Sapphic Nomads: Two Santa Feans Explore Mongolia

Mongolia: Tales of a Dusty City, Friendly Nomads, And Too Much Mutton!

This summer, we (Katie Cook and Maggie Young) left on a year-long journey to discover the range of LGBT experiences of people we meet around the world. Along the way, we are seeking out, meeting with, and interviewing LGBT folks. In addition to adding to our own (admittedly limited) insight and education, we have been creating audio segments for the radio station, This Way Out, as well as collecting hundreds of hours of film footage for a future documentary about global LGBT issues. We call ourselves the Sapphic Nomads.

Our journey took us to Mongolia, a small hilly, desert-y country in Central Asia with a population of only 2.8 million, sandwiched between China and Russia. We arrived to this beautiful and somewhat incongruous country via the Mongolian Express, which had been a long-time dream of Katie’s, and which turned out to be an interesting adventure in itself. About 20 hours after leaving Beijing, we arrived at the border with Mongolia around 9:00 pm, where we handed our passports to a stern-looking Mongolian lady who did not return our American smiles. Suddenly, we were startled out of our train-induced daze by a loud bang!, and a sharp jolt to the train. We thought for sure the train was broken, or maybe another train had run into us, and I pictured us having to climb out the window of our de-railed train, trudging with our over-packed baggage through the darkness of Mongolia with hundreds of fellow passengers.

After hours of being banged around our cabin by unseen forces, and trying to ignore it by watching episodes of 30-Rock on our iPad, we decided to look out the window into the darkness. It was like a surreal post-Communist dream–we were in a giant train factory, where sweaty Mongolian workers were separating the dusty green cars and jacking them WAY up in the air, so they could exchange the wheels for other wheels to fit the Russian tracks. We looked out across from us at another car–from our train!–where other tourists were gazing out at us, looking like we probably did, but we soon learned they had read about the whole switching wheels thing in the Lonely Planet (I guess we had skipped that chapter), so were not as stunned as we were. After pondering this conundrum for awhile in my head (in a way that involved only abstract cost-to-benefit analysis), I decided that they should just peel up the Russia-bound tracks and replace them with universally-sized ones. Maybe the sweaty factory workers could do that instead? Or maybe they would get too cold come winter time, since they would no longer be sheltered by the factory?

Finally on our way again, the next morning we looked out the window to see rolling hills dotted with gers (yurts), smoke drifting lazily out of smoke-stacks from the opening in their ceilings. Horses, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on the already short, brown grass, and women, men and small children rode by on horses, galloping. As we began to approach the capitol city of Ulaanbaatar, the beautiful country-side abruptly ended, and we began to pass dusty industrial-looking buildings and mills. Gers turned to crumbling Soviet-built houses and shops, and we passed more and more trash littered by the train-tracks. Upon arrival, we stepped onto the train-station and smiled at the locals, who returned our smiles with non-smiling blank looks, and a bit of apprehension set in. From the train station, we caught a very overpriced taxi to our hostel (which seems to happen to us a lot when we first arrive to a country and the locals can sense that we’re “fresh meat”), exhausted and at the same time excited to be in the country we had heard so much about.

A Little Bit About Mongolia:

Mongolia has fairly recently opened its doors to foreign investors (mostly Chinese), who are pouring in like mad, eager to cash in on the largest gold/copper/coal rush since California 1848-1859. Subsequently, this post-Soviet, newly democratic country is experiencing the fastest–and perhaps most unprepared for–economic growth on this planet. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar, for instance, was originally built for 500,000 people, and now struggles to fit the million plus who have moved in, eager to be an integral part of this metropolis. In the south, where the Gobi desert is located, a seemingly endless stream of trucks carry away precious coking coal bound for China. Herders say that their wells are going dry from the vast amount of water used by the mines, and they may have to leave their nomadic lands because of the dust from the mines, which is making them and their animals sick.

In Ulaanbaatar, buildings are almost literally bursting at their seams, and traffic moves at the pace of a geriatric slug (we were warned to plan an extra hour for any excursion anywhere by taxi, to compensate for this). On the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar (and even within the city), we discovered ger (yurt) districts, where people are literally transitioning from their nomadic lifestyle to that of city dwellers, by living in their fenced-in gers inside city limits. Their attempt at nomad/city life is not going well, according to some Mongolians we met. The ger district-dwellers seem to be living in relative poverty and squalor, compared to their counterparts living on the steppes; they have no livestock to eat or milk, and in the winter they sometimes have to resort to burning tires to stay warm. So not only is it really cold in Ulaanbaatar in the winter, but it’s hard to breathe, as well. Outside the city, however, lies the true beauty of Mongolia; herders and their families live as they have for hundreds, if not thousand of years with some obvious exceptions (satellite dishes stand by many gers, their tvs powered by generators which are charged from solar panels. Some herders also do their herding by motorcycle). In the countryside, different from the city, there seems to be space enough for everyone to stretch out in–space of such beautifully epic proportions that it is almost a culture shock driving in and out of the bumpy, crowded roads of Ulaanbaatar.

