BENE­DICT ALLEN INTO THE UN­KNOWN

Outer Mon­go­lia turns out to have good neigh­bourli­ness at its heart, even if the fer­mented mare’s milk is an ac­quired taste

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

The young lady at the cash­point was, I sensed, hav­ing a bad day. Again, she bit­terly thrust her card into the ma­chine – and again it was rejected. “Try just one more time?” I said, smil­ing en­cour­ag­ingly from the back of the queue.

“Hmm. You think so? Can’t af­ford to lose my card…” For a mo­ment, she sur­veyed her pre­cious bit of plas­tic, wav­ing it un­der the grey, un­friendly skies – this was out­side Tesco, the Shep­herd’s Bush Road branch. Then she shoved in her card.

We all watched. And at last the ATM is­sued a tri­umphant grind­ing noise. The card was gone, pos­si­bly for­ever.

“Thanks,” the woman said, and re­moved her spec­ta­cles to lay a pair of hate-filled eyes on me. She stomped off. “Might as well be in Outer Mon­go­lia,” she mut­tered.

But the un­happy in­ci­dent had set me think­ing. What was this ter­ri­tory that we call “Outer Mon­go­lia”, a chunk of land­bound Asia that some­how served to sym­bol­ise some­where far away? Like Tim­buktu, the place in our minds stood for “the Mid­dle of Nowhere”.

A year or two later, I went there. I was ea­ger to find out more. The size of West­ern Eu­rope, yet with only 2.5 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, Outer Mon­go­lia did in­deed prom­ise to be re­mote. “Not just ‘re­mote’,” a diplo­mat cor­rected me on the plane, wav­ing his wine glass with an au­thor­i­ta­tive air. “Mon­go­lia is in fact the a--- end of nowhere.” He took an­other swig.

“Well, this is the back of be­yond all right,” I said to my­self with sat­is­fac­tion two months on, plod­ding into the blue with a string of horses and camels. Mile upon mile I pro­gressed to­wards noth­ing very much, along with Ker­mit, a horse­man usu­ally asleep in the sad­dle but whose bags emit­ted the lively “click clink” sound of nu­mer­ous vodka bot­tles.

On­ward we rode, re­ceiv­ing hos­pi­tal­ity from no­mads along the way. Tea was of­fered – and then airag, the fer­mented mare’s milk. Fol­lowed by a more lethal dis­tilled ver­sion and next a gen­er­ous con­tri­bu­tion from Ker­mit’s vodka stash. In each ger – or felt tent – we would again toast the na­tional hero, Genghis Khan. Af­ter all, 700 years ago he had suc­ceeded in unit­ing the vast coun­try – though ad­mit­tedly he also re­duced to rub­ble the en­tire civilised world.

Sim­ply pass­ing on by th­ese kindly folk, I soon dis­cov­ered, was not an op­tion. First the tea – lib­er­ally dosed with salt and yak but­ter – and then the dreaded airag. But be­fore lurch­ing off again I noted in my lit­tle book the name of the fam­ily and soon dis­cov­ered that each knew their neigh­bour, be they two days’ away or just a short can­ter over the next hill.

The places in be­tween might be for­mi­da­ble – and we hadn’t even got to the Gobi yet – but the dry rolling plains seemed to me less and less in­hos­pitable. Some­where up ahead, a wel­come al­ways awaited.

And here’s the thing. The Mon­go­lians and their beloved sheep might live in a void – the very word “gobi” means empty – but they saw their fence­less world as oc­cu­pied. True, their tent homes were spread far and wide, but to­gether they op­er­ated a sort of so­cial se­cu­rity net­work. Each day we were in­vited in, our beasts of bur­den were wa­tered – so were we – and on­ward we strode again to nowhere, and al­ways to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of sky­larks.

“Gan­baatar lives over there,” our hosts would say, as we tot­tered off. “Nice enough. Mind you, doesn’t know how to tie up his camels prop­erly.”

The Mon­go­lians pop­u­lated their land­scape with in­vis­i­ble strands – of neigh­bourli­ness, of friend­ship, of petty jeal­ousy, of hu­man­ity. And by the end of my 3,000-mile (4,830km) jour­ney my lit­tle red book con­tained an un­bro­ken chain of Mon­go­lian names stretch­ing from Hovs­gol, the Siberian

The lo­cals had much in com­mon with their me­dieval hero Genghis Khan

re­gion of the far north, west to the Al­tai Moun­tains, and on across the Gobi sands.

The lo­cals didn’t think of them­selves as liv­ing in the sticks. They saw them­selves at the cen­tre of things. They had much in com­mon with their me­dieval hero. Be­fore very long the Mon­gol hordes had swept from the in­te­rior of Asia to the very brink of the West­ern world. And, I’m afraid to say, they de­cided lit­tle of in­ter­est lay be­yond the Danube.

It must have been a ter­ri­ble dis­ap­point­ment, af­ter the Is­lamic Em­pire – the riches of Sa­markand, Bukhara and the glo­ri­ous Silk Road. Eu­rope, as it turned out, was the back of be­yond.

The ma­jes­tic Gobi Al­tai Moun­tains

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