OM2971. Mongolian Airlines flight from Ulaan Bataar to Hong Kong – a codeshare arrangement with Cathay Pacific.
Ulaan Bataar is not a pretty town. Its functional, Soviet-era architecture looks grim and colourless, even on sunny days, and it ranks as one of the most polluted cities on Earth during its long winters. Twin, coal-fired power stations passed while commuting from the city to the airport belch toxic fumes, adding to respiratory problems routinely suffered by residents in the Mongolian capital. As if that's not enough, traffic can come to a complete standstill. But thankfully it's a Saturday morning, when the traffic is flowing freely during my transfer from the Novotel Hotel, just north of the city. The 18-kilometre commute to the city's southwestern fringe takes just 40 minutes, contrasting savagely with the hellish three-hour drive into town a little more than a week earlier.
In a word: dated. Chinggis Khaan Airport opened in 1957 with a single, short runway that can be accessed only from the one direction due to the surrounding mountains. Adverse conditions during the winter season also lead to flight delays and cancellations.
With just four international flights listed on the departures board, this airport must be one of the least stressful air traffic control towers on the planet. There is no online check-in facility for Mongolian Airlines, with check-in for my 11.20am departure opening at 9.10am. I've arrived 30 minutes early, allowing time to order a coffee before passing through the security gates. Passengers queue for flights to Bishkek and Hong Kong and I'm fortuitously whisked aside to a fast check-in counter for a seamless experience.
No queues, no problems.
FOOD AND DRINK
The departure lounge is split over two levels, with the airport's four international gates downstairs, where there's a coffee shop. Upstairs, you'll find two business lounges, plus two additional coffee shops that double as bars. Double Shot and The Square Cafe serve full English breakfasts, toast and jam, sandwiches and beef burgers, as well as salads, soups and dessert cakes. Surprisingly, there's no boiled mutton – the Mongolian staple.
Mongolia is known for its affordable cashmere and Mongolians will steer you towards the Gobi Mongolian Cashmere store on the ground level for the highest quality cashmere items. There's also a good selection of souvenir stores stocking cashmere and yak's wool gloves, beanies, scarfs, sweaters and coats on the lower level. Stock up on duty-free Mongolian vodka or chocolates from one of a dozen outlets located on the upper level, where a bottle of Chinggis Khaan Vodka will set you back a paltry $14. It's worth buying for the bottle alone. There are also several smaller souvenir stores upstairs.
Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the departure lounge, though expect poor connections. A kid's playroom is located on the lower level.
ONE MORE THING
Construction on a new, dual-runway international airport that was designed to replace Chinggis Khaan International Airport began in the Khushigt Valley, 52 kilometres south of the CBD, in 2013. Despite a scheduled 2019 opening date, multiple delays have pushed that date back to some time during 2020. A six-lane highway will hopefully ease traffic congestion that currently plagues the commute into the city. The average number of passengers passing through the airport is estimated to triple from the current 1 million annually, with a capacity for servicing up to 12 million.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel.