I want to start this post off by saying a lot of really cool things happened during my week in the Gobi. I met a lot of great people, did cool things, and had a lot of fun. Unfortunately, on the second-to-last day of the tour I was physically assaulted by another guest and the Golden Gobi’s reaction to the situation has left my head spinning. But before we get there, some context.
Mongolia is a developing country, and, like all developing countries (and a pretty significant portion of developed countries) it’s not the greatest of places to be a woman. I mean, Mongolia is no Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan-I can drive, and I’ll never be publicly executed for sleeping with someone-but as a woman, I have struggled from Day 1 with the way that I often find myself being treated by, or in comparison with, men. More seriously, violence against women is still a fairly acceptable part of the culture, and of my circle of female expat friends and acquaintances, nearly all of us have at one point or another been the victim of violence, rape, attempted rape, groping, or other forms of physical or sexual assault. I’ve been fairly lucky in that regard: the worst thing that’s happened to me was getting my breasts fondled by a Mongolian man who laughed when I got upset. So it’s within this culture of disturbingly acceptable levels of casual sexism and gender-based violence that I was physically assaulted in the Gobi by Jan, hereafter referred to as the Douchey Dutchman.
I booked this eight-day tour through all the coolest parts of the Gobi with the Golden Gobi, an Ulaanbaatar-based hostel and tour company that gets rave reviews by basically everyone. The Golden Gobi is a social hostel, so I booked expecting to go with a large group-so I was disappointed to learn that, thanks to some bad luck and timing, there were only going to be two of us on the tour. My travel companion was Jan-first impression: old, fat, and just the kind of creepy European to have a girlfriend half his age in the Philippines. But he seemed like an okay guy, if a bit weird, and maybe I was just jumping to conclusions based on long descriptions of the girlfriend half his age in the Philippines. And at any rate, I quickly made friends with every other group we encountered, so even when Jan was being weird, I still had friends that frequently popped up in the desert. By Day 5, however, the douche in him had come out to play, and to preserve my sanity, I found it easier to simply stop speaking to The Douchey Dutchman altogether.
What happened was this. On Day 7 of our tour, we stopped in the middle of the countryside to check out a stupa and the ruins of a former agricultural center. Jan wanted to “make a picture,” which I was in the way of. He asked me to move, and I didn’t. So the former wrestler, twice my weight and a foot taller than me, stormed up behind me, slammed me in the mouth on his way to a choke hold, shoved one arm up under my chin, grabbed the back of my neck with the other, and holding me by the neck bodily dragged me a hundred feet away as I kicked and screamed. The driver pulled him off me and stopped him from coming at me again as I’m freaking out and spitting blood from where my lip was cut against my teeth when he slammed me in the mouth.
What followed was an hour of very surreal ridiculousness. The Douchey Dutchman screamed at me that I was psycho and borderline and overreacting, while I desperately tried to get the phone number for the Golden Gobi out of guide Tsetsegmaa, who was herself trying to shush me and get me in the car by saying “it’s all fine.” When the Douchey Dutchman calmed down some, he apologized for hitting me in the face, and offered to let me hit him in the face in return-when I declined, he yelled at me to start acting normal. He then decided to reenact his choke hold so that I could understand how a) justified, and b) acceptable it was. When I screamed at him not to touch me, he called me borderline (again) and elected to reenact it on the guide. Who, by the way, was still refusing to give me the number for the Golden Gobi on the grounds that she didn’t want to get into trouble.
So I called the US embassy. The off-duty officer I spoke to was wonderfully kind and offered to get the local police involved, if that’s what I wanted. He also spoke to the guide and made it abundantly clear that a) we had to be going someplace with reception so that I could contact him, and b) I was not to sleep in the same place as this man for the rest of the trip.
Only after getting the embassy involved was I able to get the Golden Gobi’s phone number out of the guide. To say they were supremely unhelpful is being kind. I was told that perhaps I’d misunderstood what happened, I could only leave the tour at my own expense, and since it wasn’t the driver or guide who had hit me, they would in no way, shape, or form offer me any help or support in getting out of this situation.
