Young women make up most of the clientele at the UB comedy club in Ulaanbaatar. Photograph: Byamba-Ochir Byambasuren/MPA for the Guardian
But by outpacing men, Mongolian women in the city, many of whom stayed on after university to work, struggle to find partners the way their parents did. The marriage rate in Ulaanbaatar has fallen to 8.9 per 1,000 people in 2016, from 22.9 in 2007, according to the countrys statistics office.
Women in the city complain that there is a shortage of eligible men. In a way they are right. Home to half of the countrys three million people, the city has about 60,000 more women then men. At universities and in the workplace there are often far more women than men. These men are more likely to be taken: almost 40% of men in urban areas over the age of 15 are married, compared with only 32% of women.
Mongolian women face the dual cultural pressures of establishing a career and getting married before the age of 29, preferably earlier. For women who are older, the calculation changes. Zola [not her real name], 39, a former economist, has been looking for a long-term partner for several years now, since returning from doing a masters degree abroad. She has tried dating events and having friends set her up. She once visited a shaman. Recently, she decided to adjust her initially high standards.
Now Im thinking he should just care and accept me. Im not looking for money, or for very good education. He doesnt have to be successful as long as he is kind, listens and takes care of me. Thats all.
Its not just the numbers. Many say the issue is a mismash of attitudes and expectations. Young girls are taught they should succeed, then you succeed and theres no equal partner for you. The social pressure is for you to get married but finding an equal partner is very hard, says Alimaa Altangerel, a columnist who writes about social issues. Manduhai Tsogtbal, 32, an entrepreneur who runs an online translation services company, has been starting businesses since she was a student. While getting an MBA degree in the US, she bought the Thai restaurant where she had worked as a waitress and turned it into a more profitable sushi bar. She can tell men dont appreciate it when she challenges their business ideas. I can sense it, she says. A lot of my girl friends and guy friends suggest I shut up, be dumb and ask more questions.
A survey released in March by the World Bank found Mongolian men in their 20s often described women as more ambitious than men, a trait they found unattractive. Some wondered why women invested so much in their education, given that it increased their risk of not being able to find a husband.
Bulganchimeg Gantulga, 19, a university student studying political science, says men her age always catcall women who wear short skirts. She says these men, even her classmates, are often behind when it comes to
gender and LGBT rights. She is considering never marrying at all.
When men dont respect women, its obvious what kind of husband they will be, Bulganchimeg says.
Mongolias reverse gender gap, and the difficulties women and men have relating to one another, illustrate how little attention is paid to the poor state of the countrys men, according to Boldbaatar Tumur, head of the Mens Association in Govismber province.
Thousands of men lost their jobs in the privatisation of state-owned companies in the 1990s, as
Mongolia transitioned from a communist system, and they still have not recovered. NGOs and the government focus more on women than on men, who face rising rates of alcoholism, as well as unemployment, he says. Women have started to look down on Mongolian men because they have fallen far behind. No woman wants to live with an under-educated, impolite man. On the other side, men feel women are looking for men who are wealthier and more educated, Tumur says.
At Caffe Bene, a trendy Korean coffee chain in central Ulaanbaatar, almost all the tables are occupied by young women on their own. One sits with her shopping bags on a chair, typing on her phone. Another reads a comic, while the woman across from her peers at a laptop. Single women in Mongolia face a certain stigma, which makes dating even harder. The Lunar New Year holiday, a time for family reunions, is especially hard: women inevitably face questions about their marital status. You feel like youre being blamed for being single, says Solongo Bold, a single mother of two who works at a mining company.
They also face a relatively conservative dating culture. Rather than meet in bars or clubs, single Mongolians often find each other on Facebook or Instagram, chatting over private message, away from the public eye. For flirting Instagram is effective, but for talking Facebook is better, says Tsogtbal. Clubs and bars in Ulaanbaatar have begun holding speed-dating events, but people are sometimes embarrassed to attend, says Bat-Ulzii Altantsetseg, head of an events group called UB Nights. Now, instead of singles nights, they hold partner parties where men and women are assigned random pairs of numbers. He says usually 60% of attendees are women.
For Anna Battulga, 25, a recent graduate working in human resources, dating seems different from how it was for her parents, who met in the 1980s in Ulaanbaatar when Mongolia was still under a communist system.
The audience at the UB comedy club. Photograph: Byamba-Ochir Byambasuren/MPA for the Observer
Her mother was a shop assistant and her father a police officer who, after meeting Battulgas mother, came to inspect the shop every week, scaring the owner. Eventually they started going to the cinema where her father would translate the films, available only in Russian, into Mongolian for her mother. After a few months he nervously asked if his parents could come to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, a Mongolian tradition.
Battulga is more likely to meet someone on Facebook, Instagram or Tinder which she has just started using. She flicks through several pages of profiles, skipping anyone who has posted a landscape photo, as well as any foreigners.
The number of people on the app is much higher now than it was a few years ago, she says. When asked about a popular Mongolian phrase that translates roughly as your soulmate will be waiting for you on your path, she pauses. I think thats unrealistic.
Additional reporting by Munkhchimeg Davaasharav