This is an ugly post. This is a post that hurt to write. This is a post that made me cry. I wished it had had no reason to be written. But it does. One reason is that I want others to be warned, in particular other women travelling solo. The other reason is that I won’t shut up in the face of perpetrators. I know that it won’t be read by those, rather by the friendly Mongolians who helped me. That is unfortunate. But this should not keep me from being honest. So, in all honesty, here are three aspects of Mongolia, that I am glad to have left behind.
(1) Forget about private sphere
‘I haven’t seen her in a while.’
– ‘What do you mean?’
‘I haven’t seen her in at least an hour! She hasn’t left her room since then.’
– ‘Well, she’s probably fine.’
‘Ha, didn’t you know that humans die without the attention of other humans? She is probably in severe danger! It’s called Sudden Death Phenomenon.’
– ‘Who, I didn’t think of that!’
‘Nobody can survive without constant social control. We should check if she’s alive.’
– ‘In fact, it’s our duty! Let’s go instantly.’
Knocking on the door of the cyclist. Nobody answers. Knocking harder. No answer. Kicking on the door with boots. A tired woman opens the door. ‘Yes? Sorry, I took a nap…’
(The two men just look around the room. Look at the woman. Leave without a word.)
‘So she WAS alive. Did we really have to threaten to break in the door? Her hearing seemed to be fine the last time we saw here…’
– ‘You never know. There is also a Sudden Deaf Phenomenon. People go deaf from one instant to another.’
‘Well, at least we know she is doing fine.’
30 minutes later.
‘Listen, I haven’t seen her in a while…’
This conversation probably never happened. But I imagine that conversations like it MUST have happened, over and over again. Otherwise, I cannot explain why on earth people would come and check my hotel room constantly. Nor have I found any explanation why people almost kick in the door in the process. If there is a door to kick in in the first place – many of the rooms cannot be locked, as they don’t have keys. Some don’t even have doors. Which, admittedly, makes checking a LOT easier. One night, the owner of one guesthouse checked my room at midnight, at 3am and then again at 6:30am. For no apparent reason. Lesson learned: When in Mongolia, forget about private sphere.
I guess this is linked to the nomadic past (and present) of the people: the whole family shares one ger, the door is oftentimes open. Add to this a strong sense of family and the fact that Mongolians do not seem to exist in singular. During the Nadaam festival (mid July), whole groups of families go on a one-week vacation together. Meaning, they travel in convoys of, no, not two or three cars – we are talking about seven to eight cars! The idea of travelling ‘ganzara’ (alone – one of the first Mongolian words I learned), is deeply foreign to Mongolians. And a little strange, it seems.
When I met Mongolians in a guanz (simple canteen), the conversation on the other tables immediately revolved around the word ganzara. I did get thumbs up for crossing Mongolia by bike. But, ganzara, really? Heads were shaken in disbelieve. How does a human surive? I have to admit that there is a point to this, indeed. There is an inherent danger in being away from civilization alone. If I get injured or just fall sick, there is nobody around to help me. I am aware of that and the risks I take. Even though I prepare as well as I can (by taking a Personal Locator Beacon with me to be able sending an SOS signal, e.g.), there are things out of my control (see this post). In the end, it is up to luck. However, it seemed that for Mongolians, the social dimension of being out there alone was considered to be a lot more severe than the physical challenges I might face.
‘Your family must be really tolerant, to let you go on a journey like this.’
– ‘Well, I am a grown-up adult. I am financing this journey with my own savings from having worked hard. I don’t need the permission of my parents.’
– ‘… they must be REALLY tolerant…’
(Said a highly educated middle-aged Mongolia woman, who was travelling in one of said convoys.)
I came to Mongolia searching for solitude. In my mind this should have been easy in a country such vast (roughly 1,500,000 km2), inhabited by only 3 million people (half of them in the capital). I knew that those 1.5 million people are spread all over the enormous land mass that is Mongolia – there is a ger in sight almost anywhere you go. You might not always spot it, but rest assured that the nomads spotted you already. And rest assured also that you’ll have a few interested visitors at your tent in the evening and morning. Actually, I camped most of the time – hotel rooms were an exception. Tents do not have doors to knock on. Mongolians find a way around that. If they arrive on a motorbike, they could count on me hearing the engine. If arriving by horse, they would start singing or whistling once they get closer to my tent, making sure I knew that they were coming.
