Next Great Travel Writer: Dating in Mongolia

Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows, and Suzanne Roberts, winner of the "Next Great Travel Writer" essay contest, are currently exploring Mongolia. Today, Suzanne takes a moment to suss out the intricacies of the Mongolian dating scene.

Yesterday, Keith and I came across Andy, a twenty-something redheaded American expat from Iowa who teaches English to wealthy Mongolians at the small school around the corner from the university.

He claims to like living in Mongolia except for the "brutal winters" (he says he saw his breath from September to May—the average temperature in January ranges from a high of four to a low of -16 degrees Fahrenheit). Also, Andy says that when he takes a Mongolian lady out for a date, the Mongolian men become angry because they believe that "foreigners are trying to steal their women."

After speaking with Andy, I became interested in the Mongolian dating scene, and I asked our guide Oyunaa, a beautiful young Mongolian woman (one of whom, I am sure, Andy would be happy to “steal”), about it.

Oyunaa says that a couple will date for about six months and then the father of the man will go to the family of the woman to ask for her hand.

In the countryside, the tradition is stronger, complete with the theatrics of the family’s refusal and the staged “kidnapping” of the bride. Over dinner at the posh Winter Palace, I ask Oyunaa about Mongolians marrying foreigners. She says, “That’s okay," but adds, “just not Chinese."

I ask her what will happen if she married a Chinese man, and she responds by laughing at such an impossibility and then says, “My father will kill me." To see if this is the case with other young women, I ask Nomingerel, the travel agent working in my hotel, the same questions and get roughly the same answers, so when I press and ask, "But what if you fell in love with a Chinese man and married him. What then?”

With a deadpan face, Nomingerel answers, “Then I kill myself." Interestingly, the Mongolians have forgiven the Russians for the Stalin-era purges led by the communist Mongolian government–purges that destroyed more than 700 monasteries and killed tens of thousands of monks–but they haven’t forgiven the Chinese for colonization. According to Nomingerel, "The Russians are our brothers."

"And if you marry a Russian?” I ask.
“That’s okay."
"Many girls do–for the money."
"No problem."
"And American?”
"Yes, that’s okay, too."

As it turns out, the young Mongolian men might not like an expat like Andy dating the women, but the fathers of Mongolia are fine with it. The Mongolians, in general, seem to like Americans, especially the music. Yesterday, we listened to the American hits of the 80’s over Mongolian BBQ (I have eaten more red meat here in three days than I have in the last ten years—no exaggeration). And as I write this, Madonna is singing “Beautiful Stranger” over the radio. Apparently, President Bush visited Mongolia in 2005 and called the U.S. their “third neighbor’ after China and Russia, though I can’t figure that one out, perhaps via Alaska? At any rate, the “third neighbor” business went over exceedingly well. Personally, I have found our “third neighbors” here in Ulaanbaatar warm and welcoming, and I look forward to exploring the other "face of Mongolia,” the nomadic culture of the countryside.

Photo: A beautiful young woman in an advertisement for a Mongolian clothing company, by Suzanne Roberts