Located in the north central part of the country, the city lies at an elevation of about 1310 m in a valley on the Tuul River. It is the cultural, industrial, and financial heart of the country. It is a transport center, connected by highway to all the major towns in Mongolia and by rail to the Trans-Siberian Railway and Chinese railroad network.
The city was founded in 1639 as a Buddhist monastery center and, in the 20th century, grew into a major manufacturing center defined by its broad boulevards and squares and Socialist Classicist-style buildings.
When the city became the capital of the new Mongolian People's Republic in 1924, its name was changed to Ulaanbaatar (Улаанбаатар, classical script: , Ulaɣan Baɣatur), literally "red hero"), in honor of Mongolia's national hero Damdin Sükhbaatar, whose warriors liberated Mongolia from Ungern von Sternberg's troops and Chinese occupation shoulder-to-shoulder with the Soviet Red Army. His statue still adorns Ulan Bator's central square.
In Europe and North America, Ulan Bator was generally known as Urga (from Örgöö) or sometimes Kuren (from Khüree) or Kulun (from 庫倫, the Chinese transcription of Khüree) before 1924, and Ulan Bator afterwards, after the Улан-Батор. The Russian spelling is different from the Mongolian because it was defined phonetically, and the Cyrillic script was only introduced in Mongolia seventeen years later.
Ulan Bator is located at about 1350 meters (4430 ft) above sea level, slightly east of the center of Mongolia on the Tuul River, a subtributary of the Selenge, in a valley at the foot of the mountain Bogd Khan Uul.
Due to its high elevation, relatively high latitude, and location hundreds of kilometres from any coast, Ulan Bator is the coldest national capital in the world, with a monsoon-influenced subarctic climate (Koppen climate classification Dwc) with brief, warm summers and long, very cold and dry winters. Precipitation is heavily concentrated in the warmer months. It has an average annual temperature of -1.3 °C (29.7 °F). The city lies in the zone of sporadic permafrost, which means that building is difficult in sheltered aspects that preclude thawing in the summer, but easier on more exposed ones where soils fully thaw. Suburban residents live in traditional gers that do not protrude into the soil.
Founded in 1639 as a yurt monastery, Ulan Bator, then Örgöö (palace-yurt), was first located at the lake Shireet Tsagaan nuur in what is now Övörkhangai, around 250 km from the present site of Ulan Bator, and was mainly intended to be the seat of the first Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, Zanabazar.
As a mobile monastery-town, it was often moved to various places along the Selenge, Orkhon and Tuul rivers, as supply and other needs would demand. During the Dzungar wars of the late 17th century, it was even moved to Inner Mongolia. As the city grew, it moved less and less. In 1778, the city settled for good at its current location, near the confluence of the Selbe and Tuul rivers and beneath Bogd Khan Uul, back then also on the caravan route from Beijing to Kyakhta. The city became the seat not only of the Jebtsundamba Khutugtus, but also of two Qing ambans, and a Chinese trade town grew several kilometers east of the city center.
In 1911, Mongolian leaders in Ikh Khüree for Naadam met in secret and resolved upon independence from China for their country. On December 29, 1911, the Bogd Khan was declared ruler of an independent Mongolia. Khüree as the seat of the Jebtsundamba Khutugtu was the logical choice for the capital of the new state. In 1919, it was occupied by Chinese troops, and in 1921 changed hands twice, first to Baron Ungern's Whites Soldateska, and in July to the Soviet-supported Mongolian troops led by Sükhbaatar. On October 29, 1924, the town was renamed to Ulaanbaatar ("red hero") as reference to Sükhbaatar, who had died earlier that year.
In the socialist period, and especially following the Second World War, most of the old yurt quarters were replaced by Soviet-style blocks of flats, often financed by the Soviet Union. The Transmongolian Railway, connecting Ulan Bator with Moscow and Beijing, was completed in 1956, and cinemas, theatres, museums etc. were erected. On the other hand, many of the temples and monasteries of pre-socialist Khüree were destroyed following the anti-religious purges of the late 1930s.
Ulan Bator was the site of demonstrations that led to Mongolia's transition to democracy and a market economy in 1990. A December 10, 1989 protest outside the Youth Culture Centre called for Mongolia to implement perestroika and glasnost in their full sense. Dissident leaders demanded free elections and economic reform. On January 14, 1990, the protesters, having grown from two hundred to some 1,000, met at the Lenin Museum in Ulan Bator. A demonstration in Sukhbaatar Square on Jan. 21 (in weather of -30 C) followed. After came weekend demonstrations in January and February and the forming of Mongolia's first opposition parties. On March 7 ten dissidents assembled in Sukhbaatar Square and went on hunger strike. Thousands of supporters joined them. More came on March 8, and the crowd grew more unruly; seventy people were injured and one killed. On March 9 the Communist MPRP government resigned. The new government announced Mongolia's first free elections, which were held in July. (Ironically, the Communist government won the election by a wide margin.)