Meeting nomads was usually a nicer experience than having visitors at your hotel room all the time (and having to fight for the right to lock the room I paid for). Many nomads seemed concerned that I was doing well and if I camped close to a ger, the family often brought tea to my tent or something to eat. I was moved by their concern and grateful for the food or tea. There was one thing I could not get over, however…
(2) Sexism and Chauvinism
I cannot remember how often I was asked this question in those two months I cycled through Mongolia. Usually, I was asked without any prior introduction, without any ‘hello’ or ‘sain bainuu’ (hello in Mongolian). At first, I believed that there must be a Mongolian word that SOUNDS like ‘sex’, but actually means something different. My doubts were unnecessary, as the question was oftentimes followed by very obvious gestures. And a facial expression that seemed to say: ‘Hell, this stupid foreign woman does not even understand the simplest question of human mankind! What else could I possibly want from her?’
The first times, I was simply speechless. These were nomads coming to my tent, sometimes late at night, to ask me for sex? Seriously? I did not and still do not understand. Beggars beg because they have experienced success with that, they begged and got money. These men? I cannot imagine a woman in this entire world who would say ‘Sure, come on in!’. I really cannot (but maybe I am just lacking imagination). I saw real disappointment in the faces of some of the men when I sent them away. They sometimes even brought a second horse for me, motioning that I didn’t have to ride my bike to get to their ger for getting laid – how considerate.
And it was not only the nomads. This phenomenon seemed to encompass Mongolian men of all ages and all living conditions. I was asked for sex by boys barely 12 years old up to men of about 60, out in the steppe as well as in villages. It doesn’t make it any better to be asked for sex in the street when you buy water from a shop. But at least, the guy then didn’t know where I was sleeping – and I didn’t have to worry about him coming back later that night to get what he wanted by force. Fortunately, that never happened, but it still made for some very uncomfortable nights. I am sure they did not understand my swearing at them in English, but I am also sure that they got the tone.
Why all the sexism? I don’t actually know. Usually, I feel safe in that regard in Asia – tall and athletic women usually don’t fit the bill for being considered attractive here. My guidebook explicitly states that women ‘have no trouble travelling the country alone.’ Well, yes, I haven’t been raped. But I find the question deeply insulting. I guess it is caused by a mixture of chauvinism and probably Russian pornography (or pornography featuring Caucasian looking women, at least). In any case, something, somewhere must have instilled the thought in the heads of Mongolian men that Caucasian women are just waiting to be laid by them. Anywhere, anytime.
The sex question seemed to be related to Central Mongolia. At least, that is where I encountered the question most often, sometimes more than once per day. Then, I spent five days cycling through no-man’s land – terrain so hostile and arid that not even nomads live there. No men, no sex question. My daily routine was grueling (see this post), with scarce water and armies of mosquitos, but at least, I was left alone. Somehow, I was starting to hope that this topic was over. That it was related to a particular region of Mongolia. That the upcoming 1000km of Mongolian roads would see no horny man.
After those five days, I finally arrived at a ger cum guanz (canteen) in Uvs province which, according to my route notes, sold water. Finally! I had made it through this hostile terrain! I was safe! I got water bottles and started refilling my dromedary bag. After you have just spent such an enormous distance where you ration your water, counting every milliliter, handling water becomes a task of utter concentration. Don’t spill precious water, don’t spill… And then, I felt a hand from behind, grabbing me hard between the legs. This is a moment I will never forget. It was not the first time this happened to me. But even though all of those incidents have left their mark, this one shattered me to the bone. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by a tiredness deeper than anything. I had just survived the no man’s land. I had made it through a physical and mental challenge that was unsurpassed by anything I had encountered on this journey before. I had been so much looking forward to making it to civilization, to get somewhere safe where humans can live. And the second human I meet is assaulting me. Is using, no ABusing my mental and physical exhaustion for his perverted idea of sexuality. It felt as if he had trampled out my inner fire that had kept me going through all this. Suddenly, I was all ashen inside. I had nothing left. No air for shouting, no power for slapping. I just turned my bike around and cycled over the next hill, out of sight. Once I felt a little safer, I just broke down over my handlebar and cried. Cried for the first time after the last truly horrible thing that happened to me, an attempted gang rape in Iran.
As I learned, Mongolian men in Uvs province don’t waste their time asking. They just do. And the sexual assaults continued, with men touching me against my will – thighs, breasts, .. you name it. These were no accidents. They usually waited until I was busy trying to steady my bike, filling my water, talk to a child. They waited until they knew that I could not react or at least: not react fast.
I got mad, as I did when asked for sex. I shouted. But I also realized that I was getting tired. Tired of having to fend for my private sphere and my dignity all the time. Tired of being considered an easy prey. In most cases, I was very certain that I was stronger than these guys, physically, mentally. But I was tired to the bone, tired of this bullshit.
