Since Mongolia escaped the Communist orbit in the early 1990s, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar has exploded into a free market free-for-all. Laborers flocking to the country's most populous city have erected labyrinthine makeshift suburbs out of their gers (felt tent houses), which line streets bustling with buuz dumpling joints and karaoke pubs. The neighborhoods sprout so rapidly that longtime residents often find themselves getting lost. The only way for a visitor to really understand the city is to take in the hawk's-eye view from Zaisan, a concrete Soviet monstrosity-monument perched on Bogd Khan Mountain at the city's southern fringe.
Because Zaisan looms over downtown, visitors without a recently updated map can actually make their way toward the lookout on foot. And walking is really the only way to appreciate the city's singular schizophrenia. Foreign pedestrians rub elbows with tribesmen in long woolen jackets, the shamans who advise them, and the nouveau riche yuppies – inevitably clad in Ed Hardy T-shirts and aviators – who crack jokes at their expense. The Ganden Monastery, home to the Bogd Khan (crudely put, Mongolia's answer to the Dalai Lama), peeks out over the hyper-modern Blue Sky tower, itself just off the side of the central Sukhbaatar Square – full to brimming with Ghenghis Khan statues and Irish pubs.
At the base of Bogd Khan, across the Tuul Gol river from the bustle, is a large golden Buddha and a staircase that winds up and around toward the monumental social realist caricature of a triumphant warrior. After a run up the stairs (no easy task thanks to the city's 4,250-foot altitude), visitors entering the ring of concrete are ambushed by blocky murals, mostly done up in red, celebrating the Soviet conquest over Nazi German and Imperial Japanese forces in World War II.
Past the propaganda lies all of Ulaanbaatar.
Hills, one with the face of Chinggis Khan carved into it and another topped with a stone mound covered in blue prayer flags, dominate the landscape. The ger camps, clusters of little white tents, assert the continued dominance of nomadism in this relatively young urban center, founded as a mobile monastery town in the 17th century. In boom times – and these are boom times in Ulaanbaatar – visitors can watch freelance miners mill about on the edge of town. Locals call these men "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" because of the tubs they haul around on their backs like shells.
Though Ulaanbaatar is more often used as a hub by tourists headed into nearby national parks like Ghorki-Terelj, a trip to Zaisan teaches travelers how to treat the chaotic metropolis as a self-contained destination. Once tourists have taken in the panorama, they are better equipped to wander back to one of the many affordable hotels by way of a bizarrely decorated Mexican restaurant, a shamanic ritual, or a nomadic neighborhood.
More information: Mongolian Airlines offers direct flights from Seoul, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Tokyo to Chinggis Khaan International Airport.