Thursday, February 19, 2009

2 Mongolia Awaits!


Tom paced around building for an hour, flapping his arms to keep warm. He moved backwards and forwards between the chilly entrance hall and an austere waiting room full of stony-faced Russians in military uniforms. A few people talked in hushed tones; most just chain-smoked and stamped their feet occasionally, leaving little pools of melting snow and mud on the tiled floor. Then, suddenly, everybody, except Tom, stampeded towards the stairs and disappeared. Tom hesitated, then followed their muddy tracks, nearly falling on the slippery steps to the upper floor. Before he reached the top, he came to the end of a queue, which trailed halfway down the stairs. Tom tried to talk to the man in front. He had a problem: he didn’t have a Russian visa.

The young Mongolian in front turned round to look at him. He had a large, weather beaten face, with two permanent red patches on his cheekbones, where the freezing Central Asian winds had caused the most damage. Tom caught the sound "nee opinymy". He was to hear those words many more times. They were the Russian for "don't understand". The man two steps above in the line turned to enquire of Tom, "Amerikaheun?" They both looked at him. "English" he replied. The one in front turned to the next up the line and said, "Angelheun". The young Mongolian clearly, spoke a little English, which was something quite remarkable in a country where the only foreign language taught at that time was Russian. When Tom reached the front of the line, a stern-faced, grey-uniformed policeman stared out at him from behind a grille.


Tom handed it to him, feeling more than a little nervous about his lack of a visa. The policeman looked at his battered, blue passport from a variety of angles, before uttering the dreaded word:


Tom shrugged his shoulder and, mumbled "um". That's when the young Mongolian spoke again.


To Tom’s relief and surprise, this one word seemed enough to satisfy the man behind the grille, who waved Tom away. He turned and walked hurriedly back across the frozen runway to the MIAT Tupolev. He said goodbye and thank you to the young Mongolian. He was to see him again, many more times, in the months to come.

The passengers, bundled in their heavy winter clothes, huddled together for warmth as they boarded the plane. Tom returned to the first class section, but he was still puzzled why he had been placed there, as he only had an economy class ticket. The simple truth was the stewardess, who only ever saw Mongolians and Russians on her flights, had felt sorry for and even somewhat intrigued by this exotic-looking foreigner, who was clearly lonely, lost and confused.

Tom, who had never been outiside Europe before in his life, watched the shadow of the plane pass over the frozen shores of Lake Baikal. The pilot did not ascend, but continued to fly low as if he were using the topographic features below to guide him. As they swept over the great Hentei Mountain range, Tom gripped his plastic Buddha tightly and took another swig of Chinggis Khan vodka. Razor-sharp arêtes and deep corries rushed towards him. Then there was a white-out: there was no longer any line between the snow-covered ground and the snow-filled sky. The spell was broken by a great river cascading by. It had to be great to rage unchecked at -30 degrees Celsius, when almost any other river would have conceded defeat and frozen over. Perhaps it was imbued with the spirit of Genghis Khan, the man whose tomb had lain hidden and undisturbed somewhere in these mountains for more than seven hundred years. There was no sign of habitation.

The plane was, at last, flying into the awesome vastness of the People's Republic of Mongolia: a country of great mountain ranges inhabited largely by wolves, bears and snow leopards, even greater steppes, and, in the south, the most remote place on earth, the Gobi Desert.

Tom’s tensed as his fitful sleep was interrupted by an alarming, strained whine from the plummeting Tupolev. He peered anxiously out of the window, looking for any signs of fire or smoke. Instead, he saw for the first time the yurt suburbs of Ulan Bator. Thousands of round, white, felt tents were arranged neatly in blocks, like suburban bungalows, except in this case each block was delimited by a ramshackle wooden fence, and separated from the neighbouring block of yurts by a dirt track. Exactly in the middle of each tent roof there was a thin metal pipe from which emerged puffs of smoke from the dung-fuelled stoves inside. His home seemed so far away now on the other side of the world



  1. Interesting. If you keep it going, I'll keep coming back.

  2. this is a really interesting story! I'll keep you posted on the Vision Board:)

  3. Ian, have screwed up my wrist and can barely type. couple of things. the shift to the POV of the flight attendant is a little jarring since otherwise you are sticking pretty much with tom. also, the end of the chapter, "and, of course, if only he had been able to foresee the terrible outcome of that night, he, surely, would never have left the safety of his home, so far away now, on the other side of the world" is kinda cliched. I will have to go back & see why he needed a russian visa...

    otherwise great little details, yurt suburbs, little pools of melting snow and mud...


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