are rich silk robes and hats, decorated thrones, ornamented sleeping chambers and a treasure trove of gifts given to him by governments and visitors. The original Summer Palace was lost to fire in the late 1800's but the complex of seven temples still stands behind the Spirit Shield wall of blue bricks and the Three Open Gates which allow only good influences to enter.

A short drive from the city is Terelj National Park, easily accessible as a day trip, but worth taking the time to stay. It's a gorgeous alpine destination, crossed by two rivers and set around a deep glacial lake. Hike the pristine vistas, visit Turtle Rock and the Temple of Meditation. Take in the fantastic scenery and fresh, clear skies and relax in the natural hot springs.