Alcoholism is a problem in Mongolia. I imagine it is a problem anywhere poverty and alcohol exist, but it is quite a visible part of everyday life here.
Chinggis Khaan conquered much of the known world in his time, and he encountered many new and interesting traditions and customs. One thing he encountered was alcohol. They had not encountered many of the spirits that inhabited the lands of the recently conquered. What most don’t know is that Chinggis laid forth rules about the consumption of alcohol when it came to his people.
In his Yasa, he lays out rules for drunkenness, explaining that if it cannot be avoided, men can only become drunk three times a month. He was, however, realistic. He knew that outright prohibition would fail, because “where shall we find a man who never drinks?”
In the present day, no one really follows these rules anymore. The sight of staggering people completely hammered at 10AM is not surprising. In some communities, you have the local drunken crowd, but in other areas, the crowd is more of a swarm. The statistics from recent years paints a somewhat bleak picture.
Recently, a photo series by a Spanish photographer has been making the rounds among Mongolia PCVs. The man sought out the fabled orphans of Ulaan Baatar who live in the sewers of the city. Instead, he found the sewers occupied by alcoholics: destitute, jobless, and hiding from the frigid Mongolian winter.
Dealing with drunks can be difficult at best, frightening at worst. I am fortunate in that all of my encounters have just been mildly bothersome. My first encounter involved me walking down the one street in my village over the summer. The drunks usually sat on the edge of the paved portion and drank in front of the shops. The problem with these men is that if they spot you, especially if you’re foreign, they will jog towards you. This particular gentleman was lively and, as soon as he saw me, sprang up and began waving his hands, shouting “Hey! Hey!” I quickened my pace but he was too fast. When drunks talk to you, one of two things will happen:
1. They put out their hand to shake yours. It’s a common greeting in Mongolia, to clasp hands, but the highly intoxicated and down-on-their-luck use it to clench your hand and ask for money. It happens more with older men.
2. They grab your forearm and speak to you. Mongolian alcoholics have incredible grip.
My new friend chose the latter. He began rambling, and I think he invited me to drink with him and his buddies. I tried to pull away, but he continued to hold my arm, waiting for my response. I was worried and uncomfortable, so I said “Hello!” quite forcefully and pulled my arm away. This startled him, and he just stared at me. Saddened at the loss of a new drinking partner, he walked back to his seat on the edge of the road. I power-walked home.
It’s sad to see them sometimes: Sun-charred skin stretched over their saddened eyes like leather, sitting in the sun in the summer and who-knows-where in winter. One can only hope that more rehab programs are put into place for those who want to quit, especially those souls that are isolated and yearning in the countryside.