Since Mongolia's transition to market economy in 1990, the city has experienced further growth - especially in the yurt quarters, as construction of new blocks of flats had basically broken down in the 1990s - and population has doubled to now one million inhabitants, about 40% of Mongolia's entire population. This causes a number of social, environmental, and transportation problems. In recent years, construction of new buildings has gained new momentum, especially in the city center, and flat prices have skyrocketed.
In 2008, Ulaanbaatar was the scene of riots after the opposition Mongolian Democratic Party protested its defeat by the MPRP in parliamentary elections. Protesters set the MPRP's headquarters on fire, and five people were killed.
The capital is governed by a city council (the Citizen's Representatives Hural) with forty members, elected every four years. The city council appoints the mayor. The current mayor is Tüdeviin Bilegt. Ulan Bator is governed as an independent first-level subdivision of Mongolia, separate from Töv Aimag, the province that surrounds Ulan Bator.
The city consists of a central district built in Soviet 1940s and 1950s-style architecture, surrounded by and mingled with residential concrete towerblocks and large yurt quarters. In recent years, a lot of the towerblock's ground floors have been modified and upgraded to small shops, and many new buildings have been erected, some of them illegally.
Interurban and international: Ulan Bator is served by the Chinggis Khaan International Airport (formerly Buyant Ukhaa Airport). It is 18 km southwest of the city. Chinggis Khaan airport is the only airport in Mongolia that offers international flights. Flights to Ulan Bator are available from Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, Moscow, Irkutsk, and Beijing. Ulan Bator is connected by road to most of the major towns in Mongolia, but most roads in Mongolia are unpaved and unmarked and road travel can be difficult. Even within the city, not all roads are paved and some of the ones that are paved are not in good condition.There are rail connections to the Trans-Siberian railway via Naushki and to the Chinese railroad system via Jining.
Intra-urban: The national and municipal governments regulate a wide system of private transit providers which operate numerous bus lines around the city. A secondary transit system of microbuses (passenger vans) operates alongside these bus lines.
Few buildings in Ulaanbaatar predate World War II. One is the Choijin Lama Monastery, a Buddhist monastery that was completed in 1908. It escaped the destruction of Mongolian monasteries when it was turned into a museum in 1942. Another is the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery, which dates to the 19th century. Its most famous attraction is a 26.5-meter-high golden statue of Migjid Janraisig. These monasteries are two of the very few in Mongolia to escape the wholesale destruction of Mongolian monasteries under Khorloogiin Choibalsan.
Ulaanbaatar has several museums dedicated to Mongolian history and culture. The Natural History Museum features many dinosaur fossils and meteorites found in Mongolia. The National Museum of Mongolian History includes exhibits from prehistoric times through the Mongol Empire to the present day. The Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts contains a large collection of Mongolian art, including works of the 17th century sculptor/artist Zanabazar, as well as Mongolia's most famous painting, One Day In Mongolia by B. Sharav.
The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan remains as a museum of the last king of Mongolia (1911-1924). The complex includes six temples as well as many of the Khan's possessions, such as his throne and bed, his collection of art and stuffed animals, his ornate ceremonial ger, and a pair of ceremonial boots given to the Khan by Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
The Ulaanbaatar Opera House hosts concerts and musical performances.
Sükhbaatar Square, in the government district, is the center of Ulaanbaatar. In the middle of Sükhbaatar Square, there is a statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar on horseback. On the north side of Sükhbaatar Square is the Mongolian Parliament building, featuring a large statue of Chinggis Khan at the top of the front steps. Peace Avenue (Enkh Taivny Örgön Chölöö), the main thoroughfare through town, runs along the south side of the square.
The Zaisan Memorial, a memorial to Russian soldiers killed in World War II, sits on a hill south of the city. The Zaisan Memorial includes a Russian tank paid for by the Mongolian people and a circular memorial painting which depicts scenes of friendship between the peoples of Russia and Mongolia. Visitors who make the long climb to the top are rewarded with a panoramic view of the whole city down in the valley.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a nature preserve with many tourist facilities, is approximately 70 km from Ulan Bator. Accessible via paved road.
According to the city's official website: