Tuesday, March 31, 2009

19 Princess in the Spotlight


“Caw, caw, caw.” A hooded crow flew up from the frozen river bed. The soldier looked around momentarily. Tom stepped back, keeping his hands outstretched in front of him, palms down, and said slowly, from the depths of his throat, “Whoa there.” The soldier jabbed his rifle forwards. His brow started to furrow and Tom looked down to see a bent finger tapping the trigger of the Kalashnikov.

The soldier hesitated for a moment, which seemed like an eternity, then snapped,“Proboski?”

Tom desperately wanted to give the right answer, but he didn’t understand the question. The soldier grabbed the gun with his right hand, and then very deliberately closed and opened his left hand several times in front of Tom’s face.

Tom searched for some meaning and racked his brain for any Mongolian word that might help. He muttered “Sain.” Then said it again more clearly. It was the Mongolian for ‘good.’

The soldier tapped Tom’s right coat pocket with his free hand. Does he want money? Tom wondered, and started to reach for the inside pocket where he kept his wallet. The soldier immediately took his gun in both hands and pointed it at Tom again. Their heavy breathing met as a cloud in the frozen air between them.

Tom attempted a smile and said “Sain” again, as he drew out his black leather wallet. The soldier dropped one hand from the rifle, reached out and took the wallet. He flicked it open with one hand, nodded his head, and then shouted a short sentence at Tom. The only word he could pick out was, “Proboski,” but he still didn’t know what it meant.

Then the soldier reached down to Tom’s coat packet and placed the wallet in it. without taking anything. His hand returned to the barrel of the Kalashnikov and he raised it once more, but for a brief moment he seemed to look straight past Tom at something farther down the road. A car was coming.

A few seconds later, Tom heard the car just behind him and a screech of brakes as it stopped. Tom strained his neck to look round without appearing to turn away from the soldier. He saw two men sitting in the front of a black Zil limousine. The passenger door swung open and out stepped Shishmishig. He said something to the soldier who grunted back.

Tom glanced at the gun, which was now pointing downwards to the road. He turned around nervously and started to walk towards the car. He expected at any moment to hear a shout... or worse. But, there was just the sound of crows cawing in the frosty air.

Shishmishig walked toward him. He seemed annoyed.

"Why did you come here? You must go to hotel now. Important people waiting for you. "

Tom’s usual driver was inside the car. He smelled of vodka and cigarettes as usual, but as he sat in the back seat, Tom found the stale interior of the car reassuring. He leaned forward, touched Shishmishig on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for coming.”

He reluctantly replied, “OK.”

“How did you know I was here?”

“A friend.”

The driver did a clumsy three point turn on the narrow road, and then headed back towards the city.

Shishmishig, turned round, “Mr Batbold has a job for you today.”

“What job?”

“Propaganda work. Your work. You will see.”

With that he turned back round and started to chat with the driver.Tom sensed he wasn’t going to get much more out of Shishmishig. He wanted to ask him what‘proboski’ meant, but thought he’d better save it for another time.

When they reached the hotel, there was a crowd waiting in the reception area. Some of them looked impatient, as if they had been kept waiting too long. Suddenly, a small man in a black beret and leather trousers stepped out of the crowd, and said, "You're here at last."

He put his right arm across the small of Tom’s back, pushed him slightly, then said, "Come this way."

He led Tom outside. The others followed. There were about fifteen of them altogether. They got into three jeeps that had been waiting under the shadow of Lenin's statue, then drove out onto Peace Avenue and turned into Sukhe Bator Square. The jeeps stopped outside the Palace of Arts and Culture. Nobody spoke.

The small man in leather trousers, the apparent leader of the group, broke the silence: "You like Mongolia?"

"Yes," Tom replied.

The man seemed reassured. "Good.”

They stopped outside a nondescript building and entered a large hall. Spotlights stood on black tripods in the four corners. They were all pointing at a large yurt which was standing enigmatically in the middle of the room.

