Spice up Your Family Trip to Ulaanbaatar With these Off-Radar Activities
If you’re planning a family trip to Ulaanbaatar, chances are high that you like to take the road less traveled. Officially the coldest capital city in the world (a word to the wise: come in the short, warm summer or be prepared to do battle with sub-40 temperatures), the Mongolian capital rarely features in any international lists of the best places for family holidays. The allure of Mongolia is largely about its wide open spaces and proximity to wild nature, and Ulaanbaatar is often overlooked as a tourist destination due to its severe Soviet architecture and pollution (especially during the winter, when locals understandably burn a lot of fuel in order to warm their homes). Families who do make it here – perhaps for a few days’ stop off before heading into the countryside- often find themselves surprisingly taken by the place. There are a good number of appealing museums, an intriguing mix of the modern and the traditional, and children will likely make friends very quickly at the local parks or skating around the town squares. Under-the-radar activities here tend to be more about getting away from the noise and smog than beating the tourist hordes – tourism here is still very much in its infancy, but these crowd-free spots are sure to add even more color to your family’s Ulaanbaatar experience.
Stay in a Ger
A what now? You might know these traditional nomad dwellings as yurts, but in Mongolia it’s a ger, and many Mongolian families still live in these round, tent-style homes. You don’t have to stray far from the high rise apartment blocks of downtown Ulaanbaatar before spotting the ger districts, and some families in the surrounding countryside open up their homes to travelers keen to experience a taste of traditional life. It’s thought that up to half of Mongolian families live in gers, and these well-insulated felt homes do a good job of protecting their inhabitants from the harsh winter conditions. A handful of companies in Mongolia now offer ‘luxury ger’ experiences, but while it’s by no means good form to just turn up at a ger camp and ask a family if you can bed down for the night, travel guides in Ulaanbaatar (many don’t have an online presence yet) can point you in the right direction. There are tourist ger camps in the stunningly beautiful Terelj National Park, which have a few mod cons, but asking around is normally enough to secure a stay in a family home, where the owners will often throw in home-cooked meals and nightly music performances for a very modest nightly rate.
Drink Airag (and Offer Vodka)
Strictly one for the grownups, this – it would be rude not to sample the local tipple (quit literally), if you’re staying in a family home, turning down a drop of the hard stuff is considered very bad manners. While it’s not hard to find more standard booze such as lager, this is the authentic booze taste of Ulaanbaatar. Airag is a potent drink made from fermented mare’s milk, and is usually ladled out of a large container into dauntingly large bowls or cups. It’s perhaps not what you’d describe as a pleasant taste, but after a couple of spoonfuls you might not notice the slighly acrid flavour. In return, offer a bottle of vodka, which is usually very gratefully received and likely to be opened – and shared – on the spot.
Visit a Hidden Monastery in Terelj National Park
The third-largest protected area in Mongolia, the mountainous Terelj National Park is also one of the most beautiful spots in the country, and feels like a real escape to wild nature, just a short distance from the city. Pass the tourist ger camps on the southern edge and families in Ulaanbaatar can find outdoor activities to suit their energy levels and the kids’ ages. There’s some magnificent trekking to be done here – including the tough hike to Arypala, some 3km from the photo-worthy ‘Turtle Rock’ at the park’s entrance. A stiff, winding climb leads to a small Buddhist temple and meditation center reached by extremely steep steps. The views from the top are worth the climb. You can always bribe kids and teens with the promise of archery classes – there are several places to practice this traditional sport within the par, and staff at the ger parks can point families to the nearest bow and arrow site.
Visit a Puzzling Museum
Families in Ulaanbaatar can put their collective intellectual skills to the test at the somewhat hidden ‘Intellectual Museum’, which is more kid-friendly than it might sound. A museum dedicated to puzzles and problem-solving, the first task to complete is finding the place 🙂 – a 30-minute walk from most of the downtown tourist attractions in a residential part of town. Once here, expect giant chess sets, the Mongolian version of a Rubik’s cube, and a whole host of other games that will keep kids and adults busy for hours. It’s a good rainy day option, but worth a visit even when the sun shines.
Give the Kids a Break from Mutton
Meaty, mutton-based dishes tend to be the mainstays of Mongolian dining, but there are plenty of international restaurants in Ulaanbaatar if the kids start griping about local fare. Reclaim your sanity for a moment by promising them some ice cream or frozen yogurt. The centrally-located Moyo does a nice line in Froyo with fruity toppings, so parents visiting Ulaanbaatar with kids can get some vitamins into them by stealth.