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Interview with Zorig from Ulaanbaatar: owner of the only gay bar in Mongolia

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Interview with Zorig from Ulaanbaatar: owner of the only gay bar in Mongolia

During our travels in Mongolia, we spent a lot of time in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar during the popular Naadam festival, where we discovered a subtle gay scene.

Despite being a very traditionally conservative country, we found Mongolia's only gay bar! Whilst there is no official gay scene here to report of, using Grindr, we were able to find out details of one LBGTQ hangout in the city.

It goes by various names, and frequently changes names, locations, but has historically been called Hanzo and currently is called Irish House. The current location is around 500m north from Sükhbaatar Square, next to the Germany Embassy.

We met the owner of Mongolia's only gay bar – a very charismatic guy called Zorig Alima, who gave the crowd the most unique performance of Swan Lake we've ever seen! We sat Zorig down who told us what it's like growing up gay in Mongolia and his experience of setting up and owning a gay bar in Ulaanbaatar.

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Hi Zorig! Tell us a bit about yourself:

Good morning Nomadic Boys. My name is Zorig Alima.

I am a Mongolian gay guy from the Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar. I work full time as an accountant for the Mongolian Railway in Ulaanbaatar. However, during my spare time, I own and operate the only gay bar in Mongolia, usually performing on weekends in a variety of drag and other outfits I have tucked away in my fabulous closet!

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Are you openly gay?

I am openly gay to my family and friends who fully support me as well as my gay bar. I'll be honest though, it wasn't a very easy coming out experience. I came out quite late in life when I was in my late 20s because it took me a long time to accept who I was. When I did, my parents did not initially accept it, but after many conversations and tears, we've reached a mutual point of love and respect for each other.

I have not formally come out to my colleagues but I wouldn't be surprised if they've worked it out by now. That's not to say that I'm ashamed of being gay in any way – simply that I haven't had the chance to come out to them, nor have I felt the need to do so.

Zorig Alima owner of d.d / h.z gay bar
Zorig Alima: the very charismatic owner of Mongolia's only gay bar

What is gay Mongolia like?

Overall, Mongolia is a very conservative country. We had a very socialist past, which made homosexuality a crime and mental disorder. Up until very recently, being gay here was a big taboo.

Today, Mongolia is one of the more gay-friendly countries of Asia and things are rapidly changing. Homosexuality was legalised in 1993 (it's still illegal in most places in Asia sadly), and since 2017, an array of anti-discrimination laws were passed. This included sexual orientation as part of the hate crime laws. Mongolia is also pretty trans-friendly (by Asian standards!): we've had the right to change legal gender since 2009. There is obviously a long way to go, but at least things are moving in the right direction.

Also, Ulaanbaatar has a Pride event every August called the Equality Walk. This includes an awesome parade through downtown, with a concert, art gallery, film festival and of course, culminating with a fabulous party at my bar!

Zorig owner of gay bar in Ulan Bator
Zorig preparing for all the Ulaanbaatar Pride festivities

How did you meet other guys growing up?

Many years ago, we would meet at parks and public toilets and there were sometimes monthly gay nights organised at word-of-mouth venues.

The growth of the internet over the past 10-20 years has changed things massively for the gay community and made it easier than ever to meet.

But in the old days, it used to be pretty hard to find “one of your kind”!

What's the gay scene of Ulaanbaatar like?

Ulaanbaatar is a fast-changing city with 1.5 million people of a total population of 3 million in the whole country. However, the gay life here is still fairly closed. Things are changing, but very slowly and outside of Ulaanbaatar there is no gay scene. 

Currently, my bar is the only official gay bar in Mongolia, but we were not the first. 

The first gay bar opened in 2004 called “City Life” but only lasted a few months due to lack of attendance from the LGBTQ community. There was nothing for 7 years until 2011 when a bar called “100%” opened. However, it only lasted for around half a year because the homophobic landlords terminated the lease.

I opened Hanzo in April 2012 and it has been going strong since. I have had to rebrand and change location several times. For example, at one stage I called it “d.d / h.z” and more recently, it goes by the name of “Irish House”.

Zorig and friend at Hanzo gay club Ulan Bator
Zorig and one of the performers at his gay bar

Where is your gay bar located exactly and what's it like?

We are located around 500 metres north from the main square of Ulaanbaatar – Sükhbaatar Square. We are located next door to the German Embassy.

It's a lot of fun inside. We get a decent mix of locals and foreigners (gays and straights) coming. Fridays and Saturdays are our busiest nights, from around 10 pm. We're open till around 3/4am and I think for gay travelers in Mongolia, it's the best way to connect and meet with local LGBTQ Mongolians. I can tell you with confidence that my bar is a lot of fun, which is why people love coming back.

