By Pinky C. Serafica

On the phone, the herder said, “east.” From Ulaanbaatar, we kept heading Northeast for 290 kilometers of snow-encrusted highway, until we reached Ondorhaan (now called Chinggis City), the center of Khentii province late at night. It is November in Mongolia when winter eases in, settles and stays until February.   

Munkh, our driver, was careful, professional on that two-lane road, and patient when we had detours along the way for key interviews with survivors of domestic violence and first responders for my work. He couldn’t safely overtake slow-moving trucks of farmers bringing fur to cashmere processing areas.  Sometimes the goats, from where cashmere came from, and horses randomly sashayed on the highway to cross and nibble at the last surviving grass under the deepening snow.           

He remained patient when I kept loudly awe-ing at the cosmic show unravelling on that Mongolian night sky as the Beaver Blood Moon slowly got shadowed for the last lunar eclipse of 2022.  Even in its totality and the moon became blood red, the snowy steppes still shone in the dark competing with billions of stars in a full showdown before the moon peeked out again.   

Munkh declared, “Khentii” as we crossed the border to the birthplace of Temüjin also called Chinggis Khan—or Genghis Khan for the rest of us. Saran, a colleague, gave more magic to the already magical place, “Temüjin is buried out there somewhere in a sacred mountain or sacred steppe maybe. They kept his death secret, you know, to keep the Mongol army strong.”

Voice lowered, she added, “When we were kids, there were lots of stories that those who buried him also had to be killed so they couldn’t tell the secret that he died. Or where he was buried.”         

Munkh and Saran both switched to their language then, probably quietly debating whether to disclose more secrets to a foreign Mongolia fan. With communities intermittently scattered across the steppes and peaks, and with majority in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is the perfect host for secrets, one of which is domestic violence.

Pandemic secrets told: surviving domestic violence

Everybody feared him, she most of all. He could cross invisible bridges and rally spirits to help and heal humans in a tradition long practiced in Mongolia and Siberia. But with “Diana,” a name she preferred to be called, his power over her body, mind and soul was so absolute that for 17 years, she believed that even the spirits conspired for her abuse. (Editor’s note: To protect Diana’s safety and to honor her request, the author is not providing more specific information about her and her family other than general descriptions.)  

As clients should not give money, they “gave him vodka as payment,” she remembered, and he turned alcoholic and completely stopped doing anything except for his rituals and binge drinking. All the chores and childrearing for their younger kids, aged 12 and 10, were piled entirely on her, on top of their backyard upholstery business—their sole source of cash flow.     

His position as arbiter of fates was so exalted that even if the police knew of Diana’s domestic abuse by her husband, the community knew, his family knew, nobody wanted to anger a medium said to be chosen by spirits and anointed by ancestors.

Since tradition dictated that clients could not pay him in cash, he extracted the “payment” from Diana.  She was the sacrificial lamb left to bleed for everyone’s salvation and healing.  

“I saw him do great things. He treated mental and physical injuries,” she shared, but when it came to her, “When I said no more, bad things happened to me. So we all shared the fear that something bad will happen to us if I tried to change the situation.”


But one day perhaps because, “he abused his power,” Diana called the 107 hotline and the police came, “but after they assessed the situation, they just gave my husband a warning.” In such a small community made close knit by a vast wilderness around it, her call moved the non-secret into a public space that his reputation suffered and the vodka dried out as clients started finding other mystical channels.          

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, her blood was let out, one last time.  She doesn’t remember if she, her kids or others called the hotline, only that she woke up in a hospital bed and stayed there for three months. The husband did not just get a don’t-do-it-again but was served with an arrest warrant. But when the police went to their house, the husband had disappeared. To which world, she didn’t know.

Diana picked up the threads of what remained of her upholstery livelihood but after the pandemic, nobody wanted mended couches and hole-free chairs.  The community needed clothes though, and as I came to hear her story, a police had just commissioned her for uniforms to mend, and jackets to sew.

“I got a sewing machine, more tools and business space here,” she said sitting near a portable heater, and motioning to mounds of uniforms, dresses, felt shoes and coats in various stages of cutting, shaping, sewing and finishing. She still does couches, she smiled, but a grant provided by the Asian Development Bank to survivors of domestic violence expanded her talent from just sofas to clothes.  

Secrets are out too, for ten more survivors of domestic abuse in her sum (county), who like Diana, are crossing the vast expanse with the choice to hum stuck-in-the-moment or closer-to-fine. On her urging, they formed a group so they can collectively access loans and get better credit terms, she said, showing her bank passbook and creations with the pride of an artisan and an entrepreneur.       


The herder said east so we headed towards that part of the Gobi for what must have been 30 minutes until we heard a honk behind us, “you passed us!” (or how I interpreted it). We swung back to the herder’s winter camp where I was looking forward to ride a horse but they were away grazing for the last grass before the snow covered the steppes.

The herders told us of many more stories of women who are isolated and needed information. They tipped us on how we could reach the women. It is not about crossing the digital divide, they said. Although many are wired and Facebook-ing, mobiles phones may not be a personal gear for poorer herders but a shared commodity within the ger and so messages could be curated and filtered. You cross the steppes, the herders wisely reminded us, and find them or you go through our leaders and they will help you.   

I could not have enough of their freshest, yummiest heavy cream and yoghurt. The herders were so amused that I was chewing, chewing during the interview and I ate the cream straight, without lathering it on the homemade bread. I had to declare to the steppes, to anyone who would listen, and later to Facebook and Instagram that this was, hands-down, the best cream in the universe.

The kindness menu

I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat anything there. Munkh, our driver stopped in what looked like a restaurant between Khentii and Nalaikh along the snow bound, two-lane highway. Munkh donated his freeze-dried miso soup from a Japan trip, and Saran brought out a day-old hardboiled egg she got for me earlier. Between that and my stash of nori, lunch was solved. Like in most restaurants in Mongolia, the menu was all about meat, and Saran and Munkh were happy with their buuz (meat dumplings) and traditional soup.

When we were about to go, the waitress set on our table a feast—beet and potato salad (but I had to remove the ham) from their snow-covered farm, coleslaw, lettuce and carrot salad with a refreshing dressing, slices of bread, and several rice balls rolled with nori. They didn’t let me pay for it because it was not on the menu, plus the waitress said, the grandma of the house didn’t want the foreign girl to go hungry.

I foraged in my luggage and found my last pack of dried mangoes meant for a colleague, and offered it in thanks, trying to describe what it was. Saran helped explain, and we left with their giggling and googling, “mangoes.” When we arrived back in Ulaanbaatar, I toasted Chinggis Khan’s daughters for the grace of finding many kindnesses on the steppes. WWW