Monday, October 26, 2009

Corner View - Water

The theme of this week's Corner View is Water. Last year, on my six-month journey around Latin America, I saw one of the most spectacular natural displays of water on the planet: Iguazu Falls.

Please visit the other Corner view bloggers for their watery views.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Mongolian Girl - Part Three

"So, what exactly is it that you want from me?"

The elegant interpreter rephrased the question for Mr Enkhbold, who exchanged a look, laden with dark secrets, with Batbold, before looking at a space somewhere between Tom and the interpreter, and replying in his soft, droning Mongolian. The interpreter turned to Tom and started to open her mouth, but before she could utter a word, Tom asked, "By the way, what is your name?" She seemed surprised that anyone would want to know and Tom had half anticipated her answer, "Why?"

"Just wanted to know. That's all."

Mr Enkhbold turned to her. He was clearly not a man used to being ignored by anyone. The interpreter seemed flustered and Tom felt a pang of guilt for causing her this moment of anxiety.

She addressed Tom once more, "We want…we want…friendly relations." Then she added almost as an afterthought, "And my name is Olga Shevchenko." A Russian name, Tom thought to himself. Yes, she did look different. Her eyes were Asiatic, but her delicate features reminded Tom of a famous Georgian ballerina he had once seen in
London. In fact, he started to say, "You look like..," but then thought better of it.

"Friendly relations with who?"

Mr Enkhbold exchanged another look with Batbold.

"With everyone", Olga explained, before adding, "Would you like some tea?"

There was another, much louder thud from the ceiling above, accompanied by what sounded like a muffled cry. This time she couldn't stop herself looking up. In fact, they all looked up, except Mr Enkhbold, who snapped something at her in Mongolian.

"For example?" Tom interjected quickly.

Olga considered her interpretation of Mr Enkhbold's reply carefully, "With some groups of people the House of Friendly Relations finds unsympathetic to their cause."

"And what exactly is their cause?"

It sounded to Tom as though something heavy had fallen on the floor in the room above.This time they all looked up: even Mr Enkhbold. Then there was a louder noise, much closer. Tom jumped. Something outside had banged against the window. Perhaps a bird had flown into it. The door opened, and a young man in a grubby white tunic brought in their tea.

“How would you like your tea, Mr Rawlinson? With milk and sugar?” Olga enquired.

“It’s all right, you can call me Tom. A little milk, but no sugar, please.”

After they had all sipped some tea, the meeting resumed.

“Well, their, I mean our cause is the social welfare of the Mongolian people” Olga interpreted.

“I see. And what type of people would be unsympathetic to that?” Tom asked, genuinely surprised.

There followed a short discussion between Olga, Mr Enkhbold and Batbold, the meaning of which Tom could only guess at.

“We have decided that you must be very tired after your long trip. A driver will take you back to your hotel. Tomorrow will be a big day for you. We will show you your office and you will meet your assistant.”

“My assistant?”

“Yes, your assistant.”

At that, Mr Enkhbold and Batbold stood up. The meeting was over.

Olga accompanied Tom downstairs to the exit and watched him step out onto Brezhnev Street, which was still eerily deserted. Tom looked back up at the second floor and thought he caught a glimpse of Mr Enkhbold and Batbold staring down at him from one of the windows. Then he noticed again the black birds flying overhead. Were they crows? Ravens perhaps? Why so many?

The chauffeur opened the rear door of the black limousine and Tom stepped in. It appeared the driver, who clearly hadn’t shaven that morning and stank of stale cigarettes, spoke no English, as he merely grunted disapprovingly when Tom tried to engage him in conversation.

They swept away down Brezhnev Street, passing two policemen who seemed to be involved in a heated argument with some people at a bus stop. Tom thought of home, familiar places, friends, family….all gone now.


As he crossed the hotel lobby, the receptionist called out to him, “Mr Rawlinson, there was a Mr Gerald here to see you.”

“Mr Gerald?” Tom knew nobody of that name.

“Did he leave a message?

“No, but he said he will come back.”


The receptionist shrugged and resumed reading his newspaper. At least this one speaks English, Tom thought, as he mounted the stairs and walked back down the long corridor to Room 315.

Mr Gerald? Who on earth could he be?

The drilling outside reached a crescendo. Tom shouted at the window, "For God's sake, stop! Please stop." And, almost immediately, it did. But, just as he thought he could finally sleep in peace, there was another, more urgent noise. The old Bakelite phone, next to his bed, was ringing again.

Tom shouted into the phone, "Yes!" There was a pause and then a voice that instantly reminded him of Vincent Price in a Hammer horror movie, started to speak, very carefully enunciating every word.

"Is that Tom Rawlinson?"


"Langley here; Gerald Langley."

"Should I know you?"

"Possibly; possibly not. But, as we are two of only seven Westerners in the entire country I thought we should meet. Don't you agree?"

"Umm, well, I guess so. I'm still a bit jet-lagged, but…"

"Very well then: I’ll meet you in the Axe Hero Bar in half an hour."

"The what bar?"

"Axe Hero. It's your hotel bar. You are in the Sukhe Bator Hotel, yes? Well that's what Sukhe Bator means: Axe Hero."

"And where exactl....."

"Click." Gerald Langley was already on his way.

The Axe Hero was one of the sleaziest looking bars Tom had ever seen; not that he had seen many sleazy bars in the 36 years of his middle-class life in English suburbia. As he entered, it was very difficult to see more than a few yards until he had adjusted his eyes to the dimly-lit, smoke-filled haze. The bar was full of black marketeers, drunken Romanian wrestlers, who were in town for a competition, Russian soldiers' wives, a couple of aging Mongolian bar girls and in one of the darkest recesses, a very odd looking character indeed, waving at him: Gerald Langley.

Gerald had obviously spent many other nights like this. His eyes were little more than bloodshot slits, almost completely hidden in deep black circles that extended from his cheek bones to his eyebrows; his spectacles were held together with elastoplast, and there were one or two cuts and bruises on one side of his face. His closely-cropped, sandy brown hair, flecked with grey, looked as though he had cut it himself, as indeed, he had. God only knows what he looks like in daylight, Tom reflected, as he proffered his hand.

"So glad you could make it. Please take a seat. Care to join me in a drink?

Drinks in the Axe Hero bar were only served by the bottle. It was more than a thousand tugriks for a bottle of whisky - fifty dollars at the official exchange rate. It transpired, however, that if real dollars were actually proffered a beer would appear from under the counter at a considerably less outrageous price. They started with beers and a bottle of Mongolian vodka, and proceeded to get drunk like everybody else in the bar.

"So, Gerald, what do you do here in Ulan Bator?"

"I'm with the British Council."

"I see. Is there a British Council office here then?"

"No, it's too small-scale an operation for that. I'm very loosely attached to the embassy. They thought it would be a good idea for me to meet you, say hello, welcome you to Mongolia, that sort of thing."

"That's very kind of you. I must admit it's nice to meet a fellow Englishman. I was feeling rather lost and alone."

"Then I have some good news for you. You are invited to the embassy. They have a small bar in the back garden, where we meet once a week and tomorrow's the night."

They talked about home, where they came from, where they went to school, and discovered they had very little in common, so, by the time they'd reached the topic of football, Gerald's attention had turned to the bottom of a bottle, and Tom’s to the exit, and bed.

As he was walking down the corridor, leaving Gerald to his vodka-soaked slumbers at the bar, a Mongolian girl appeared in front of him. He hadn't seen her coming: suddenly, she was just there. As she passed, she half-turned and gave him the most enigmatic and yet, at the same time, the most beautiful look that he’d had ever seen. It sucked all of his previous life out of him and left his tiny reflections swirling, lost in her dark eyes. She paused coquettishly at the end of the corridor, then, enigmatically whispered something, but whether it was addressed to him, someone inside the bar, or even herself, he could not tell.

She couldn’t be more than twenty-years-old, he guessed. With her long, black hair, high-collared, blue silk cheongsam, flawless ivory skin, a touch of red lipstick and slender legs tottering inexpertly on high heels, she looked a picture of innocence on the verge of corruption. Tom wanted to save her, or did he just want to save her for himself?

He started to walk back down the stairs twice, paced restlessly in the corridor, then walked up and down the stairs again, wondering whether to return to the bar, but when he finally did, she had gone. He ducked out again quickly before Gerald could see him, and returned to his room, where he spent a sleepless night, half imagining the beginning of a rapturous relationship, and half fearing that, at that very moment, she was with someone else. But, he knew that after seeing her, his life could never be the same again, and he was right.

Snuggled down in the heavily-starched, white linen sheets, which still carried the acrid, chemical smell of the hotel laundry, Tom felt cocooned from the strange, frozen world lying in wait for him beyond the frost-covered window of Room 315.

As he sat up in the creaking bed, his first thought was of her, and this made him smile, enjoying the sensation of the slight aches, which rippled through his body as he stretched and shivered, and felt so alive. Where was she now? Would she be there tonight? He wanted to stroke her long black, Oriental hair, touch her soft ivory skin, taste her, breathe her, and just be with her, be with her...



"That bloody drill!" Tom threw his pillow at the window, jumped up and hurried into the bathroom in search of warmth. At the turn of a tarnished tap, the ancient pipes juddered and groaned into action until a trickle of steaming, pale orange water emerged from the oversized shower head. The nearly boiling water splashed on his cold body, making him jump and swear. Fortunately, the little, pale green tablet of Russian soap didn't produce any lather, and he had been deliberately sparing with the shampoo this morning. He gave up after a couple of minutes, pulled back the plastic shower curtain and emerged still shivering in the steamy air.