"Please go inside," said the man, who it now dawned on Tom was dressed remarkably like a 1930s film director, with his leather trousers tucked into black leather boots.

Tom acquiesced. Inside the yurt he was initially dazzled by more bright lights. Once his eyes had adjusted, he beheld a heart stopping sight: she was there, standing in front of him, with two other Mongolian girls. Tom instantly recognised her hauntingly beautiful face. What struck him more than anything, however, was the strange way that she and the other people inside the yurt were dressed: they were all attired in long flowing silk robes of every hue. These were the traditional costumes of the pre-revolutionary Mongolian nobility.

Tom’s Mongolian girl was dressed like a princess. She wore a high blue velvet hat, at the centre of which was a conical silver crown. Her black tresses had been teased out and lacquered in a fantastic way; they curved out, like two rainbows, from either side of her head. Two gold hair clips, studded with rubies and sapphires, had been placed over each of these ebony arches of glossy hair; at the end of the rainbows dangled long silver cylinders, like miniature royal maces.

Her face was that of a precious china doll, with a vermilion spot about the size of a small strawberry, painted on each of her cheeks. Her blue damask coat was embroidered with a thick border depicting clusters of yellow and white Mongolian spring flowers, while its long sleeves had been turned back to reveal pale turquoise cuffs.

Suddenly she raised her arms to adjust her hair. Her floor-length coat opened at the front. Tom 's eyes travelled downwards and he noticed that her thin blue silk blouse was rendered slightly transluscent by the artificial light. He could see her small breasts moving up and down as she breathed rapidly under the heat of the spotlights.

Then he realized that she was watching him intently. He turned his head to one side with an involuntary jolt, and flushed.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

18 The Soldier in the Valley


The next morning Tom woke up late. He had gone to the Axe Hero bar, after Daphne dropped him off, in the hope that he might see the Mongolian girl, and ended up drinking too much beer. He rubbed his eyes and coughed. The smoky atmosphere hadn’t agreed with him.

He grabbed his watch from the bedside table. It was half past nine already. He leapt out of bed and started to dress hurriedly. Then, as he was pulling on a shoe, he stopped. Why hadn’t the driver called him? Then it struck him, it was Saturday. He looked out of the window to see shining white snow on the ground and a clear blue sky. It was a beautiful day.

After a breakfast of bread, yoghurt, and a glass of black tea, in the empty hotel dining room, Tom headed out of the door and crossed Sukhe Bator square. It was -10 degrees Celsius and Tom knew exactly what he wanted. After a bracing twenty-minute walk, slipping and sliding on the ice, Tom entered State's Big Store. It was the only department store in the country and like no other he had ever seen. Its cavernous halls were full of people, but there was almost nothing on sale: the shelves were 90% empty. Its entire stock, spread over three floors, seemed to consist of a few items of crockery, some saucepans, several rows of plastic shoes, some jars of Russian jam and, surrounded by a seething mass of people, two stout ladies dressed in white selling a few loaves of bread. On the third floor, however, to his great delight, Tom found what he was looking for: two rows of imitation fur hats, one brown and one black. He tried every one, but they were all too small. He sighed and was just about to turn away when he heard a hissing sound.

Tom looked around. Then he heard it again. This time it was louder: "Pssst. Pssst." The sound was issuing from behind the curtains of a photo booth. A gnarled hand appeared from behind the curtains, and its curled fingers beckoned Tom to enter. He started to back away. The hand withdrew into the booth, and then slowly re-emerged, bearing a beautiful fur hat. Tom walked over to the booth and drew back the grey curtain. Inside was an old man dressed in a traditional blue Mongolian deel, with a saffron sash around his waist. He was wearing a big brown fur hat and holding an even larger one.