After settling into our hostel in Ulaanbaatar, we began the process of contacting our leads in the LGBT community. After telling other travelers about our project here, their inevitable reaction was disbelief: “What?! You’ll have a hard time finding LGBT people here! It can’t be done!” It was as if gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people were gnomes living in caves underground, coming out only to feed at night, then scurrying back again to safety of the damp, dark earth. The reality was far different, and we had no trouble finding LGBT folks by the handful. They were falling out of trees and onto our laps, like a bounty of red, ripe apples. We came to know our first contact, Anaraa through, interestingly, Maggie’s dad in Florida (who is not gay as one person asked but had happened to attend a conference for professors along with an LGBT activist, who had recently met Anaraa at another conference). Anaraa, a 30-something female-to-male trans person, gave us the directions to his bar named 100%–the only LGBT bar in Mongolia–which was luckily located near our hostel. Outside, the bar was pretty non-descript except for the sign, and was located within a dusty, soviet-built concrete building. Inside, the bar radiated with warmth and positive, relaxed energy, as LGBT Mongolians lounged on the couches, drinking Chinggis- brand beer and chatting with one-another while smoking thin cigarettes.

On this evening, and in our subsequent interview with Anaraa, we learned that he had co-founded the LGBT Centre in Ulaanbaatar, and now concentrates his energy on co-running the bar. Smiling, he shared with us the inspiration for opening his bar– to be closer to his community and provide them with a space where they can feel free to be who they are. About a year ago, Anaraa was physically assaulted in his own bar by a man who was not of the LGBT community. The guy had reached over the bar and punched Anaraa in the face, crushing an eye socket. The trial happened to be going on while we were there, and unfortunately, the man who assaulted Anaraa was let off the hook without a conviction. Hate crimes are not recognized in Mongolia. We interviewed Anaraa in his bar only a couple days after the trial, and he seemed frustrated by the verdict but his spirits were on their way up, and it was clear he was not going to go down without a very strong and very worthy fight.

Our second contact was a gay man (also in his 30’s) named Otgoo, who is the current executive director of the LGBT Centre. We met with him in the cozy LGBT Centre headquarters (established in 2007, it was the first of its kind in Mongolia), where we admired their collection of LGBT themed books and anti-discrimination posters awaiting distribution. As we interviewed Otgoo, we discovered that he is, quite possibly, the sweetest person in the world. His smile was shy yet infectious, and it was clear that he has a huge heart. Otgoo told us that homosexuality was finally decriminalized in 2002, but that many people are, unfortunately, still very homophobic. He explained that religion doesn’t seem to play a part in homophobia here (the main religion, Buddhism, is relatively accepting of different sexual orientations). However some people feel that homosexuality and transgenderism have been brought in from “the West” especially in the recent tide of foreign investors and travelers (and although we know this isn’t true, Katie and I don’t mind taking some of the credit for such a wonderful importation).

Otgoo (above, on right, with Young) mentioned that things have changed substantially after socialism ended–LGBT folks who had been forced to keep their sexuality on the down-low (homosexuality was a crime in Soviet times) were now able to begin to inch their way out of the closet. However, Otgoo shared with us his worry that many LGBT people aren’t able to get the info they need, especially in the somewhat isolated countryside, and he mentioned that although information is available online, one would have to have a pretty good grasp on the English or Russian language to understand it (since there is little to no LGBT literature available in Mongolian — another fact the LGBT Centre is trying to change.) We learned from Otgoo that there has been a recent rise in sometimes violent nationalism, in reaction to all of the gold and coal-rush foreigners. Some Mongolians compare these nationalists to neo-nazis, and they are often responsible–though not held responsible– for hate crimes against people in the LGBT community, as LGBT folks seem to embody what the radicals view as another western importation .

We did our third interview in the apartment home of a cute, hip and awesomely funny young woman named Azaa, a 21 year-old lesbian. She mentioned in her interview that most people who know her, know that she is gay, and added that she’s encountered few problems from others because of her sexuality. She has been able to meet other members of the LGBT community relatively easily, mainly through friends, the Internet and the bar, 100%.

In between interviews, Katie and I left the city to explore the country-side, staying in gers (yurts) with families and riding horses and camels to ovoos (sacred piles of stones) and monastaries. We were fed rice with mutton, noodles with mutton and soup with mutton, and were offered countless bowls of airag (fermented mare’s milk). When eating the mutton, Katie and I created a “fat corner” system on our plates, where we deposited un-chewable fat pieces. Sometimes I hid them under noodles, and when we were done, we handed the bowls to small Mongolian children, who would then eat the rest of it. It was a good system. We played chess with children when they could steal time away from their herding duties, and in another household we sat silently for long periods of time with a sweet and relatively ancient 89 year-old woman (115 to those of us in the Western world), who cooked the meals and ran the household while we waited in vain for our absentee host to come back and tend to us.

On another trip to the country-side, we drove down a long bumpy road to a valley dotted with gers, yaks, horses, goats and sheep. We star-gazed with other travelers and rode horses to a giant waterfall, where the mist from the rushing water created an amorphous and slightly magical and rainbow. We were so intrigued with the people and landscape of Mongolia that we extended it for another week, so we could be there a full month. On our last evening, we arranged dinner at a local restaurant called Burgers and Fries (which actually has amazing food), and invited our new LGBT friends, and as we gathered around the table we sat amazed that we had managed to make such meaningful friendships in such a brief time.

We left Mongolia scratching our heads at the complexity of the whole country: the jarring growth of the dusty city, the amazing and vast beauty of the countryside, and the state of things for our LGBT brothers and sisters there. We left the country somewhat reluctantly, but with a plethora of fast Face-book friends (who we knew where also real friends), curious to see the adventures our next destination had in store for us.

by Alexa Schirtzinger & Maggie Young
Source – Santa Fe Reporter