A Soviet Mongolia? Mongolia is steeped in communist history, from abandoned military bases to hidden statues of Lenin!
What better way could there be to spend the first warm weeks of Mongolia’s spring than to delve into the Gobi Desert for a bit of urban exploration around abandoned Soviet military bases?
Whilst it might not be what the typical traveller first thinks of when they consider a visit to Mongolia... this country is steeped in Soviet history.
Why, you ask?
In short, as a Soviet satellite state since its Red Revolution in 1921 up until 1990.
Exploring Mongolia's communist remnants, marvelling at monuments and murals, and entering abandoned fighter jet hangars make for great adventures.
Let's take a look at Mongolia's Soviet past as we explore them in person.
Our journey began in Ulaanbaatar, or the ‘Red Hero City’. It was named after one of its founding revolutionaries, Damdin Sukhbaatar.
We meet at the Bayangol Hotel. This hotel was originally built in 1967 to accommodate foreigners visiting the city from friendly aligned countries. We then headed out into the city to see what remains of its communist heritage.
As it turns out, quite a lot!
Our first stop was the Schoolchildren’s Palace. It's still used for its original purpose. Many communist countries take great pride in encouraging their youth to pick up extracurricular activities, and this building was for exactly that.
Today, it continues in its role serving the young people of Ulaanbaatar. Our visit coincided with a youth fashion show which was a surprise.
Departing the schoolchildren’s palace we headed towards the city centre, stopping at the Ulaanbaatar Music and Arts Theatre.
This is an enormous Soviet theatre which used to be adorned with a portrait of Lenin. The building is unmistakably socialist in its architecture, with great Parthenon-like columns holding aloft a red star in the centre of the building’s façade.
In front of the building sits a statue of Tsedenbal. This is the Eastern Bloc’s longest-serving leader. He is hailed as one of communist Mongolia’s greatest leaders, holding power in some form from 1952 to 1989.
Leaving this grand building, and walking along one of the city centre’s original main roads, we passed Soviet-style apartment blocks. Our walk also took us past the incredibly grand residence of the Prime Minister, and the original State School #1.
This walk led us up to a grand boulevard, lined with trees and fountains, leading up to the State Department Store. Or in Mongolian, ‘Ih Delguur’ which literally means ‘Big Shop’.
Walking up towards the building we passed the Beatles Statue, a rather odd monument honouring the Beatles, representative of the music people secretly listened to during days of old.
Passing the apple-shaped monument, we headed into the State Department Store – a multi-story mall filled with all kinds of things. From cashmere to fridges, and stuffed eagles, to bronze busts of Chinggis Khan.
After a peruse around the State Department Store, we set off down Ulaanbaatar’s central road, Peace Avenue, until we arrived, finally, at Sukhbaatar Square. This marks the heart of the city.
In pride of place in the centre of the square, a statue of the aforementioned Damdin Sukhbaatar on horseback surveys the surroundings of the square. The square itself takes his name, and was even once home to his body – a mausoleum modelled on Lenin’s Moscow mausoleum. It once sat in pride of place in front of the Government Palace until 2005. It was removed to make way for a complete redesign of the government building’s façade.
Today, the home of Mongolia’s parliament is fronted by an incredible series of statues. Kublai Khan on one side, Ogdei Khan on the other. In the centre, an enormous bronze statue of the man himself, Chinggis Khan.
The square is surrounded by many original Soviet buildings which have been allowed to remain, despite the constant encroachment of the more modern, yet characterless, glass buildings. The National Art Gallery, National Theatre, National History Museum, Ulaanbaatar City Government building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs surround the central square.
Leaving the square, we passed the National University of Mongolia. It was originally named Choibalsan University after Marshal Choibalsan who held power from 1939 to 1952. He was known as the Stalin of Mongolia for his purges of the Buddhist lamas and temples during the 1940s.
His statue still stands proudly outside the main entrance.
Finally, we ended our day with dinner at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, still under renovation, but the restaurant was operational. This building was the first in the city to have running hot water and was built to house important visitors, diplomats and Soviet officials visiting communist Ulaanbaatar. The restaurant was adorned with rarely seen photos of the city during the 1950s and 1960s, including a photo of all the mid-century communist leaders, from Kim Il Sung to Khrushchev.