There wasn't much room in the booth, so negotiations took place with the old black-marketeer sitting on the twirling adjustable seat with Tom jammed in front of him, trying not to fall on his lap. The man gave a toothless grin and signalled the price with his fingers reflected in the glass in front of Tom. God, he stinks, thought Tom, who was not going to prolong the assault on his nostrils by haggling. He held his breath, handed over the ten dollars straight away and left with a pale brown and white steppe fox fur hat on his head. The smell did not go away. Tom looked around, but the old man wasn't following him. It was the hat: the skin hadn't been cured properly. He thought that perhaps some fresh air would blow the smell away, and walked down Karl Marx Avenue, past a long bus queue and a group of young Mongolian soldiers sharing a cigarette, towards the mountains.

It looked from the centre of Ulan Bator as though the mountains were only five minutes' walk away; they were, of course, much farther. Half an hour later Tom reachd the Trans Mongolian Railway: a rusty track laid along the flat valley bottom, without so much as a trace of embankment. He saw a train approaching and waited for more than five minutes as, the green carriages of the Trans-Mongolian Express, trundled noisily by on their week-long journey from Moscow to Beijing. Tom stamped his feet, and wondered if the train would ever end. It seemed to be more than half a kilometre long. Finally the last carriage passed. Tom waited for a few seconds more then crossed the railway track.

Another thirty minutes and he had reached the Tuul River; it was almost dry as all of the water in the mountains was frozen, but there were some green reed beds showing through the snow and ice. Tom watched a flock of ravens tumbling in aerial combat with a kestrel. Then a party of twenty choughs flew noisily by. On the lower mountain slopes ahead he could see deer, including a stag with enormous antlers. Mongolia was teeming with wildlife.

The sparkling white Bogdohan Mountains lured Tom onwards, but as he advanced along a deserted road, he came to a small hut and found his way blocked by a Mongolian soldier, who stretched out his arms to signal stop. Tom stood in front of him, smiled and made walking motion with his fingers. The soldier stared blankly. He had a big round face, narrow eyes, almost no eyebrows, and didn't look as if he had started shaving yet.

Tom decided it might be the right time to use the little bit of Mongolian he’d learned. He spread out his hands, smiled and said with a shrug of his shoulders, "Be Angelheun (I am an Englishman)." The soldier signalled for Tom to stop by showing him the palm of his hand, than rushed into the hut. Thirty seconds later, just as Tom had started to take a few steps along the road, the soldier came back and pointed a Kalashnikov rifle straight at his chest.


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This blog is now ranked No. 1 in World Top Blogs, as voted by bloggers around the world! A big thank you to all of my readers. You've been great.

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PS The photo is of Daejeon, where I used to live in Korea, one of my favourite countries.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

17 The Ambassador's Wife


There was one other person in the Steppe Inn that night: a large, dark-skinned man with a glossy black beard and big brown eyes made to look even bigger by his black-framed spectacles. He thrust out a huge hand and gripped Tom with a crushing handshake.

“You’ve just stepped into the middle of nowhere and probably wonder what the hell you’re doing here?”

“Yes,” Tom replied as he tentatively tried to retrieve his hurting hand.

“Olof Singh,“ he said in a loud, ringing, nasal voice, then added, with a chuckle, “That’s a name; not an anagram.”

“Tom Rawlinson.”

“You’re probably wondering about the name, right?”

Tom wasn’t, but he nodded.

Olof then explained that he was an English Swedish Indian. His parents were Indian Sikhs, who’d gone to live in Sweden, where they both worked as doctors. When their son was born they decided to give him a Swedish name. They thought that it would help him to integrate at school. Unfortunately, soon after he was born they moved to Birmingham in the English Midlands, so he now had a Swedish first name, an Indian surname and a Birmingham accent.

Tom sat on the empty bar stool next to him, keen to establish a friendship and asked, “So, what are you doing here?” But before Olof could speak, Daphne grabbed both of Tom’s hands and exclaimed, “Oh God, I almost forgot the most important person here.” She laughed and added, “At least he thinks he is.” Then she hoisted Tom to his feet and led him to the bar. “My husband, David Farquharson, the British Ambassador.”

