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.



  1. yikes! scarier than a cat stuck in a tree - or a cow in the mud!!! can't wait for 19!!!

  2. were u have reach MALAYSIA?

    (sry,if i speak BROKEN ENGLISH..hu2 .. :P

  3. Saya sudah bekerja dua tahun di Terengganu dan Melaka.

  4. Please tell me your story will have an "American" ending and not a "British" one...Stop reading your comments and get back to writing!

  5. Hi Ian, this is Kenning Stone and here is my response to the comment you left on my blog:
    'What da what is this!!? A comment!!? ROFL
    I think the current story is my third story...have been writing for months and this is the first comment I have ever received. I'm terribly tickled by that. I've heard of L Durrell...never read his stuff.
    I have no idea to which literary references you refer. I have no time for anything that clever, LOL. I have one full time job and two part-time jobs. Some weeks I have time to do an out-line before I write on Sunday...but usually I am just winging it on Sunday as I sit at the computer. My regular readers have never said anything but I am sure they can tell. Anyway, I appreciate that you left a comment... will have to read your current story and give you a comment in return. :O)

  6. I'd be roaming the streets at night buying up everything there. Great blog!

  7. great blog! life must be one great big adventure!

  8. Hello again, Ian. I like what I see so far, and am intrigued with what happens next. You've definitely got my attention.

    I also respect your desire to be a full-time writer. I can tell you, man, it is a wonderful life! I'm a blogger and also, under my given name (George Polley), a full-time writer with two recently published books, so I well know the excitements (and challenges) of the writing life.

    Keep at it!

  9. You've a really nice prose style. Nice blog -- fantastic photographs.


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