PUBLISHED Saturday, 19 November 2011 on On The Road
Sitting here entertaining tarte au chocolat for breakfast (Day 4 of the pastry challenge, and no, I’m not bored yet) thinking about my recent trip to Mongolia, I began to wonder. I know for sure that writing retrospectively has advantages. Clarity of perspective for one. I can’t imagine I would have been too forgiving of Mongolia if I was writing during my ‘no solids please’ period. I started to speculate about whether future entries dealing with pieces my trip across the Transiberian will lack the enthusiasm, lack the truth, and most devastatingly will lack the gritty details; the precise shade of someones eyes, the little things that build the mosaic shall be forgotten in the cracks of memories less frequently recalled. I no longer remember the name of the taxi driver in Ulaanbator who took me from the temple to the bus ticket counter and didn’t dick around, charging me ‘foreigner price’. I don’t recall his name, but I do remember the Christian paraphernalia and the unsettling lack of seat belts inside his car. Similarly, I know that the slowly diminishing tarte au chocolat will be forever remembered as being quite pretty, round, the colour of cocoa, with a sticky glistening glaze, and some gold leaf on top. And the taste? I would say it was nice. In fact, it was good (still is, nom nom). But what does that even mean? If someone asked me to describe it, could I really convey how much I am enjoying this tart right now? It’s not even the best tart, just a very good one. Do I need a line graph? Statistics to back up the fact that it was a very much, above average but not the best, chocolate based pastry type item I have ever eaten?
No one is likely to enquire about the tart au chocolat. But people often ask me, how did you like Mongolia? If I cannot accurately describe my tart au chocolat, what hope is there for this? I guess the simple answer is that it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Mongolia is gorgeous. The elevation is such that clouds hang low, close to the horizon, giving the impression they are suspended on wires from the rafters of a theater.
I could tell plenty of stories; about the time I got on a bus which drove southwest on one straight road for approximately 12 hours, dodging cows and horses; about the bizarre arrival at my destination; about the Mongolian guy who didn’t speak English but treated me like an old friend and taught me to ride a horse; even some stories about Chinggis Khan. Mongolian’s speak of Chinggis Khan so often it seems as though he is still alive. In fact, more than that, they speak of him like a friend who occasionally comes round for afternoon airag (Fermented mare’s milk. Tastes a bit like alcoholic, salty, watery yogurt. The distilled version is a clear spirit alcohol whose mere appearance will burn the hairs off your chest). There is an old tale in Mongolian lore that goes along the lines of Chinggis Khan never died but is merely sleeping and when Mongolia has need of him again he will re-awaken and restore the former glory of the empire. In Mongolia, this seems less like a story but more of a fact. To be fair, if ever a person was going to defy mortality my vote would be for him.
I spent a great deal of the transiberian trip couchsurfing, amazingly this was even possible in the vast emptiness of Mongolia. I was lucky enough to stay with two Europeans, working on an NGO, far from the smoggy capital Ulaanbator. They worked with Mongolians, educating rural herders in the ways of Western Capitalism, encouraging them to forget their ‘needs first’ approach to life and devise business plans to create a profiting trade market. Officially Mongolia ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries, with one of the world’s poorest GDPs. However, on arrival there is an overwhelming sense of a lack of the incredible poverty you might expect, the kind that can be seen in other developing nations. I’m not saying Mongolia has no problems, on the contrary, but Mongolian’s know how to pull together, to live with what they have in way of life which has changed reasonably little for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Ok, so the diet is now modified with items such as rice and occasional tomatoes but if you go to Mongolia still be prepared to be sucking on boiled mutton and fermented mare’s milk three times a day. If you can stomach it three times, that is, often just once is enough. Some foods are being imported, the aforementioned rice and tomatoes, as well as disgusting over-sugared instant coffee and possibly expired tins of cooked fish (it tasted similar to what I imagine the word skag tastes like). But the staple remains the ubiquitous mutton. People continue to live in relative isolation in ger camps, although often augmented with the addition of solar panels to power their stereo or tv, whilst they cook on a stove powered by burning dried manure. Times are indeed changing, particularly for us in the West, but there is little necessity for Mongolia to be pulled into our spiralling economic mess. What can our way of life really offer to people who brave some of the world’s harshest living conditions and continue to do so of their own free will? I can’t stand taking cold showers, never mind spending the half the year in a yurt when it’s -40 degrees Celsius outside.
In one conversation I had with the couchsurfers, I was rather rude and accused them of destroying the traditions and culture of Mongolia by introducing foreign concepts which just don’t have relevance here. I have always had difficulty placing economics over culture, which is probably why I am currently a homeless bum squatting in Paris, eating tart au chocolat for lunch/dinner. I feel a little guilty about what I said, apart from disagreements over core values they were absolutely lovely hosts. But the real nail in the coffin for me was that my accusation was met with a resounding ‘yes’. They were here to destroy Mongolia and they knew it. When I asked them why they continued to do it, they said it was better that they did it, rather than the Chinese.
If now is not the time for Chinggis to re-awaken, Mongolia has a grave future ahead indeed.