Locally known as "UB," Ulaanbaatar was, for centuries, a mobile "tent city" that followed the Royal Court around the country. Today, its oldest buildings date from the 17th century, when the city finally settled by the Tuul River. The city is a bit of a contrast—faceless Soviet high-rise apartment blocks ringed by suburbs of Mongolian gers. Even though it's rather large, it's relatively quiet. Traffic has increased in recent years, however.

Visitors should first see the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the country's largest—it was the only one to survive the purges against what the Communists called the "former backwardness" of Mongolia. From Gandantegchinlen, head for the Choijin Monastery, a museum of Buddhist artifacts, including priceless religious artworks by the 17th-century Buddhist teacher and artist, Zanabasar. Don't miss the Bodg Khan Museum in the country's former palace (royal and ceremonial costumes, jewelry, sedan chairs and other artworks) or the statues in the smaller museum next door. The Natural History Museum has an interesting collection of dinosaur bones discovered in the Gobi Desert, but you may want to skip the Art Gallery's bland collection of "Socialist Realist" paintings.

Considering its size, the capital supports an amazing range of culture. There are five major theaters—including an opera house that presents Western operas sung in Mongolian. The National Theater offers folklore performances, which are extremely popular with locals. Other nightlife has become considerably more lively, too, with bars and nightclubs and, in summer, lots of outdoor cafes and pubs (the best places for watching the 10:30 pm sunsets). Plan to spend at least two nights in Ulaanbaatar. Because of the scarcity of accommodations outside the city, Ulaanbaatar also makes a good base for touring the region.

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