Tom reached across the bar, between a beer pump and a lemonade tap. “Very pleased to meet you, sir.” But, after a perfunctory handshake, the ambassador looked straight past Tom and called across the room, “Jim, would you mind giving our new arrival the embassy tour?”

Jim nodded, stood up and looked straight at Tom. “Certainly. Follow me.”

Tom took one quick sip of beer, placed his pint glass on the bar and followed Jim out of the door.

They crunched across the lawn to the kitchen door. Jim marched straight in leaving the door swinging. Tom lunged forward and just caught it before it closed.

Jim strode through the kitchen then turned right into a room Tom hadn’t seen before.

“This is our sitting room and library.”

He pointed at some piles of books on top of a glass-fronted sideboard, in which there were rows of crystal glasses and added, “You can borrow some books if you like.”

Tom quickly perused the books and extracted ‘A Modern History of Mongolia’ and ‘Teach Yourself Mongolian.’

Jim tapped an open ledger. “Sign them out just there.”

Tom wrote the book titles and his name below the last entry, which he saw was ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ borrowed by Gerald Langley.

Jim marched into the next room, which was an expensively furnished office with rows of old black-and-white photos of Mongolia lining the walls, but said nothing about it. He simply opened a door on the left, entered it and called, “This way.” Tom followed him down a short corridor, where Jim opened another door and snapped,“Come here.”

Tom hesitated, but felt compelled to follow. He stepped in the door and was surprised to find himself in the glare of a fluorescent-lit bathroom.

Jim put his hand on Tom’s left shoulder and guided him towards the toilet. “Sit down.” Then he stepped away and turned on all of the taps in the shower, bath and sink.

Tom sat on the wooden toilet seat, his mind full of white noise.

Jim stood menacingly facing him, hands on hips. “Right, young man, it’s time for us to do business.”

Tom, who reckoned that Jim couldn’t be more than five years older than him, started to rise.

“Now look here. I don’t know what your game is, but..”

“There are no buts,” Jim snapped, digging his fingers into Tom’s shoulder. “This is the way it is.”

Tom looked through the rising steam at the blue dolphins leaping across the plastic shower curtain. Droplets of water were starting to run down the pink gloss walls.

“Right, you are here to make some money, right?”

Tom said nothing.

“Well, I hope you realize that the MPRP are going to pay you in tugriks.”

Tom’s eyes registered some interest.

Jim reached down and pulled out some toilet paper from the roll on the wall. He draped it across the palm of his hand and held it in front of Tom’s face, then added, “Which are worth about the same as this. They call it fiat money, but you couldn’t even buy a second-hand Fiat Panda with it. In fact, outside of Mongolia you couldn’t buy anything with it.”

Tom stared down at the shiny green tiled floor.

Jim ruffled Tom’s curly ginger hair. “But cheer up, young man, because I have some good news for you. We are going to help you.”

Tom shook his head free. He did not like Jim Lockey at all, in fact he was feeling real hatred towards him, but the thought of the £100,000 fee was paramount in his mind now. He looked up at Jim and said very deliberately, stressing the ‘you’ and ‘me’, “How are you going to help me?”

Jim glowed yellow in the bathroom light. “Right, it’s like this, if you don’t deal with us, you’ll be able to change tugriks at the official exchange rate of seven to the dollar, up to a maximum of $1,000, at a bank. You just might be able to change some more at the real exchange rate of a hundred to the dollar on the black market, but as you are certainly being watched, if you attempt that, you’ll be arrested and end up in a Mongolian prison cell with nothing.”

Tom looked up and glared at Jim. He desperately wanted to assert some control over the situation. “But, you need something from me, don’t you?”

Jim softened his tone slightly and even managed a false smile, “Well, yes young man, we do.”

“What?” Tom snapped back instantly.

