By REBECCA COOK
Before I came to Mongolia, I read the recommendations on the UK Government page for traveling to the country. It became rapidly clear that Ulaanbaatar did not sound like a particularly inviting place to visit.
When I told people I would imminently be traveling to “The Land of Blue Sky”, their responses were usually ones of wonderment. “Lucky you, going to such a remote and interesting country,” they would say.
Yet, a handful replied to the news with a shiver of anxiety. I have heard it is quite dangerous there. The capital city has a bad reputation for being, what one robbed blogger deemed, the “pickpocket capital of the world”. I was lathered in shocking story after a distressing tale. It became apparent that the act of pick pocketing was one in a dizzying array of different methods aiming to part people with their money: bags were slashed or snatched, pockets torn off entirely, gaggles of children harassed people for notes, unofficial taxi drivers fleeced visitors and held their luggage hostage until they choked up every MNT on them. A continuously growing problem of opportunistic theft has been a burden to tourists for years. However, when I boarded my flight I decided to maintain a perspective in between the two extremes; one of cautious optimism.
My optimism was swiftly dashed on my third day in the city, when a kindly fellow decided to liberate me of my mobile phone by force in my apartment building stairway. I assure the reader at this point that this tale of woe is not an emotional appeal, but a cautionary tale. I remember how I had silently scoffed when told of how other volunteers had recently been relieved of their mobile phones in Ulaanbaatar.
I will take more care, I thought. That will never happen to me, I thought.
This misplaced pride and foolish arrogance was instantly eradicated. My personal sense of infallibility collapsed and Ulaanbaatar metamorphosed into a sinister syndicate in my mind. I was now endowed with a chronic distrust for each person I passed on the pavement. I began constantly surveying the crowds. Would that man steal from me, I wondered. Probably not. Yet, he could.
I would walk home and feel I was being carefully watched and appraised by malign eyes judging how it would be best to seize the contents of my backpack. I was startled by my own exhausting paranoia and eventually came to the self-evident conclusion that not everyone is a menacing delinquent out to get me.
Mongolia’s National Police Agency statistics of 2014 indicate an overall increase in the crime rate, by 11.2 percent, from the previous year. Petty crime, an apt name for a cowardly exercise, is most common; incidences of pick pocketing were reported to have increased by 37.6 percent. It is cause for uneasiness that instances of violent crime similarly are on the rise, with a surge in accounts of foreigners being robbed and assaulted, as thieves have been found to pull out knives if they are confronted. For this reason, few onlookers to pick pocketing intervene. Tourists appear to be the ideal lucrative target; they are naive to the local tricks of thievery, they often have a gleaming collection of gadgets and proffer their money far too brazenly. This has resulted in The Chinggis Khan airport turning into a pick pocketing hotbed; bleary eyed newcomers, racked with fatigue and craving a shower, pour out into the arrivals alcove and do not think they need to mind their money yet. So, others choose to mind it for them. Mongolian locals are hardly immune to the perennial sticky fingers, but they are infinitely more shrewd and streetwise than foreigners. Mongolia inherited a host of things from Russia; it’s alphabet, it’s former communist government and its vodka culture. The excessive drinking that has become the norm in Ulaanbaatar is doing little to remedy the problem. At night the streets are given over to the multitude of booze hounds who have been known to resort to violent threats to acquire the funds of unfortunate bystanders.
My dealings with the local police force, as I strived to file a police report, were unnecessarily protracted. They seemed inured to tales such as mine, and approached them with an apathy that did little to cement my faith in their abilities and dedication to eradicating a blatant criminal problem in the city.
Ulaanbaatar is becoming one of the world’s capitals for theft. Organized crime outfits trawl the city’s attractions, stalking prey with discretion. The members of these groups are professionals, each possessing ample experience in the art of deprivation. When posing the serious question of what is being done to combat this problem, the answer appears to be resounding silence. The crux of my Mongolian dilemma is wrestling with my contradictory feelings of gratitude and wonder for the generous and kind people I have met, in contention with my anxiety and frustration that it seems everyone is trying to rob and swindle me. It is an utter shame that people’s pleasant experiences of Mongolia are often marred by such actions. My advice: only visit if you have decent travel insurance.
A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Being Pick Pocketed: For The Meek and Unassuming
The five-step guide to ensure those crooks gather a healthy bounty of money, mobile phones, credit cards and identification
- Be in the right place at the right time
The best time of year to have your pocket picked in Ulaanbaatar is during the Naadam festival. The city streets pulsate with life and excitement; a potent mix that spurs on the thieving Everyman. But, fret not, if you are not in the capital city in July this year, there are other times of year when the pick pockets are equally as industrious: the New Year’s and Tsagaan Sar, when countless tourists and locals alike have had their bags made lighter by opportunistic whippersnappers. Where in Ulaanbaatar should you locate yourself? Peace Avenue, the strip of road that serves as the backbone of the city, is something of a pick pocketing heartland, so chances are you can’t go wrong milling near the State Department Store on that bustling street. Another option is the Black Market, ominously named so for a reason, outside the city center, and devoid of those pesky policemen who could potentially interfere with the robbing action.
- Hone your appearance
The cunning thieves of this city have been known to prey on tourists in particular, so if you are visiting Ulaanbaatar and would like to be relieved of your belongings, you are probably in luck. You need to fashion your person into a swindler’s advertisement; dress bold to attract attention, wear a backpack, the pickpocket’s cherished friend, and flap your wallet around at any chance you get.
- Plunge yourself into the depths of a crowd
The jumbled and thronging clusters of people are the optimal pickpocketing spots. Once in among the masses, assume the stereotypical expression of the mesmerized tourist, gazing up at the buildings and sights around you. Pick pockets will most likely be watching you and will seize the opportunity while you are preoccupied.
Buses are a thief’s Arcadia. The wheezing workhorses that constitute Mongolian public transport are desperately congested with people jostling to get on, get off or simply stay upright. In this daily pandemonium a hand can seamlessly slip into a pocket or bag unnoticed.
If you dislike the stifling sensation of these crowds, a less obtrusive option is to fall prey to pilfering while engrossed in a laptop screen or textbook in an Internet cafe.
- Carry all your worldly possessions on your person
This step requires a great deal of ignorance to the inevitable advice of others to take precautionary measures such as buying a money belt to stash your cash around your midriff, away from prying eyes, or removing the array of crucial rectangular plastic (credit cards, driver’s license, identification) from your wallet. If you take them out and put them in a safe at home, how are pick pockets supposed to get their light fingers on them?
- Welcoming personal space infringement
The pick pockets of Ulaanbaatar truly are artful dodgers. Many of the previous steps may not even be necessary if you’re urging for a purge of possessions; they will probably get their larcenous hands on them without you even having tried to attract their attentions. Their teamwork is something to be praised as is their mastery in the art of distraction. The deed usually occurs while you are thrown off balance thanks to a rough shove from a human obstacle in front of your person. You will instinctively aim to eradicate the path blockage they pose, in which your bodies will resemble the metaphorical sardines in a tin. This is when an anonymous hand from behind makes contact and extracts an asset, unbeknownst to its owner.