When we finally made it to the nearby village where we were staying for the night, I was segregated from him instead of the other way around-I was told to sleep on the kitchen floor, until I protested enough that they moved me to a completely different house. Later, a higher-up in the US embassy called to talk about what happened. He was nice, but a bit condescending, telling me at one point that he understood my need for revenge (which is what we call ‘support’ nowadays, apparently), but that I should just let it go and be happier for it. The German embassy-who I also called because as a Portuguese citizen, they look out for me here-also recommended avoiding the police, but at least were slightly more vindicating about it, at one point saying “der ist ja ein merkwuerdiger Typ” (he’s a really weird dude).
The next day, after a stressful and uncomfortable eight hours of being trapped in the same car as this guy, we arrived back in UB. The Golden Gobi wanted to speak with us about what happened, we were told, but when our guide went inside to grab manager Ogie, the Douchey Dutchman took off, shoving me aside and yelling that I was insane and he had nothing to talk about. So we went to his hotel, and as you can imagine, it was not a productive meeting. Back to the Golden Gobi we went. They called the police, and we went back to his hotel with two people from the hostel to wait for them.
And thus began the worst part of this whole thing-waiting for the cops, listening to the Douchey Dutchman lie. He told everyone I was crazy. He told them he had gently bear-hugged me out of the way. He told them he’s a good guy, and he doesn’t hurt people. He told them I’m cunning and manipulative. When I told my story, he laughed in my face when I got to the part about how he apologized for hitting me, offered to let me hit him back, and reenacted the choke hold on the guide. He told them that he hadn’t hit me at all. Worst of all, he told them that I had hit myself, and that if I simply hadn’t struggled, I would have been fine. Literally: yes, I put my hands on you, but maybe next time you shouldn’t try to get away.
And the people from the Golden Gobi believed him, hook, line, and sinker. When they questioned the driver, who hadn’t seen it, he agreed that I had only been gently bear-hugged and that I was making the rest of it up. Even worse was the guide-even though he did the choke hold on her, she said it never happened, and that I was making it up.
And best of all, even though Jan had admitted to putting his hands on me (albeit not the way it actually happened), the Golden Gobi people yelled at me. They told me he would never have had to touch me if I had moved for his picture. When I asked how on earth not moving for a picture justifies being manhandled, they told me, and I quote, “We’re not talking about what he did, we’re talking about what you did.” “So it’s okay that he touched me?” “Well, you should have moved so he wouldn’t have to do that. Why didn’t you move?”
To summarize: yes, he put his hands on you, but you made him do it.
I was horrified, sad, angry, and confused. The man who hit me was lying about what had happened and saying that I had hurt myself because I had dared to try and get away. The people who saw what happened were lying, and saying it didn’t happen. And the hostel was telling me I had it coming, that I made him hit me, and that they wouldn’t be standing here dealing with this if I had simply moved out of the way of his picture. When I asked for a partial refund on this trip, on the grounds that my safety had been violated under their banner, they told me that if I wanted to guarantee my safety, I should have paid for a private tour. The true icing in the cake was when the Douchey Dutchman said I should pay him restitution for making him angry…and the Golden Gobi saw no problem with this plan. They told me to apologize to the man who physically assaulted me for making him physically assault me.
So I walked away. Maybe a stronger person would have toughed it out and waited for the cops, but as I saw it, there were a lot of people standing on that corner with a vested interest in making sure I was called a liar, and the police weren’t like to be any better, not in taking the word of a Mongolian over a foreigner, not in taking the word of a woman over a man.
What I take out of this is a stark reminder of what, as a Western woman from (two) developed countries, I have the luxury of occasionally forgetting: being a woman in most of the world, Mongolia included, means suffering under culturally and institutionally supported forms of oppression and violence, and when I am in those countries, there is no separate set of rules for me based on my passports. What I do have, much to my eternal relief and gratefulness, is a support network that thinks what happened is bullshit and unfair and reassures me that no, you do not “make” anyone hit you. Unlike the Golden Gobi, Ogie, and the Douchey Dutchman, I walk in circles where violence towards a person for something as moronic as standing in the way of a photograph is never, under any circumstances, justifiable, acceptable, or right.