So far, I have lived in six different countries and travelled in more than 50. I have experienced sexual assaults in many of them (and many of them actually in my home country, Germany). But frankly, never have I experienced anything like I did in Mongolia. Never this frequency. People speak about Muslim countries and how tough it supposedly is for women to travel there. They have no idea. In the seven Muslim countries through which I cycled so far (all of the countries of this trip before Mongolia), I was treated with respect, mostly. I had some really bad experience in Iran (among them the mentioned rape attempt). Yet, 99% of Iranian people I met were friendly and hospitable to me beyond belief. I knew that the truly bad experiences I had were exceptions, the few bad apples. But the wonderful majority of the people made up for it. Don’t get me wrong, women are not treated equally there, by far not. But even though I was treated as worth less than a man, I seemed still be to considered to have some worth, some dignity.
Mongolia is predominantly Buddhist. And chauvinism and sexism are prevalent beyond belief. I don’t want to suggest that to be the cause, but it seems not to reign in sexism either. I find it hard to endure sexism in my own culture, but mostly, I know that it is a minority. And I am optimistic enough to believe that those sexists mostly know that their behavior is condemned by the majority of society. This creates at least some mental barriers that might hinder some to act. Bad enough that some men think this way. But while women have to endure sexist actions way too often, at least this does not happen ALL the time.
In Mongolia, there seems to be no such barrier. Sexism is absolutely common and open. If I met a man in the steppe or in the street, I could almost flip a coin to find out if he was going to be okay. If he was going to ask me for sex, whistle, call me ‘sexy baby’ or assault me.
I cannot change this society. I cannot and will not. The only thing I have a handle on is my own reaction, how I cope with the events. I was trying to learn. To be loud, to react physically. And also, to forgive myself. To forgive myself if, after an exhausting day of cycling on challenging tracks in the summer heat, I was too tired for a notable reaction at all. On this bike journey, I have traveled through countries were women have a hard lot. However, my status as ‘foreigner’ saved me from quite a bit of the discrimination. In a way, I was oftentimes treated as ‘honorary man’ – worth less than an actual man, but more than a local woman. Now, I experienced the very bottom of the pecking order. It did not feel very comfortable there. To be more precise: I got to the absolute limit of what I could possibly bear. I might have gotten out of this stronger than before. At the same time, I kept asking myself how much more shit I would need to go through. And why.
One thing I really did learn: It is not about me. It is not my fault. It never is, in no country. Yet, in other places, sexual assaults occur less often, making you wonder whether you made a mistake (if only that you went to the wrong place). Rest assured: you did not. Mongolia was really pounding that into my head. It is not me. It is a fucked up society (excuse me) that teaches even young boys that it’s fine to assault women. Or, at least, a society that does nothing to KEEP them from assaulting women. Sexism in the culture I come from is surely prevalent, but it is, in many cases, comparable to a sickness that only breaks out occasionally. Bad enough, but somehow bearable. Mongolia is a chronic patient in comparison. In a way, this may be linked to the following…
A simple zhooshid buudal (hostel). I am sitting in the common room, eating the usual staple of Tsuivan, fried noodles with fatty meat in it. The task needs some concentrating, as I am trying to find the bits of vegetable in there and to avoid the lumps of pure fat. From the corner of my eyes, I see a man walking up to me. He seems drunk. Nothing unusual here – alcoholism is prevalent and when you cycle through a village, it is not uncommon to see one or a few passed out men lying in the street. What I don’t expect, though, is the blow I get, a blow that almost fires the fork out of my hand. Surprised, I look up, into blod-shoot eyes. A fist rammed into my arm is not quite the introduction I am used to. The guy makes a pedalling motion with his hands and then points to my bike. Sure, I’ll hand over my most beloved and precious possession to a drunk idiot who just hit me! I firmly shake my head. ‘No!’ I am about to turn around to my dish again, when the fist hits me a second time, this time on the collarbone. In pain, I jump up. If we are getting into a fist fight, I prefer to be on my feet. The drunken Mongolian seems agitated as well. He repeats the pedalling motion and the pointing at my bike, just more fervently than before. Of course! I only needed to be hit a SECOND time to allow him to ride my bike. That’s how the world works. Hitting someone TWICE work better than ONCE. How could I forget! ‘NO. AND FUCK OFF.’ I am sure he doesn’t understand a word, but the tone is hard to miss. He seems to consider hitting me a third time. Then, his face goes blank. Seconds later, he seems to have forgotten what he had wanted so badly just a moment ago. Disoriented, he looks around. I point the way to the door and he stumbles out.
