Mongolia, where karaoke and the apocalypse meet
finds Enrique Iglesias is the key to surviving a long drive through Nowhereland
It’s midnight in Mongolia and a three-year-old squirms on the floor, occupying the narrow space between my legs and the driver’s seat in front of me. There is an 11-year-old boy in the boot, a monk in the passenger seat; four more of us are pressed knee-to-knee in the back seat of the smallish car as it hurtles down the deserted highway. The road in front of us glows orange under streetlamps, the landscape each side is indecipherable.
An hour earlier, our driver, a fearsomely regal – yet warm – ex-government official named Burmaa, had announced that we’d be stopping for a snack. She then randomly swerved off the road on to an empty patch of unlit countryside. We’d taken lengths of Mongolian sausage from the boot, peeled off the plastic skin with filthy fingernails and bitten off large hunks of the fatty, cured meat. I had swallowed my mouthful of salty gristle with the resigned acceptance I necessarily adopted when sampling Mongolian food. Choke it down and, by God, remember to chew.
Stretching my cramped legs, I scuffled around the almost oceanic terrain of undulating grassland beneath my feet. With the
sun long gone over the horizon, our car perched brazenly in the centre of Nowhereland, the boot spilling shopping bags of supplies and the eight of us wandering sombrely around the vacant landscape, I feel like a survivor in the final scene of an apocalypse movie. This is the place where the world ends.
Clambering back into the car, the three-year-old won’t stop squirming. I get an occasional tiny hand to the face as he grabs my nose, my cheek – any handhold to steady him as he strives toward his new object of interest: the passenger seat. The smiling monk clamps him firmly around the waist and waits. He struggles for a few minutes, before his captor’s unrelenting stillness subdues him to sleep. The car is completely silent now. I worry for Burmaa, in case she falls asleep, because the blank road is stretching before us like a long, Tarmacked yawn.
The monk must be thinking the same. “In Mongolia, we love karaoke,” he declares out of the blue, pulling out his mobile phone. He speaks very little English. He doesn’t need to. The opening twangs of the track he begins to blast make me gasp in unrestrained excitement. “Bailando?” he twists around, smiling proudly. “Bailando!” I affirm.
Neither of us speak Spanish. But we try, valiantly, to sing it. Enrique Iglesias’s vocals are drenched in a SpanishAnglo-Mongolian hybrid of garbled lyrics and it is a fantastic catastrophe. The three-year-old miraculously sleeps on. The car plunges ahead through orange-lit blackness, towards the end of the line.