“Steady tiger. How many men have you killed?”

Tom’s shoulders involuntarily slumped.

“Right, so it’s like this. We want you to report here every Friday and tell us everything you see and hear at the House of Friendly Relations. And I do mean everything. From time to time we might ask you to do other things. If you do as you're told, you’ll get your money. We have a need for tugriks and we have to exchange them at the official rate, so we can give you your £100,000, and we are the only people who can.”

Later that night the British ambassador’s wife stopped her Range Rover just short of the hotel entrance, engaged neutral, but left the engine running. She turned, placed her hand reassuringly on Tom’s knee, looked him directly in the eye and winked. “Same time next week?”

At the same time, Jim Lockey dialled his phone on a cold dark Mongolian night. On the other side of the world, a phone rang in a government office, where it was eight hours earlier and twenty degrees warmer on a grey, wet English afternoon. A pale, soft manicured hand picked up the phone.

“Peter Hargrime.”

“Hello Peter. I’ve met him and he is exactly as you described: just what we were looking for.”

Tom entered the revolving door of the Sukhe Bator Hotel and smiled. He still had his brilliant idea and where did that leave Jim Lockey? And, better still, perhaps he was about to meet the Mongolian girl.

This is now the No. 3 Blog in the World!

, top ten blogs.

If you look at my little collection of widgets, bottom left, you will come across a small red one for World Top Blogs. If you click it, you will find that this blog is now ranked third in the world, as voted for by bloggers worldwide, and if you go back to my first ever post, you can see that this was all part of my cunning master plan to rule the blogosphere ;)

PS I took that photo exactly one year ago today, when I was standing awestruck and blogless in front of Iguazu Falls.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

16 A Brilliant Idea


Daphne noticed Tom half turn to watch the Mongolian girl hurry up the steps and spin through the hotel’s revolving glass door.

“Someone you know?”

Tom’s face reddened with cold and embarrassment. “No, not really.”

A gust of cold wind blew across the square, picking up flurries of freshly-fallen snow. Tom shivered, turned up his coat collar, and followed Daphne to the embassy Range Rover.

They turned out of the square to find the road ahead blocked by a slow-moving military convoy. Daphne pulled over and waited for it to pass. Tom counted six T-72 tanks, with the long barrels of their guns pointing towards the city centre. Some of the soldiers in the long line of vehicles whistled and shouted when they spotted Daphne.

Tom turned to her. “So, what’s the situation in Mongolia?”

She laughed. “Well, you’re working for the MPRP, so you should know.”

“I’ve only just got here and I don’t even know what the MPRP is.”

“The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party – the communists.”

Was she accusing him of being some sort of traitor? “I was recruited by the Foreign Office. So, how does that add up?”

“I’m not sure that I can answer that.” She smiled as she put the car into first gear. The convoy had passed. “But, in answer to your first question, the situation here is volatile. The regime here is teetering on the verge of collapse. The opposition is disorganised and lives in the shadows.” She shrugged her shoulders as she gripped the steering wheel, “So who knows?”

They reached a no man’s land between the brick and concrete buildings of the inner city and the yurt suburbs. Daphne turned off the highway onto a dirt track and after a few hundred metres, stopped in front of an English-style house, with whitewashed walls and a sloping orange-tiled roof. All of the lights were on and smoke was spiralling skyward from the brick chimney.

Registering Tom’s surprise, Daphne said, “Yes, it is small, isn’t it? They wouldn’t let us build anything bigger. In fact, I believe it’s the smallest British embassy in the world.” As they got out of the car, she added, “But we should consider ourselves lucky, as they wouldn’t let the Americans build anything at all.”

She opened the garden gate. “Let’s go inside. Everybody’s waiting to meet you.”

Tom followed Daphne through the front door, along a corridor in which hung a portrait of the Queen, then into the kitchen, where he noticed the reassuring domestic details of a packet of Weetabix and two cans of baked beans standing in front of an impressive Royal Doulton dinner service.