My encounters with drunk Mongolians were far less frequent, fortunately, than the above-mentioned incidents with sexists (and just for the record, the sexists mostly seemed sober). Still, I have been hit by a fist three times in my two months I spent in Mongolia. Once, the blow was aimed directly at my head and I was just lucky that my instincts were fast enough to have me raise my underarms to take the blow. Apparently, getting up to my full height was always a bad idea – that was usually the very moment when drunks got aggressive. Even though I realized that, I just couldn’t bring myself to keep sitting when I was about to be attacked. The instinct of being able to flee or fight back was just too strong. So I will keep jumping up. And I will keep getting hit.
Usually, I have an easy time passing as a man if need be (pulling up a hood usually helps), as most people don’t expect a woman to be as tall. There have been many times when I feigned confidence and used my body for that. Straighten your shoulders, stand with legs wide apart. I know the game and it has worked well many times. In Mongolia, however, seeing a potentially stronger opponent seems to incite a lemming-like desire to get into a fight (among drunks, at least). I don’t understand that instinct, but I also have a hard time supressing MY instinct to do what almost always worked (outside of Mongolia): to play strong, not weak.
In combination with the sexism, I felt doubly punished. My physical strength usually gets me through most things alright. Now, this previous advantage turned against me. My body drew a LOT of (sexual) attention. And it also seemed to invite quite a bit of physical aggression.
Weirdly enough, pure physical violence does not hurt me as much as sexism.
What to make out of this?
I cannot offer bulletproof recipes to any woman venturing out into Mongolia alone. I have been trying to pass as a man here, to no avail in contrast to Iran. Not even shaving my head seemed to have helped in any way – Mongolian men recognized me as a woman even from behind when I was on my bike (wearing unisex clothes). The countless ‘hey sexy baby’s’ bear testament of this – and they were shouted at me before those guys had even passed me in their vehicles.
The one advice I can offer: spend as little time as possible in villages and stay away from drunks (as far as you can – once I was assaulted by a drunk in a hostel at night. There is not much I could have done to avoid that.). When camping, don’t try to hide – they will find you anyways and I found that the sex question is almost guaranteed if nobody else is around. Instead, after asking permission, camp close to assemblies of gers where families live (the sex question does not come as often in front of others). I should add, though, that I was once asked for sex by a man in front of his daughter. So try to be somewhere, where there are other MEN around (women don’t seem to count that much, no matter whether they are German or Mongolian).
Another piece of advice: be vigilant all the time. Literally try to have your back (or rather: your behind) covered. If possible, have a wall behind you when you bend over your bike or fill water. Never allow anyone into your hotel room, no matter what they claim, not even the hotel manager (who grabbed my breasts once he was in). If possible, try to get a room that can be locked and use that lock when you are in there yourself. Rooms shield you from view of others and some Mongolian men thought this was a perfect situation (for them, not me, obviously).
To safe (a bit of) the honor of Mongolian men: at the end of my journey, in the far Southwestern corner of Mongolia (Khovd province), I finally got away from it all. Nothing happened to me there at all. It is considered the most ethnically diverse province and the busy trade with Kazakhstan, Russia and China draws a lot of business people in. It is also predominantly Muslim, not Buddhist. I am guessing that part of this might offer an explanation, though other aspects might factor in. But then, after I had already left Mongolia, I heard from one of my dear female cyclist friends, that she was sexually assaulted in extactly this province…
Sadly, despite the inspiring landscape, I cannot honestly recommend travelling through Mongolia solo as a woman. If you do, chose the province carefully and come mentally prepared for rarely having any private sphere, for encountereing a lot of sexism and also some alcohol-fuelled violence. I have been in shitty situations before and managed to find solutions. Maybe the solution was somewhere out there. Maybe there was at least a lesson behind all that. But to be honest, I have not found it yet.
You can survive for quite a while without food. You can survive without water for a much briefer period. I realized that I, personally, cannot survive a day without believing in the good of people. Having the opposite slapped into my face over and over again was draining. Despite formidable physical challenges, I found this to be the hardest part of crossing Mongolia. I did meet Mongolians who were nice and gentle to me, some of them. When this did happen, when I was offered help, I was grateful beyond belief. Even a smile did me a world of good. It very much felt like getting to a source of water after having cycled through the desert. After all the verbal and physical assaults, I longed for human kindness as I did for a drip of water. When I found it – a source of water, human kindness – I stayed for as long as I possibly could (and as my visa allowed). My rest days were as much about resting physically, as they were about refuelling emotionally. I will forever be thankful for those Mongolians who helped me in that. Hopefully, I will learn to forgive the many others.