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 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