Daphne opened the back door and led Tom out of the house. He could see their breath form clouds as they crunched across the frozen lawn to what looked like a large wooden shed at the bottom of the garden. Voices were coming from inside. Above the doorway was a hand-painted sign: “Steppe Inn.” A drop of white paint had run down the letter ‘S’ making it look like a dollar sign.

Daphne swung open the door. “We have a new customer.” Tom felt a blast of heat, smelled a mixture of wood varnish, paint, whisky and beer and saw six pairs of eyes staring at him.

Tom and Daphne added their coats to a pile on a table just inside the door and stamped the ice off their shoes.

“Let me introduce you to everyone.” She raised her voice: “This is Tom Rawlinson , a young British entrepreneur, who we hope will be one of the first of many to come out here and do business with the Mongolians.”

There were some raised glasses and nods. Daphne turned to Tom, “So what would you like to drink?”

“A beer would be fine.”

Daphne called to a tall man, in a yellow cardigan and green corduroy slacks, who was standing behind the bar, “David dear, a pint for Tom and a glass of red wine for me.”

The interior of the Steppe Inn was like a miniature English pub, but Tom found it incongruous to see someone who looked remarkably like Prince Philip, serving behind the bar.

Bar stools, with red plastic seats which matched the colour of the carpet, lined both sides of the room. Deirdre held out her arm towards a young couple sitting on the nearest two and said, “Jim and Jenny Lockey – the other half of our embassy team.” They stood up. Jim shook Tom’s hand vigorously and said with a strong Geordie accent, “Welcome to U.B.”

“You’re from the North-East?”

“Yes, we’re both from South Shields,” Jenny replied chirpily.

Jim let go of Tom’s hand and stood rigidly as if waiting for the order, “At ease.” He had soldier written all over him. His honed body spoke of years of physical training and there was a hint of aggression in his eyes. His upright stance and neatly-trimmed dark brown short-back-and-sides contrasted sharply with Jenny’s stooping round shoulders and slightly dishevelled blonde hair. With her heavy mascara, pink lipstick, low-cut blouse and tight black skirt, Tom thought she probably felt even more out of place than he did in an embassy garden in Central Asia.

Next to them was the one person Tom knew: Gerald. They exchanged stiff greetings:



Daphne then led Tom across the room to a small, balding man, with brown metal-framed spectacles“. Meet the new Japanese ambassador, Mr. Itou.” Tom bowed his head slightly as they shook hands.

Then she added, “Mr Itou has just arrived in Mongolia. A big Japanese expedition is coming out here soon. It’s one of the most exciting things for years. They’re going to look for the tomb of Ghengis Khan.”

Tom’s face lit up. He clenched both fists and almost punched the air. He had just had a brilliant idea.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

15 Beautiful


He went up to his room, took a quick shower, brushed his teeth vigorously, and changed into his most youthful looking clothes, a blue denim jacket and jeans. He whistled as he combed his hair in the mirror. His eyes were a bit red and his throat felt sore, but that wasn’t going to stop him going down to the Axe Hero bar tonight. She might be there.

He was still whistling as he picked up his wallet and headed out of the door. He was standing in the hallway, hunched over, turning the hotel key, with its gold plastic tag swinging, when he heard the phone start to ring inside his room. He hesitated for a moment then extracted the key from the door. The phone continued to ring. Tom sighed and put the key back in the door, simultaneously turned it and the aluminium door knob, pushed open the door and hurried to the bedside phone.


A cultured woman’s voice answered, “This is Daphne Farquharson, the ambassador’s wife.”

Tom frowned in concentration. Why is she phoning me?

Daphne broke the silence, “Gerald told you about the Steppe Inn tonight, didn’t he? He told us he had.”

Tom’s tongue audibly sucked the roof of his mouth. God, I’d completely forgotten about that. “Yes, he did mention something about it.”

