Yesterday, I wrote a little about the Mongolian people’s success as empire builders. Part of their success was due to an intense fighting spirit that — I discovered — lives on today.

Cell service doesn’t yet exist in the Mongolian Steppe, which meant I was “off the grid” for the three days I was there.

As an aside, that was wonderful! There was more time to read and enjoy the scenery. During dinner, someone would pose a question and we’d reach for our phones to “Google” the answer. Then we’d realize we’d have to rack our brains instead. It was a welcome respite. If you haven’t taken a sabbatical from your cell, please consider doing so.

But, after three days of being out of touch,  it was time to call my Mom and check in. As we wrapped up our conversation, I heard breaking glass and some yelling. Lots of yelling.

I jumped off the phone as quickly as I could hoping my dear, darling mother hadn’t heard the commotion. I didn’t want her to think I was in any trouble. Which I was. Not since Paraguay have I been in such danger.

You see, a fight was breaking out at the table next to mine in the hotel restaurant. A big fight. And it was only 6:30 in the evening.

Ulaanbaatar is an attractive city of 1.38 million people. Is that the White House in the middle? No, just a hotel…

Now, in order to set the context, I’ve got to tell you this is a pretty nice hotel. Probably one of the best in Ulaanbaatar. Come to think of it, I saw the US Ambassador to Mongolia here just before I left for the Steppe. She didn’t look like a fighter.

As the yelling became more intense, one man jumped to his feet and began pointing at another man (as you now know, that’s very rude here).

I don’t know why they were fighting. All of their yelling was in Mongolian and I only know the word for “Thank you.” It’s “Baidislah” and – understandably – I didn’t hear either of them say that.

I’ve decided to label the man who was yelling the “Instigator” and the man who was being yelled at the “Victim.”

The city has some kid-friendly public art. It was awkward. But there are no fighters there.

It’s also worth noting that there was a large (nearly empty) bottle of vodka in the middle of the table.

A woman stood up and attempted to break up the fight.

She tried to intervene by pulling the Instigator away from the Victim. It didn’t work. The Instigator was quite large. He started punching the Victim. A contingent of waiters appeared, they tried to help, too. It was useless, though. He was a man on a rampage. Did I mention wrestling is the national sport here? Everyone fights here. Indeed, the current President Khaltmaagiin Battulga is a former wrestler.

Visions of the peaceful Mongolian Steppe danced through my head as the punches were flying.

Now, of course, I was about to step in and set everyone straight when a massive group of massive Security Officers showed up. They were even bigger than the Instigator. Requiring more effort than I would have predicted, they successfully dragged him away and into the hotel elevator. And thankfully! I mean, can you imagine if I’d had to get involved? My fists are registered weapons in 17 states (and Puerto Rico)! The Instigator would have been dead, I’m sure of it…

Once I was confident the Instigator wasn’t coming back, I asked an Australian sitting nearby whether that was common.

“Absolutely! See this?” He pointed to a huge scar that ran from his hairline down along his temple to his ear.


“A Mongolian guy didn’t like the way I looked so he bashed me on the head with a bottle as I got into my car.”

To be fair, this guy was Australian, so there’s probably more to the story…

I immediately asked for my check and headed out when the Victim stopped me and asked in broken English,

“Why you no drink this fine Mongolian vodka? Join us.”

He’d ordered a new bottle to replace the now-broken one.

“Sorry, I’m tired.”

“Here. Sit. Drink with us,” he commanded.

Uh oh…That’s clearly not a good idea. I’m not too proud to admit to you that my heart was pounding in my ears. Remember what I said about my fists being registered weapons? Umm…that might have been hyperbole…

“Errrmmm…I have to go to bed. Thank you anyway.”

I’m all for new experiences, but that just seemed dumb. Am I right? I remember walking smartly to the elevator, but a keen observer would have called it “running.” I repeatedly pressed the Up button until the doors opened.

When I got to my room, I locked the door and pushed a chair in front of it for good measure.

The Tuul River

But let’s face it. I shouldn’t have been surprised by all of this violence. This was the second fight I’d seen that day, after all. On the way back into town, traffic suddenly stopped when a man ran out of his car. He pulled a pedestrian to the ground and began beating him. I’m guessing they knew one another.

We just drove around the now-driverless car while my tour guide did her best to distract me “Look over there at that amazing architecture,” pointing in the other direction. When I didn’t look, she shielded my eyes.

“Mongolians are very peaceful!!” she said enthusiastically.

I prefer the Steppe.

But the legacy of the Great Mongolian Empire wasn’t just about fighting.

Genghis Khan made the Silk Road much safer and more reliable by creating regular stops and increasing the presence of troops to prevent crime.

Kublai, his grandson, would introduce writing and paper currency. The arts flourished under the Khans. As did commerce. It was a true golden age for the world.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer some reflections on my time in Mongolia. And from there, we head to Jeju Island in South Korea!