The dinner capped off our tour around the city centre, but there was still much more to see of the Red Hero City.
Our second day in the city saw us leave the centre and head into the Russian district of Ulaanbaatar, still populated with old Khrushchevka apartments.
The Ulaanbaatar Hotel used to be home to a large statue of Vladimir Lenin who looked out from his pedestal in front of the hotel onto the streets of Ulaanbaatar. However, a few years ago he was removed and taken. Not to a park, or garden, but to a builder's yard.
Unceremoniously stored on the edge of a construction worker’s car park, the statue still holds all of the mystique and power it held all those years ago.
Once again, Lenin is amongst the proletariat!
Leaving Vladimir, we made our way to the Mongolian Military Museum which chronicles the history of warfare in Mongolia from the stone age up to the modern war in Afghanistan. Outside the museum are a series of tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers, flak cannons, and an enormous MiG 21 fighter-interceptor jet. The first, but certainly not the last we saw on this trip!
Our attention was mostly drawn to the communist section of the Museum, where medals, paintings, dioramas, weapons, and other military paraphernalia are laid out. This includes Mongolian People’s Army battle flags adorned with the old coat of arms and a horse and a rider in the Mongolian steppe.
The symbol contrasts with the current national emblem, a winged horse. Our local guide told us that many Mongolians consider the absence of the horseman on the current emblem to be metaphorical as the country itself feels like it has been out of control since the fall of the USSR in the 1990s.
Leaving the weaponry behind, we made our way to the museum and monument to Marshal Zhukov. Known in the West for his leadership of the Red Army in 1945 and an instrumental figure in the fall of Nazism in Europe, he is remembered fondly in Mongolia for his work in defending the country from the Japanese.
The museum holds many of his Mongolian medals, uniforms, portraits, and other artefacts from his time in Mongolia.
After lunch, we headed out of the Russian sector and made our way to the Railway Museum. This roadside attraction in the railway worker’s district houses numerous trains from Mongolia’s communist period. Including one emblazoned with a profile of Josef Stalin! Also in the museum, we were able to climb aboard Marshal Choibalsan’s old personal railway carriage. Complete with an office and a small bath.
No such luxuries awaited us that night on the overnight train, but we’ll get to that.
Before heading to the railway station, we made a detour to Ganden Monastery, Ulaanbaatar’s main Buddhist temple.
A visit here is usually complete after seeing the enormous Buddha statue, concealed within one of the buildings. However, we also caught a rare chance to watch the monks gather in the main temple to hear traditional Tibetan readings. Ganden is one of the few old monasteries left standing. It was left in place by the communist government as a way to educate the nation’s youth on the absurdity of religion. And to prove to outsiders that religious freedom still existed inside red Mongolia.
Leaving the temple, we enjoyed a Korean dinner of Bibimbap, before heading to the railway station for our overnight train to the desert city of Sainshand.
A large, unhappy-looking woman greeted us at the door of the train carriage, clearly bemused at a group of foreigners trying to board the local train down into the desert. Eventually, after she’d crossed our names off her clipboard, she pointed vaguely down the carriage towards our cabin.
Trains across the Eastern Bloc were broadly identical, so if you’ve visited North Korea, China, or Russia, you’ll know what to expect. 4 beds to a cabin, and with no real way to get to the top bunks without incredible upper body strength, we eventually settled down as the train began to roll south.
Out of the window, we could see the urban downtown of Ulaanbaatar give way to the ger district, where people still live in traditional gers (yurts) which make up around 70% of the city’s population.
As the grass and mountains gave way to flat open desert scrubland, the sunset and we continued our rumble towards the Chinese border and the military town of Sainshand.
Arriving in Sainshand at the crack of dawn, we made our way past Soviet railway worker’s houses, and the crumbling ruins of old accommodation blocks. We arrived at the hotel/restaurant for breakfast.
However, this spot offered more than just a questionable English breakfast!
Leaving the hotel and crossing a rickety bridge over the road, we arrived at a lookout spot over the southern part of the city, adorned with a Soviet-era tank, and a statue of a local ‘Hero of Mongolia’.