Daphne continued, “We thought you probably wouldn’t know your way round UB yet, and the buses can be dangerous at night. I’m down here in the lobby.”

Tom reflected, that’s the last thing I wanted to do tonight, but said as cheerfully as he could, “I’ll be right down.”

He put down the phone and wondered, why would the British ambassador’s wife bother to collect me? Am I that important?

When he arrived downstairs, Daphne, was smiling and chatting to the receptionist in Mongolian. She turned and extended her hand, “So pleased to meet you.” Tom took her hand. It was surprisingly warm. Her hair colour was just a little darker than his, pale auburn, with a thick fringe touching her eye brows. Her brown eyes were flecked with green. She was, Tom guessed, in her early forties, and one of those people who everybody takes an instant liking to.

They headed out through the hotel’s revolving door. Tom noticed that the snow had stopped falling. Then he saw her coming up the steps towards them. Her eyes sparkled as he turned to watch her. She was beautiful.


Friday, March 6, 2009

14 How Could He Forget?


The driver grabbed the gear lever with his leather-gloved right hand, quickly put the black ZIL limousine into first and started to pull away. Tom had one foot still trailing out of the big angular car. The leather sole of his shoe scraped along the street for a few seconds until he pulled it in and the car’s forward momentum caused the door to slam shut on him and Tom to fall across the rear seat. The driver did a hasty u-turn and put his foot down hard. The gears screeched from first to third. Tom pushed himself upright and turned his head to look back through the misted up windscreen. He saw a blur of movement and thought he heard the ‘crack’ of a shot.

He stared at the narrow pair of eyes blinking in the driver’s mirror and breathed his nervous body odour. “What was that?” He stammered.

The driver muttered something in Mongolian and gripped the steering wheel tightly. The ZIL’s square headlights picked out the snow falling in the dark streets as they swept through them at high speed. There was almost no street lighting, just the lights from the windows of the rows of grim apartment blocks and the red single-decker buses, packed with standing passengers in thick brown and grey coats and fur hats.

The car braked so hard when they reached the Sukhe Bator Hotel that Tom was pitched forward, pushing his nose against the driver’s coat collar and filling his nostrils with the smell of stale cigarettes.

He sat back in his seat and as he opened the rear passenger door he said with genuine emotion, “Thanks, err, spaseeba.” The driver turned to look at him and smiled. Tom watched him drive around snow-covered Sukhe Bator Square, then shivered, “Brrrr,” and headed quickly into the hotel. He was starving.

He went directly to the hotel dining hall. He still couldn’t think of it as a restaurant. Its plain white, windowless walls and high ceiling made it look very much like a school canteen, which could also be used as a basketball court or theatre. There was a cluster of Mongolian men in suits at the far end, laughing and joking as they drank their glasses of black tea. Tom slid into his usual place in the foreigners' section. The Russian couple weren’t there yet. He waited optimistically for five minutes for the blue uniform and frilly white apron to appear. It did. Inside was a fearsome looking woman who looked as though she was coming to start a fight with him.

"Yamar?" she grunted. He knew that this must be the Mongolian for "What?"

He pointed at the first item on the menu. She looked before pronouncing triumphantly, "Nieto" - the Russian for "No!"

He then pointed hesitantly to the second item, and smiled wanly at her.

"Nieto," she said with a definite sneer.

The third and fourth items brought forth the same response, each "nieto" uttered with increasing relish.

"Yamar?" he asked in desperation.

"Shashlik," she replied. His spirits rose. That, he knew, was a famous Turkish dish. It sounded delicious.

When she reappeared fifteen minutes later, he looked expectantly at the steam rising from the white porcelain bowl she’d just slid off her battered aluminium tray. As he peered into it, his hopes were dashed: a few lumps of fatty Mongolian mutton swimming in a sea of oily brown water. She placed a small plate, with three slices of white bread, next to it, gave him a proud glance, then turned and headed back to the kitchen, with the empty tray dangling at her side.

The young Russian couple arrived just as he was finishing the last slice of bread. They were relaxed and smiling. Perhaps, Tom thought, this is their honeymoon. Then suddenly his jaw dropped open and he gasped. With all that had happened that day, he’d almost forgotten the Mongolian girl.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

13 Falling Snow


Olga straightened in her seat as she watched Tom walk out of the door, head bowed. She registered every detail: the little wisp of red hair which curled down the nape of his freckled neck, his shoulders hunched in his grey suit, the creases behind his knees, his black woollen socks bunched over his ankles and the scuff mark on the heel of his right shoe.

Enkhbold smirked, re-lit his cigar, took a contented puff and waved her away. She returned to her place in the records room, opened the new green file, looked at Tom’s photo and breathed in deeply. Our agents are everywhere, she reflected. She wondered if it was the same where he came from, the land of Hardy and Dickens, where bloated aristocrats and tyrannical factory owners ruled vast estates and exploited poor peasants and orphans.

Tom half turned to smile as he walked past Mrs Jargal, the square-jawed Heroine of the State, but she looked straight through him and the smile died on his face before it was even born. An icy wind swept in from the street and followed him down the corridor. He shivered, opened the door to his prison cell of an office, where he walked into a wall of heat and the unwelcoming gaze of Shishmishig, who Tom was pleased to see had taken off his black suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, was leaning back in his chair, his moon face glistening with sweat, reading a newspaper.

Hunched over his desk, with his brow creased in intense concentration, Tom gripped his pencil tightly and stared at the blank sheet of paper in front of him, then started to draw a mind map, with words in bubbles, interconnected with lines. Shishmishig looked up from his copy of The People’s Daily and watched this with some interest.

They sweated and breathed the hot, disinfected air for the next few hours, barely exchanging a word, and Tom thought more than once how terrible it must be to spend the rest of your life in prison.

At five o’clock, there was the sound of voices outside. Shishmishig stood up, lifted his suit jacket from the back of his chair, put it on, rolled up his newspaper, stuffed it into his jacket pocket, pushed his chair neatly under his desk and walked towards the door.

“Goodnight, Mr Rawlinson,” he said in an affected English accent as he opened the door and walked down the corridor, not bothering to look back.

Tom instantly stood up and thanked God that he could finally leave the House of Friendly Relations. He was tired and hungry and had a sore throat. He put on his jacket, placed the neatly folded mind map in his inside pocket and rubbed his aching stomach with his right hand as he started to walk out of the door and down the dark corridor to the entrance hall and Mrs Jargal’s cloakroom. She was standing, putting on her own drab brown overcoat, when he approached. She placed a big fox fur hat over her woollen hat, put on her black woollen mittens, then handed Tom his thin beige raincoat, hardly looking at him in the process. He winced as he caught a whiff of her sour breath. He said, “Goodbye.” She shrugged and wrapped the pale blue scarf she’d knitted for herself around her fat neck.

Tom walked out onto Brezhnev Street. Snow was falling and the darkness of the Mongolian winter night was closing in. Some lights were on in the rows of three and four storey government buildings and apartment blocks reserved for party officials. The limousine was waiting for him with its engine purring. Tom could see and smell the exhaust fumes and the steamed-up windows, as they melted the falling snow flakes, but the roof of the black car was already white.

As he opened the heavy nearside door, a khaki, canvas-covered truck trundled by, packed with young Russian soldiers in winter coats and grey fake fur Ushanka winter hats, each with a red and gold hammer and sickle badge pinned to the front. Tom noticed that some of them had Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders. The young conscripts’ mournful singing echoed down the street. But, just before Tom slammed the car door to immerse himself in the stale odour of vodka and cigarettes emanating from the driver, a sudden movement up ahead caught his eye. A Mongolian youth in a black coat and fur hat had dashed out into the road, shouted, and thrown something at the army truck.