I can understand the reservation some people might have about traveling to Mongolia, which I’ll get into greater detail regarding the main concerns. While I would encourage anyone from anywhere to visit Mongolia and experience our beautiful country, there are still some things you should be aware of, so let’s get into it.
Are Mongolian People Racist?
Generally being a homogeneous country, Mongolian people don’t necessarily discriminate against one another despite having a wide range of physical appearances. From the Kazakh minorities to Buryats, and other sub-ethnicities, we all share similar cultural roots and history; plus we all look very similar in one sense, so discrimination based on ethnicity/clan is something that’s almost unheard of. HOWEVER,
There is a prevailing attitude amongst Mongolian people, mostly the older generation, to be wary of Chinese people and other countries that have Chinese influence. Inner-Mongolians, although being Mongolian themselves, are sometimes seen with suspicion since they have assimilated and integrated more into Chinese culture.
History and propaganda play a role in this attitude, so it goes a long way back. Chinese travelers and people who may be mistaken for Chinese will, unfortunately, face some form of subtle discrimination and prejudice. Though media outlets blew things out of proportion such as the violent attacks against Chinese migrant workers, there seems to be a fear among Chinese and South-East Asians to be targeted for attacks. That’s rarely the case. As long as you have some common sense, avoid bad neighborhoods, and don’t go near drunk Mongolians, people won’t bother you or give you trouble, at least in Ulaanbaatar. For touring the countryside, I would advise booking a trip with a tour agency and have someone to vouch for you.
For non-Chinese-looking people, the locals won’t bother you nor have any prejudice, but you should know some common scams in Ulaanbaatar and make sure to not be taken advantage of in taxis or shops. Well-established shops and businesses won’t be a problem, but 3-rd party vendors and shops near resorts, etc may try to take advantage of you. Other than that, you will get a few stares of curiosity here and there when traveling through the countryside. Even I myself as an ethnic Mongolian have people staring because of my “European-ish” looks and traits, but they are mostly just out of curiosity and intrigue.
Petty Crimes, Robberies, and Scams
As of 2018, robberies and violent crimes have significantly decreased due to better surveillance, stricter laws, and stronger police presence in Ulaanbaatar. Before 2015, I even as a native Mongolian, had instances of getting mugged and robbed, but it’s a lot better now, and no incident of that sort for the past 6 years or so.
Though violent crime is not something to worry about, in certain neighborhoods and districts make sure to be aware of your surroundings and take note of your belongings. Pickpockets, a mob of kids trying to sell you something, scams are still things you should be careful of, especially around touristy parts of Ulaanbaatar.
When you are traveling through the countryside, it is always advised to have a local guide or someone you trust to show you around. Backpacking around the countryside by yourself can be dangerous, especially if you don’t know the Mongolian language and are not prepared.
Villages, “Soums” as we call it, are technologically lagging and are underdeveloped. Corruption is still an issue (though it has greatly improved), so in smaller municipals and counties you might run into organized scams, which is why a trusted local guide is always the best choice!
Nationalism and Xenophobia
Culturally Mongolian people have always been welcoming and provide warm hospitality towards guests, but do know that while Mongolians are warm and friendly people, there is immense pride and a sense of nationalism, so getting on their bad side is best to be avoided.
Political correctness and passive-aggression is something that is non-existent. It might be a cultural shock to realize how Mongolian people can be so blunt and direct with their words and actions. Men especially do not tolerate disrespect and may challenge you to a fight if you’re considered being rude.
It’s best advised to avoid any politically opposed opinion related to Chinese and Mongolian topics. It’s considered rude and offensive to equate Chinese people with Mongolian people, so any touchy subject regarding politics, culture, and history is to be avoided if you happen to chat up a local or a stranger. If you have good Mongolian friends this does not apply, but it still will cause some friction.
Alcohol and Mongolians can be a bad combination, so unless you’re partying with friends or being accompanied by a group of people, going to nightclubs, bars, and such at late hours solo could pose risks if you are seen talking with the local women. Mongolian men are protective of women and do not necessarily like seeing foreigners flirting with them. If you want to meet the local women, it’s best to meet them through your social circle rather than nightclubs and bars in Mongolia.
Interracial relationships are still taboo for Mongolian women and you may come across bad stares if you are seen being openly affectionate. Maintaining Mongolian “blood” and lineage is still seen as somewhat important, but hopefully, such narrow-minded tendencies will improve in the future as Mongolia develops as a country.
Mongolia is a fastly developing country with rich history and culture that’s very unique from East Asian countries and Western countries, so if you love exploring cultures that are distinctively different from yours, then go for it! You are always welcome in Mongolia.
While crime and corruption have significantly decreased in the past 5 years, it’s still advised to take note of your belongings to prevent pickpockets and scams. As long as you have some common sense and don’t exhibit rude behavior towards Mongolian people that stir their sense of nationalism, you should be treated with respect and warmth.