Sainshand was originally split into two areas, the northern part by the railway station was home to many workers who were integral to maintaining operations along the trans-Mongolian railway linking China and the former USSR.
The southern part was built to house Soviet military officers, their families, and other important infrastructure such as mechanics, military hospitals, and other important buildings.
After wandering the Russian-built streets, we left the city and headed out to what was once a 5km-long Soviet military base. Now reduced entirely to rubble.
After the fall of the USSR, Mongolia made no effort to maintain, or use any of these enormous bases scattered around the country. So many were demolished and the parts used by locals to build new houses and fences.
Many of the walls and fences around local buildings in Sainshand were made of pieces of temporary road. Large green slabs of metal, designed for moving vehicles over tough terrain.
As we wandered through the destroyed base, trying to ignore the large number of animal bones which scatter most of Mongolia’s countryside, we eventually reached a building. Whilst not in good condition, it is at least still standing.
This huge circular building was once a radar station. It was built to detect potential incoming Chinese aircraft, allowing enough time for the MiG interceptors to scramble and ward off any attack against Ulaanbaatar, or the Soviet Union.
Leaving Sainshand after a hearty Mongolian lunch, we made the long drive north, eventually arriving at the town of Shivee-Ovoo. Another town built to house the Soviet military and their families.
After taking a turn off-road, and seemingly driving into the open desert, the few distinctive apartment blocks that make up this town hove into view. Upon arrival, it is clear some are still lived in, although most are abandoned.
Many of the buildings looked as though they’d been machine-gunned, with small flecks of paint missing all over them.
In reality, this is what happens when you live in a place prone to sandstorms.
We headed inside some of the more structurally intact buildings where we were able to see just how these people lived day-to-day. The remains of wallpaper, bathroom tiles, radiators, and other little things made the places slightly more relatable. After all, these aren’t ancient ruins.
It was only 30 years ago that these places were fully operational.
After deciding to leave as a result of a large unmoving cow blocking the door to another apartment block, we headed into the city of Choir as the sun began to head towards the horizon.
Arriving in the nearby city, we witnessed once again, the destruction of a once enormous military town. Whilst the city does pay homage to its Soviet heritage with a T-52 tank (mislabelled!) and a statue depicting the Unknown Warrior, most of the base has been ripped to shreds.
Nowhere is this disregard more obvious, than at a half-destroyed statue with its head removed. Once part of an enormous heroic stone centrepiece, today all that is left is this decapitated reminder of the USSR’s presence in Choir.
After a hearty dinner of goulash, we headed to our, let’s say ‘basic’ hotel. The Gobi Desert is not famed for its 5-star hotels.
However, the charm of this place was it was the same style of Soviet apartment block that we’d seen abandoned earlier, giving an idea of what it would have been like to live in Mongolia as a Red Army officer.
Day 4 was to be all about airbases but with the odd MiG 21 and abandoned apartment thrown in for good measure.
First, we headed into the town centre of Choir, originally built for officers and their families.
We explored the old railway station building, and town square, adorned with monuments dedicated to Mongolian-Soviet friendship. Then, we continued north to our next destination.
20 minutes later we pulled into a small town that initially, looked nothing special.
The classic Soviet apartment blocks, a few cars parked outside crumbling self-built houses, the usual. That is until you round a corner and see a MiG 21 on a plinth, slowly falling into complete disrepair.
Bayantal was one of many Soviet airbases built in the Gobi Desert to ward off the Chinese during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Today, the airbase itself is still owned by the Mongolian military, and since I have no desire to end up in a military prison, we stayed well away from the base itself. However, this town once housed the pilots, airmen, engineers, and other personnel working at Bayantal.
At the time of the USSR’s withdrawal from Mongolia, the Soviets had 190 aircraft and 130 helicopters scattered across the country, not to mention over 50,000 soldiers stationed in the country.
Just outside the main gate sits the remains of a huge parade square and exercise track, and inside the gates are the abandoned remains of family homes.
Heading inside the apartments which still had stairs, we found wallpaper, old Soviet-era newspapers used as extra insulation, and the remnants of a child’s bedroom with roses and plants painted on the walls.
After clambering around these buildings for a while and resisting the urge to step out on the balconies, we left Bayantal and continued north.
One of the most incredible sites on this trip was the airbase at Bagakhangai.
We first visited the town which, like Bayantal, was built to house military personnel working at the airbase. But after lunch, we made a beeline for the main gate.
Approaching the airbase, it’s hard to miss the small pillboxes which dot the outer perimeter. Eventually, we arrived at the large concrete arch which marked the entrance gate. Driving cautiously into this base, we eventually pulled up in front of a huge brick building with the remains of large metal doors.
This was the aircraft maintenance hanger.
Bagakhangai was home to a squadron of MiG 21 fighter jets, and all in all, had over 30 hangers alongside a 2.8km long runway.
We spent the afternoon exploring these old buildings. A highlight was getting inside one of the old hangers which still had large plaques, written in Russian, affixed to the walls inside, and large red ‘Danger’ messages warning aircrew about the dangers of operational aircraft.
We also explored the old control tower, and a former operational headquarters in which we found the remains of old Soviet maps of the surrounding area left scattered. This was probably once a cupboard filled with classified information.
As we looked out of the control tower windows, imagining the teams of Soviet military personnel directing this busy airbase, it’s easy to forget this is not ancient history.
Only 30-40 years ago, these areas were off-limits, fully staffed, and official soviet secrets.
There are people alive today who served in these places. However, the state of ruin they have fallen into puts you more in mind of visiting a medieval castle than a Cold War jet fighter base.
However, we still had a way to go until we reached our overnight halt. So we sped along the runway and back out of the gates, and continued our journey north.
As the evening drew in, we arrived in the small district of Baganuur, just outside of Ulaanbaatar. This is a strategically important place to the Soviet military, and also home to an enormous coal mine which stretches out beyond the city, dominating the landscape.
Why was this city so important? Well…
In 1961, Leonid Brezhnev visited Mongolia for talks with officials in Ulaanbaatar about establishing a military presence in the country.
The Soviets ceded large tracts of land, free of charge, around Ulaanbaatar, Sainshand, and the city of Choibalsan in the Far East.
The town of Baganuur once housed the 12th Motorised Rifle Division, making up the bulk of the ground forces in the Ulaanbaatar command region.
These troops were stationed in the area from 1979 to 1990. After this, the base they had built was used for storage until 1993, when it was abandoned.
Wandering around the town centre though, it was clear this place could not support 15,000 soldiers and their families. However, heading out of the town centre, we went to find the legacy of this enormous military base.
As we crested a hill just outside of town, suddenly it came into view.
The Baganuur military base, like others previously on the trip, was all but destroyed, except a small cluster of 5 or 6 officers' apartment buildings on the edge of the former base.
So, we trundled inside to take a look.
After meeting the local herder who serves as the unofficial security guard we headed inside some of these buildings.
Baganuur is home to, by far, the best-quality abandoned apartments in Mongolia.
Painted murals still adorn some of the walls, and newspapers used for insulation with articles about Afghanistan, the threat of NATO, and the achievements of Soviet cosmonauts still cover many of the interior walls. Many of the kitchens are still filled with tiles on the walls, and toilets and sinks lie smashed, but still present in many of the bathrooms.
One notable room has a collection of pin-up girls cut out of magazines on the wall.
Clearly, this place was home to plenty of young soldiers.
We spent the morning exploring these apartments, and the surrounding area which once housed many more barracks buildings, a pig farm, and other military offices. Then, after an invite to meet the local guard’s cows, we headed deeper into the base.
Amidst a cluster of trees, imported from Russia at the time, we found the remains of a beautiful Soviet mosaic depicting what looks like a soldier or a worker carelessly smashed and abandoned.
However, what remains provides a powerful metaphor for the whole situation.
A place that thousands cared for and called home, now reduced to kilometres of rubble, home only to packs of wild dogs roaming the wastelands.
On a cheerier note, we were now off to look at some more MiG 21s.
Nearby Baganuur is Nalaikh airbase, still operational and used by the military. It’s always a nerve-wracking drive up towards it.
However, we neared the base without taking any fire and pulled up outside the main gate where another beautiful MiG 21 sat. In better condition than the one in Bayantal.
After a quick chat with the bemused sentry who confirmed we wouldn’t be allowed into the base... We departed towards the town of Gorodok.
I’m sure you’ve picked up the pattern by now. Gorodok was built to house the personnel working on the base. However this time, there is another, you guessed it, MiG 21 nestled between two apartment blocks. A monument to those who served in the area during the Cold War.
Making our way back towards Ulaanbaatar, we had to make a stop at an icon of Mongolia.
The largest equestrian statue of Chinggis Khan sits on a hillside just outside the capital city. Shining in bright silver, it’s impossible to miss.
So, we headed inside, and after a bit of confusion with the very small lift, we ascended into the statue.
After exiting the lift, and then walking up a very unnerving spiral staircase, we emerged on the head of Chinggis Khan’s horse, providing an incredible view over the surrounding countryside.
Leaving the statue, we finally arrived in Ulaanbaatar.
Back home at last! However, the adventure wasn’t over yet.
We made our way to Narantuul market, home to everything from pots and pans to jewellery and hammers. Anything you might need, you’ll find at Narantuul.
However, as we entered the hustle and bustle of the market, we headed straight to the far side. We passed the dodgy knock-off Gucci belts and the questionable North Face jackets until we reached a small area of the market where traders sell what remains of the Soviet Union.
Medals, busts of Lenin, knives, and other Soviet paraphernalia are available here and so began the haggling!
Typically, I find that Narantuul isn’t that much of a haggling market, however when you turn up as a group of foreigners, the prices tend to shoot up.
So, after a bit of a discussion with a few of the local traders, we left with a haul of medals, badges, and other cool bits and bobs.
Nothing like a medal of Marshal Zhukov to prove you’ve been to Mongolia!
On our final day, we certainly packed a lot in!
After an early morning visit to the State Department Store to pick up souvenirs, we made our way to the Ulaanbaatar Dinosaur Museum.
The building once housed the Lenin Museum and is decorated on the exterior with large bronze casts depicting the man himself.
Inside, we headed quickly to the third floor where there was something of a Soviet marvel. The museum has kept its enormous three-wall bronze cast celebrating communism in Mongolia. Lenin, Marx, Engels, and other communist iconography litter this incredible piece of industrial art.
After spending more time looking at Lenin than any of the stuffed animals which you’re supposed to look at, we left the museum and headed back towards the central square. From here, we paid a visit to the National Museum of Mongolia, home to artefacts from the ancient Turkic empires right up to the revolution in the 1990s.
Our penultimate stop on this grand communist adventure was somewhat more intriguing than anything else we’d visited.
In the outskirts of the city lives a man with the largest Lenin collection in the world. Shelves piled high with statues and busts. Embroideries cover the walls and the sofa, whilst the coffee table is home to books upon books filled with pins depicting the distinctive revolutionary.
We spent the afternoon learning about the legacy of Lenin in Mongolia, and how, unlike many other countries in the Eastern Bloc, Mongolia never broke away from communism as violently, nor does it look back on that time with hatred or disgust, and so Lenin remains a figure of significance, notoriety, and symbolism.
Finally, we made our way to a district of Ulaanbaatar named Zaisan.
During the days of communism, these were well outside the city, although today it’s a rather upmarket area of Ulaanbaatar, and we certainly saved the best until last.
Atop the hill at the heart of Zaisan sits the Zaisan Monument – a huge Stalinist-style monument depicting a Soviet soldier adorned with many medals and orders of the USSR painstakingly carved into the stone.
The interior of the monument holds a huge mural celebrating the Soviet Union and its presence in Mongolia. From cosmonauts in full spacesuits to soldiers trampling the Japanese and Nazi standards.
The monument looks out over the city and provides an incredible contrast.
As we stood looking out at the modern city of Ulaanbaatar, we could see just how much it has changed since the days that this monument was built, and how far Mongolia has moved from its old communist ideals.
As the sun began to creep towards the mountains which surround the city, we descended the monument, and bid the city, and our adventure farewell.