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Is it easy finding performers for your drag shows?

Yes, it is!

Finding drag queens in Mongolia is always a struggle because there aren't that many here. I am always scouring social media watching other drag performers across Asia and have on occasion invited more high profile performers over for big special occasions, such as our big opening night.

Whilst we do have a handful of local Mongolian drag queens, what usually ends up happening is me grabbing my latest outfit and doing it all myself (I love this of course!)

 

Did you have any problems when you first opened a gay bar in Ulaanbaatar?

Yes, we did. The police were so ignorant about gay bars that they thought we were just promoting adultery and prostitution. As a result, there were many police raids initially.

As a result of police raids, the gay community of Ulaanbaatar wanted to remain firmly hidden in the closet, so getting customers was a big struggle in the early years.

Has the situation for gay life in Ulaanbaatar since changed?

It has improved a lot because overall attitudes in Mongolia towards gays has improved. The police have started to understand that being gay does not automatically mean sex and now cooperate with us on issues like prostitution.

A few years ago, my former bar, Hanzo, was one of only two bars mentioned in a popular Mongolian magazine as the “top 50 places you must visit in Ulaanbaatar”, which helped the LGBTQ community start to appreciate us and gain the courage to come out to us! 

The translated quote in this magazine said:

“Although people have a perception of it being a gay bar, we would vote for it as one of the very few underground places in Ulaanbaatar, where the most open-minded people gather. Organising many unique and interesting events, and giving pleasant surprises of new music makes it the place to visit”.

Mongolian drag act at Hanzo
A Mongolian drag act at Zorig's fabulous gay bar

What advice do you have for gay tourists visiting Mongolia?

Mongolians welcome foreigners and I definitely recommend trying to meet a few locals using social media apps like Grindr, Hornet or Jack'd.

Obviously, head on down to my bar and say hello to meet this very friendly local 🙂

Which are the best gay/gay-friendly hotels in Ulaanbaatar you recommend?

Gay-friendly accommodation is not so easy to find in Ulaanbaatar as this is something Mongolians are still waking up to. Obviously, you can't go wrong with the large international chains, and in recent years more local hotels and guesthouses have started being more open-minded, accepting all sexual orientations:

KEMPINSKI HOTEL KHAN PALACE   Book online

  • This is a big hotel used to dealing with Westerners.
  • I believe this is where you guys stayed whilst in Ulaanbaatar. I also had a few friends who stayed there when they came to visit me and they have always felt welcomed and accepted. 

SUNPATH HOTEL   Book online

  • this hostel is run by a lovely open-minded woman called Doljmaa, who will also help you with organising a tour around the country.
  • Foreign gay friends have stayed in this hostel in the past with no problems.
 

What are some of the highlights you recommend for gay travelers to Mongolia?

The most popular thing I recommend for all travelers is to hire a van (and a guide) and take a tour around the country, especially in the Gobi Desert – the largest desert in all of Asia! The scenery here is simply stunning, with nomadic families living in gers (yurts) in the same way they did back in the days of Genghis Khan during the 1200s and 1300s.

The other big must-see I always recommend to my friends visiting Mongolia from abroad is the Naadam Festival in July. This takes place every year and I always describe it as being the Mongolian answer to the Olympic Games. It has a really beautiful and dramatic opening ceremony in the main stadium in Ulaanbaatar, followed by the three main events of archery, horse riding, and wrestling.

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The Nomadic Boys meet and interview Mongolian gay local Zorig from Ulaanbaatar.

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Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor and author of the gay travel blog nomadicboys.com. As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about travelling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gay Times, Gaycities, Pink News, Gay Star News, Attitude and Towleroad. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practised as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

Richard Ammon

Thursday 7th of November 2019

Thanks very much for this informative update on modern Mongolia, on Ulaabaator. The LGBT scene is in slow progression, at their own authentic pace. The Equality Walk in recent years is a big step in the right direction and there are anti-discrimination laws here as well..

Stefan Arestis

Thursday 7th of November 2019

Agreed!

Myagaa

Wednesday 15th of March 2017

Can not wait to visit this summer!! I've been in Hanzo once in 2012, it was a cool place! prolly even better now... ;)

Antonio

Wednesday 9th of November 2016

Hi, wonderful. Probably going to relocate there shortly.

Nomadic boys

Wednesday 9th of November 2016

Ha!

NOM NOM Boris

Friday 26th of August 2016

What a great story! I loved it!!!! Makes me want to go and visit :)

Nomadic boys

Friday 26th of August 2016

Thanks Boris. You'd love it :)

Wednesday 3rd of August 2016

3.5