It’s true that you don’t get much sense for a place on business trips. Airports, hotels, conference rooms; if you’re lucky the program includes a “cultural performance” or “typical local restaurant”. Depending on the nature of the trip you enjoy this bit or endure it, waiting to go home to family and friends.

Occasionally though, usually in odd destinations with few outbound flights per day, you wind up with time up your sleeve between the closing remarks and the boarding call. So it was two autumns back when I found myself with an afternoon in Ulan Bator.

Sunset over downtown UB

The reason I came to UB – to participate in this conference meeting.

Ulan Bator (UB) lies at almost 48 degrees north – a similar latitude to central European countries like Hungary and Slovenia, and Bavaria in Germany. Mongolia, of course, is far colder. Winter in Ulan Bator is a long, hard slog with nights hitting -40C and such a pathetic summer that the annual average temperature is actually below zero. I visited in relatively balmy October 2015, when (statistically at least) the temperature range would be -5C to +7C. It felt colder outside at night.

Abandoned air base somewhere near the Mongolia China border.

Coming in on the daily Air China flight, I looked outside to see brown desert and, as UB came into view, I realised there were in fact cities smoggier than Beijing. Mongolia has truckloads of coal, and they certainly don’t hesitate using it. I would too, with weather like that. There were a few windfarms down below too but at current levels they are never going to be enough to keep a million people warm during a months-long winter of -40C nights. There was, therefore, an ugly fog over most of the downtown area.

Once in town, though, it didn’t feel any worse than Beijing. And in some ways it looked quite Chinese, either the Beijing of a while ago or a sub-provincial city of today. It was same kind of buildings and feeling on the streets.

A few small details aside, this could be any reasonably sized city in China.

First built in the 1950s, the Government Palace was renovated in 2005-06 but still betrays its Stalinist architecture. Mongolia was a Soviet client state throughout the Cold War.

The Mongolian people and culture are quite different to the dominant Han Chinese one down south, though. And even with a short amount of time, you could feel and see it. It reminded me more of somewhere like Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan than it did anywhere in China.

I shopped a bit at the State Department Store, just past the seemingly out of place Beatles statue, and picked up a cashmere smock for our (then) baby girl. I stopped in at a strange cafe for a coffee, just hot water in a paper cup with a Nescafe sachet on the side. And I was embraced quite a bit too hard by a drunken man, so hard initially thought I was being assaulted. UB is renowned for this kind of thing, especially after dark. Moments later a lovely young couple caught up to me and the woman said, in fluent English, “I’m so sorry that happened to you in Mongolia”.

Waiting for the German President’s motorcade

Not long after that, the police closed the road we were walking along. The President of Germany was in town, and his motorcade was coming along. We all lined up by the fence and eventually a long convoy of black saloons whizzed past. I’ve been in a motorcade like this before and it’s an efficient way to travel, but living in a capital like Beijing you soon grow tired of other people’s motorcades holding you up. The worst is when you have to wait a long time at an intersection while an empty motorcade goes by, on its way to pick up, or leaving from dropping off, some VIP and his or her enormous entourage. (As an aside, I recently watched hundreds of people suffer a delay on the Lama Temple Street in Beijing so a long motorcade could exit the Temple, only to drive a hundred meters up the road to the entrance of Wudaoying Hutong. The procession of cars was almost as long as the distance they covered. Can’t the President of Italy walk?)

Locals in lovely traditional clothes posed in front of the Lincoln Memorial style statue for Genghis Khan, in the city square by the Parliament building. Like in China, there seems to be a tradition of having wedding photos taken at well known or photogenic spots around town.

And then at last it was time to go home. UB’s little airport doesn’t see much traffic, and its small upstairs duty free shopping precinct was a ghost town. I waited downstairs with everyone else who was keen to leave, whether starting a new adventure from Mongolia or going home to their families like me. The German President’s plane was there too, but didn’t hold us up.

Duty Free at the airport was …quiet.

Air Force Eins? The Luftwaffe has two of these Airbus A340 planes in VIP configuration. This one is the “Theodor Heuss”, named after post-war Germany’s first President.

On the way back into Beijing, we flew right along the Great Wall from Longquanyu, past Huanghuacheng, and past Jiankou and Mutianyu. It was the closest I’ve ever flown. Unfortunately, Beijing that day was filthy with smog, and I could hardly see a thing outside.

Departing air traffic below us, flying over the Great Wall in the smog. The arrow second from left points to the distinctive “ox bow” uphill extension of the Huanghuacheng section of Great Wall.

When I got home, Beijing Terminal 3 was covered in thick smog…

…an unpleasant contrast to the blue skies on the day I left.

So, you don’t see much in an afternoon, but you get a glimpse. And I’m pretty open minded about most places, but with smog as bad or worse than Beijing’s (which as bad enough as you can see), and winters considerably colder, I have to be honest and say Ulan Bator is not moving to the top of my list of cities to live in after Beijing…