It’s no secret that I’m very loyal to the Marriott hotel group when it comes to all my accommodation needs, given the ease of earning Marriott points in Canada and their expansive global footprint. However, there are places around the world that have managed to elude the long arm of Marriott International, and Ulaanbaatar was one of those places.
For my two-night stay in the Mongolian capital, then, I needed to think outside of the box. The city’s premier luxury hotel is the Shangri-La, which sure looks like a sumptuous property indeed, but I felt put off by the idea of paying $300+ a night in a city where you can easily find good accommodation options for less than $100.
I briefly checked Airbnb as well, which turned up the usual spectrum of properties, from the primped and polished to the downright dingy. However, I was still reeling from a negative experience with Airbnb in St. Petersburg earlier on this trip and felt rather hesitant to jump back into the “sharing economy” so soon.
It was only after quite a bit of searching that I remembered that I still had about 40,000 Best Western Rewards points sitting in my account from getting the MBNA Best Western Rewards MasterCard a few years ago. I check for Best Western hotels in Ulaanbaatar, and to my delight, there are two: the Best Western Gobi’s Kelso, located near the train station, and the Best Western Premier Tuushin situated in the city centre.
Since we’d be arriving by rail at the unforgiving hour of 6:50am and would likely need to get some rest soon after, I picked the Gobi’s Kelso, which was only a 5-minute walk away from Ulaanbaatar Railway Station. Even though the paid rates were only about $90 per night, I went ahead and paid 10,000 Best Western Rewards points per night since I really didn’t think I’d have much use for these points otherwise.
While the hotel is indeed located a short distance from the train station, it can be surprisingly tough to find it if you don’t know your way around. That’s because the property is located in the midst of a residential area and is surrounded by apartments blocks on virtually all four sides.
If you’re arriving to the hotel from the train station, I’d definitely recommend loading up the walking directions in advance if you don’t have a solid Internet connection. Otherwise, it’ll take some wandering around before you arrive on the hotel’s doorstep.
Looking at the exterior of the hotel, it’s pretty clear that it used to operate as an independent “Kelso Center” hotel long before it joined the global Best Western umbrella.
The hotel’s lobby is very small and unassuming. The front desk is staffed by a single staff member, who takes care of check-in formalities and is available to assist you throughout your stay. Everyone we interacted at the hotel was very kind, and their grasp of English was more than good enough to communicate with us.
The staff member informed us that our Deluxe Guest Room was immediately available – a pleasant surprise given our early arrival hour of 7am. She also let us know that we could enjoy complimentary daily breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant.
We took the elevator up to the fifth floor. Looking at the hotel’s hallways, one can tell that this is a pretty no-frills property…
…but after using the rather bulky physical room key to unlock the door, the room itself looks like anything but!
Indeed, the exterior and public areas of the hotel may be rather drab and uninspiring, but the guest rooms are surprisingly well-appointed. Entering the room, you walk through a small hallway before the spacious room opens up before you.
The king bed is to your left, and while it wasn’t the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept on, it was certainly large enough to fully spread out and relax.
Then there’s a sitting area at the front end of the room, where complimentary tea and coffee is provided.
Over in the opposite corner, you have a small cabinet, which plays host to the coffee maker, telephone, and some other knick-knacks. There’s also a small television mounted on the wall above it, which we didn’t get around to using much.
Then there’s a dressing table and vanity positioned here as well.
The bathroom is rather basic, though at least has some snazzy decor.
The best part about the bathroom was no doubt the “spaceship shower” that’s pretty commonplace throughout much of Asia. Basically, you jump into the metal tube, shut the doors tight, and enjoy a comprehensive spray-down from dozens of individual nozzles. Or, you know, you can go with a normal rain shower if that’s more your speed.
The hotel has little in the way of other facilities, and what few facilities they do have are all located on the ground floor by the lobby.
The hotel restaurant serves breakfast from 7am to 10am. It’s an à la carte breakfast in the most limited sense of the term – you get to choose how you’d like your eggs cooked, and everything else is a set menu.
To be fair, that set menu makes for a pretty complete breakfast, since it includes coffee or tea, a breadbasket, a sausage, a side salad, fresh fruit, and yogurt.
Besides the restaurant, the hotel also has a “pub” that’s open late into the night.
I didn’t see a gym anywhere, even though the website claims that there are fitness facilities that can be used for a nominal fee.
On the morning of our departure, we’d be leaving early to catch our train to Beijing, so we asked if they could arrange a breakfast to-go. They duly delivered, sending us off on our way with some sandwiches and fruits, which was a very kind gesture on their part.
When processing our checkout, the staff member noted that we had paid for our stay using Best Western Rewards points, but there was also an extra US$2 charge per night that we had to pay. I never managed to figure out exactly what this US$2 was for, although I imagine it was a “destination fee” of some sort. We were running late for our train, so I didn’t feel like arguing.
What’s funny, though, is the 20,000 Best Western Rewards points never got deducted from my account! Indeed, this seems to happen at some Best Western hotels around the world – apparently, the hotels are individually responsible for deducting the points rather than being managed by a central Rewards team, and some hotels simply don’t get see many travellers who redeem points for their stays, so they either don’t know how to deduct the points or they just forget to do it.
All said and done, I’m glad the hotel at least earned a healthy US$4 from my stay…
I’ll also take a moment here to briefly talk about what we did during our two days in Ulaanbaatar. I won’t be writing a separate post, because truthfully I don’t feel that we made the most of our time here.
Our first day was marred by an almighty downpour, which took no mercy on the city’s underdeveloped drainage system. Roads became rivers, and the locals wrapped their feet in plastic bags in order to cross them.
We had to walk over to the train station in the midst of this weather to purchase our train tickets to Beijing. Some pools of murky rainwater were traversable thanks to our advanced parkour techniques, while others we simply had to trudge through.
We arrived back at the hotel soaked and dirtied, and that put us into a terrible mood for the rest of the day. Throw in the inclement weather and it was unlikely we’d get any meaningful sightseeing done, so we simply asked the front desk for the closest Korean restaurant and went to eat our hearts out. (The Korean-Mongolian guy who shared our cabin on the train ride from Irkutsk had recommended that we try some Korean food while in town, and his advice did not disappoint.)
The sun was shining on the second day, so we did our best to hit up the main attractions. Sükhbaatar Square is the focal point of the city, and it’s a huge square with immense historical significance. A large colonnade is positioned on its north side, dedicated to the most world-renowned Mongolian to ever walk the Earth: Genghis Khan.
Not far from the central square is the National Museum of Mongolia, which I found to be a riveting walkthrough as a person with Chinese origins. The territories of modern-day Mongolia and North China have changed hands countless times over the years between the hands of nomadic kingdoms and Chinese dynasties.
Even walking through Ulaanbaatar, the street scene may as well be any one of the major Chinese cities I’m used to, but I kept getting a fair bit of cognitive dissonance from the fact that everyone looks almost exactly like me and yet speaks an entirely different and unintelligible language.
We also made our way to some of the significant sights on the outskirts of town, such as the Chojin Lama Monastery and the Bogd Khan Winter Palace.
I think we were also feeling rather burnt out by this point in the journey, having been on the road for almost four weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then along the Trans-Siberian Railway. We were definitely looking forward to finally getting to Beijing and putting our feet up for a while, and our motivation to be “good tourists” was most likely affected by that.
Despite this, I’d certainly love to return to Mongolia at some point in the future and spend some more meaningful time here, ideally getting out of the city to fully immerse in the country’s nomadic culture as well.
I liked the Best Western Gobi’s Kelso Ulaanbaatar – what a cute little property it was! While the hotel is certainly intended for the budget-conscious traveller and won’t be topping any luxury charts anytime soon, its close proximity to the central railway station was the perfect fit for our needs. The staff were also exceedingly kind and helpful when it came to giving us local directions and packing us a breakfast for our train ride.
Nevertheless, if you are travelling to Ulaanbaatar by any method of transport other than the train, then I’d probably recommend getting a hotel closer to the city centre instead, since it’d make your life much easier when you’re scoping out the city’s attractions.