He cleared a patch of the steamed-up bathroom mirror and started to shave with one of the blue, plastic disposable razors, he'd brought from England. As he did so, he touched his wet, receding hairline with his other hand, looked at the line across his freckled forehead, and thought, she must be at least fifteen years younger than me. But, although he wasn't aware of it himself, Tom looked younger than his thirty-six years. He had the body of a skinny youth, and his pale ginger hair, innocent green eyes and freckled complexion simply enhanced that impression. 'Lanky streak of piss,' they'd called him at school. That's when they weren't calling him 'ginger nut.' It was only the fact that he'd scraped into the school cricket team, allied to the popularity of his younger brother, Jack, who hadn't inherited their Irish mother's colouring, that had prevented him from being viewed as a total swot. He hadn't been one of the popular boys, but he’d made a few friends and somehow managed to pull off the trick of finishing top of the class in every subject, without becoming a victim of bullying.

He plastered the wet hair across the high forehead, which still bothered him, wrapped a white towel around his waist, and stepped back into the bedroom, arms folded across his almost hairless chest, to keep out the cold air, which he could feel reaching out to him with its icy fingers, from the frosty window.

Of the two suits hanging in the orange, plywood wardrobe, Tom selected the flashier, pale grey one and unhesitatingly went for the salmon pink tie. As he tied the knot in the mirror, he started to hum a Lisa Stansfield song. He even sang some of the lyrics: "Been around the world and I,I,I can't find my baby…"He broke into a big smile, because, at least so he thought, he had found his.

He was still smiling when he walked into the hotel dining hall and slid onto a seat, just two tables away from the young Russian couple, who were, again, the only other diners there. He greeted them, "Privet,” which he believed was the Russian for 'hello'.

The man answered with a heavily-accented "Hello."

"You speak English then?"

The couple looked embarrassed and resumed eating their breakfast.

The pretty waitress’s footsteps echoed across the hall, as she came out of the kitchen to serve him his stale bread and yoghurt quickly. He hadn't had to wait more than a minute. This was going to be a good day.

He walked briskly out of the dining hall, across the lobby and out into the freezing Mongolian winter, skidding across the ice that gripped the sidewalk and almost falling into the black limousine, which was there bang on time at 8.30.

The driver, like everybody else out that morning, with the exception of Tom, was wearing a heavy overcoat, gloves, scarf and big fur hat. He still smelled of stale cigarettes and now there were a couple of new aromas, body odour and vodka, added to the mix Tom breathed inside the black limousine, as it swept through the icy streets to deposit him outside the House of Friendly Relations.

Tom looked up at the sky, which was bluer than any he had ever seen in England or even on the summer holidays he had taken with Jane in Spain and Greece. The black birds were still circling overhead. If anything, there were even more of them now. As he entered his strange new workplace, Tom's smile instantly disappeared from his face. What did these people want from him, why did they make him feel so uncomfortable, and what really went on inside this building? But then, what struck Tom as the oddest of coincidences occurred: there in the hallway, waiting to greet him, was a face he instantly recognised.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Mongolian Girl - Part Two

Tom's head felt almost too heavy to lift. He wondered where he was and if he'd been drugged. He reached out, as he lay, face-down on the bed, groaning. His hand brushed against the phone sending it crashing to the floor. He reached down, picked the phone up and listened. There was a buzzing noise, with a faint voice somewhere in the background.

"Hello? Hello?" Tom shouted. But there was no discernible reply.

He stood up, stretched, and walked to the bathroom. There was a trickle of orange-coloured water from the noisy, shuddering shower: barely enough to rinse off the soap. Tom brushed his teeth. He opened the wardrobe, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, crumpled white shirt and polka dot tie, then headed, with some trepidation, along the corridor and downstairs to the hotel restaurant.

It reminded Tom of a school assembly hall. There was such a high ceiling that the place had a slight echo. Tables were laid with grubby white tablecloths for more than one hundred people. That morning there were two other diners: a young Russian couple. At one end of this vast hall there was a stage, at the centre of which stood the biggest juke box that Tom had ever seen. The young Russian man walked up to it, fed it a coin, then, admiring the palm of his hand, returned to his companion. The selector ground noisily into action. It was a Russian song. All that Tom knew was that it sounded sad.

After about ten minutes he started to grow a little restless. There was no sign of any food and the tinny echo of the jukebox was becoming increasingly irritating. He toyed with the cruets and even contemplated eating their contents. "Ahaa". The gloom was temporarily lifted. The younger of the two women from last night emerged from the kitchen, in a dark blue uniform and frilly white apron. She had a cheeky face. The waitress took the Russian couple's order. The "clip, clip, clip" of her black patent leather shoes echoed around the hall as she returned to the kitchen. Ten more minutes passed before the waitress re-emerged from the kitchen.

Tom raised his right hand and gave an attention-seeking cough. She turned her eyes upwards to examine the spot on the ceiling directly above his head, before serving the young couple with, what appeared to be, at that distance, glasses of yoghurt and the ubiquitous slices of stale bread; and then returned to the kitchen, without giving Tom a further glance. He jumped up out of his chair, followed her and swung open the kitchen door. Her blood-spattered workmate was standing there, with a cigarette hanging out of her half-open mouth. This time they didn't argue: they both shooed Tom away. He returned to his seat.

A familiar voice startled him: "Good eat?"

Tom swung around to see Mr. Batbold standing behind him.

"There seems to be some problem," Tom said.

He tried to explain his difficulties. Mr Batbold walked toward the kitchen door and soon emerged with his arm around the shoulders of the pretty young waitress.

"You wrong place sit. You must there sit." He indicated the end of the hall, where the young Russian couple were sitting, enjoying their glasses of yoghurt and slices of stale bread. They waved to him and smiled.

Batbold nodded his head towards them and said, "Here Mongolian. There foreign guest. Tomorrow you know. Then no make problem, OK?"

"What about now?" Tom asked.

"Breakfast finish now."


Mr Batbold pointed at a sign at the entrance. Although it was in Mongolian and Russian,"7.00 - 8.30" was clear enough.

"Sorry," Tom muttered.

The black limousine and driver were waiting outside. It was another potentially brain damaging day.

The car swept around the statue of Lenin and turned into Peace Avenue. As Tom looked left down Karl Marx Avenue, he could see the mountains and the Monument to the Soviet Tank Regiment. The centre of Ulan Bator was quite different from the yurt suburbs. If it hadn't been for the occasional Buddhist temple, this could have been a provincial city anywhere in Russia. They passed the massive Sukhe Bator Square. It reminded Tom of Red Square in Moscow, but it was flanked by even more austere edifices. They swept past the grim People's Hural and the Palace of Young Technicians.

Tom muttered, "What the hell am I doing here?" Mr. Batbold swung round and looked at him fixedly. Was there a hint of menace in his eyes?


It had all started one morning with a phone call to his office...

"Hello, Tom. How are you keeping?" He recognised that voice. It was Peter Hargrime from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Oh, not so bad. How are you, Peter? I haven't heard from you for ages."

"Can’t complain. You know my job . And how about you, Tom?"

“Well, to be honest, things have been better. Business has dropped off a bit lately.”

"Then I've got some very good news for you. Something rather unusual has come up that should be right up your street. We've had this request from the Mongolian government. They want someone to go out there and help them with a bit of PR. The sort of thing you did for us, when we had that very embarrassing situation with you know who. Seems they’ve found some money from somewhere. In fact, I think it’s fair to say, there would be a lot of money in it for the right person; a lot of money. And as you're the only person I know who's ever been to the place..."


"Yes it is a bad line, isn't it? Can you still hear me all right?"

"Yes, but..."

"Oh, that's all right then. I thought I'd have to repeat the whole thing again. Well, as I was saying, you're the only person I know who's ever been to Mongolia. I remember when you showed us those pictures of you skiing, how surprised I was. You'd never imagine they'd have ski slopes in a country like that, would you? Just think £100,000, maybe more, for less than six months' work, and skiing too."

"But, that was Mo..."

"What? Hello Tom? What was that?”

Tom held the phone away from his ear and, for brief a moment, wrestled with his conscience, then he smiled like he hadn’t smiled in months: an almost, but not quite, wicked grin. Maybe this would solve all of his problems. It was fate, destiny….

"Oh, nothing. What did you say? £100,000 for six months’ work?"

It's his own bloody fault, he thought, if he doesn't know the difference between Mongolia and Moldavia. Why should I tell him?

"Yes, that's right. I knew you'd be interested. You're just the man for the job, Tom. What with the way you handled the press for us, and your previous Mongolian experience. Do you think you could get away for that long?"

I’d like to get away forever, Tom thought, from a failed marriage, a failed business, a failed everything. Even his car had failed to start that morning,

“Yes, I think I could just manage it. Let me check my diary.” He put down the phone and noisily shuffled some papers next to it. Afterwards he reflected, that wouldn’t have sounded much like a diary. And a long time after that, he wondered, Why me? Peter Hargrime never even liked me. But as he was to slowly discover, personal likes, honesty, integrity and things of that nature really didn’t have much relevance in all that was to follow.

"Here is we arrive, Mr Tom: the House of Friendly Relations." It was just another grey, three-storey, utilitarian block on
Brezhnev Street. Black birds circled overhead.

They brushed the ice and snow off their feet and deposited their coats with a stout cleaning lady who doubled up as a cloakroom attendant. