It's an extremely proud, nationalistic country. There's strong traditionally masculine elements here.
That means a culture that can be kind of xenophobic, violent, and aggressive.
Despite that, I actually like it. I like traditionally masculine, proud, nationalistic countries. I know that isn't fashionable to say in this day and age, but after having been around a lot of the world, I just feel really bad for the citizens of countries that are totally pacified and unproud. The men move through life in a sort of drudgery and haze, and the women don't seem to enjoy those state of affairs either.
That said, pride/nationalism/hyper-masculine mixed with transitioning out of poverty can lead to bad places. It's not so much nationalism that is bad, as much as it's a catalyst for whatever else is happening in the society. In a country in a renaissance or golden age, with an emphasis on expansion, science, commerce, innovation, hard work, and building wealth, nationalism and pride becomes a force for progress. In a country that's on the down and out, nationalism amplifies that to bad result.
Mongolia is interesting. Their national holiday, Naadam, is a festival in July featuring wrestling, horseback riding, and archery.
There's equestrian statues of Genghis Khan (they spell it "Chinggis") all over the place, and they're very proud of that era.
Overall, I like it actually. Frontier spirit, masculinity, pride. I met some officials at the Mongolian Stock Market, Tourism Bureau, and Central Bank, and got copies of annual reports and regulations. These are exceptionally smart, driven, focused people.
On the flipside, I see 3+ fights a week here.
The first semi-fight I saw was two guys in flak jackets (you know, body armor? "Bulletproof vests") - wrestling in the middle of a small street.
I was sitting in a fast food restaurant eating, and the guys were going at it somewhat hard... I wasn't sure it was friendly or not.
Turned out, it was friendly. They were either roughhousing or training. I'm not sure if they were police, military, or private security... but I thought to myself, you know, this would never happen in the West. Police or military would be reprimanded for wrestling out in public, and someone would probably call the police if private security were wrestling.
But it's par for the course here. There's a cafe I work at on the fifth floor of a building, with a nice view of the park and the fountain below it. A few times an hour, one young guy and another try to throw each other into the fountain. They're playing around mostly, I haven't seen anyone actually get thrown into the water, but it's come close.
I've seen a couple other events like this, and twice more had people growl at me late at night. When I first got here, all the travel sites I saw strongly advised people not to go out at night since it's dangerous, and I didn't. Since then, I've learned my way around and acclimated, and now I'm more comfortable going out to eat late at night.
A half-drunk older guy tried to grab at me at night. There's two ways I can walk to my apartment from Sukhabatar Square. One is well-lit and the police patrol it, but it's a little longer. I was trying to shortcut through the darker, but I won't do that again.
A couple guys were yelling at me one time. Like with Eastern European culture, it's not clear how much it's friendly and how much it's hostile. You know, maybe it's both. Kind of feeling someone out. I smiled and waved, and they walked off.
Last night (Friday night) was the worst one I saw yet. I walked down to the district nearby that has late night food and music. Some of the music here is really exceptional - some very good techno coming out of the clubs, for instance - but I'm weary of going into any of those places by myself.
Tonight I saw a guy try to run out out of one of those places, and three guys ran after him, pulled down, and started beating on him.
Then three more guys showed up, and they were all holding this guy down on the ground and beating on him.
Meanwhile, other people pass by uninterested in the scene... the six guys looked pretty tough. A few were in sportcoats, kind of a mafia-looking vibe. I don't know if there's any organized crime here or if they're just trying to dress like it, but definitely have a tough image.
They weren't laying into the guy too hard, mostly just kicking him in his ass when he was on the ground. Then one of the guys who looks like the leader of the six grabs the guy by his head and lifts it up like he's about to smash his head into the ground.
I think to myself, "What to do? Am I about to watch a guy get killed in front of me?" I'm normally the kind of person to step in during an altercation if I see something happening, but... six tough Mongolian guys? With surprise and striking first, I could maybe take on three guys, maybe four, but not six.
Meanwhile, it's a busy area. People are just walking by pretending not to notice what's happening.
I try to stop a couple people and gesture subtly towards the altercation, asking "What's going on?"
People shrug. One guy I'm asking doesn't actually see the fight, he's drunk out of his mind and wants to just shake my hand repeatedly.
The six guys aren't roughing the guy on the ground up too badly... I mean, the guy on the ground is certainly not enjoying it, but they're more talking sternly to him, picking him up and dragging him a little, then dropping him again. Occasionally putting one kick in, but nothing else.
I'm just kind of watching from a bit off, and not doing anything. Trying to run calculations in my head. What to do here? What can be done?
I don't even know what's happening. Maybe the guy getting beaten up tried to rob one of the guys, or something, and has it coming to him because of that.
I'm going to stay out of it if it stays like it is, but what to do if they start really laying into him? There's six of them.
I'm trying to size up my options when a police offer shows up. The six guys actually act pretty deferential, even though there's only one officer, paying him a lot of respect. Around then, I reckon nobody's going to get killed, and I should probably clear out, and I walk off.
It's a beautiful country with beautiful people, but it's kind of a downside of a place. Nationalism and pride and hyper-masculine warrior cultures... I actually like and respect it on the whole, but when combined with drinking and someone who is poor and frustrated... well, that's not a good combination.
Anyways, I'll reiterate that Mongolia is worth a visit as a really unique and interesting place, but it's also not a place for non-veteran travelers. I do think some of the things that contribute to the problems that happen here are actually going to be huge assets as the country builds more wealth. The hyper-masculine spirit, channeled into productive endeavors, can lead to amazing renaissances and advances and building and expansion. But without an outlet to it, it can get ugly.
Also - have you, dear reader, ever witnessed such an altercation? What did you do?
The last fight I considered stepping into was in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I was waiting in a queue for a taxi when I saw three kicks punching someone, then when he went to ground, they started kicking him. But just as I started walking over towards them, they let up as the guy on the ground was obviously not fighting back.
As they walked away though, the guy on the ground jumped up and went and thumped one of the guys, kicking the whole thing off again.
Because I didn't know the story behind it, and the one guy who'd been on the ground gave me very bad vibes with his body language, I stayed out of it.
That said, I avoid fights whenever possible. In ten years of living in the UK, I've had three altercations with drunk guys. I don't understand angry drunks.... When I drink I just get happier.
I'd be interested in an expanded version of your thoughts on nationalism. My perspective is quite different - global problems require global solutions - but then you're from the "USA! USA!" while my continent has been devastated by two world wars (more recently, consider e.g. the troubles in Yugoslavia.)
Got this email titled "Investing and Living in Mongolia" from a reader. Good questions here -
I enjoy your blog. I saw that you recently moved to Mongolia. I am curious what made you move to Mongolia (i.e. curiosity to explore vs. a new job)? What is it like there for foreigners? Is it a suitable environment for investing capital? Do you feel safe?
Mongolia is an extremely promising country from the outside, yet nothing beats the perspective of someone who is there on the inside (even though you have not been there a very long time).
All the best,
Becoming disappointed in yourself is a unique region in the realm of disappointment, because no amount of time and understanding makes it go away. The only remedy for it is to change yourself-- in fact, this is one of the best sources of motivation for self-improvement. I've recently become disappointed in my self, illustrated by these two strikes.
A common excuse from guys who fail to approach girls is that none of the girls are their type, or that none of them are attractive enough. Sometimes this is actually a legitimate reason for not approaching, but far more often it's an ego-preserving shield against actually facing the fear of approach.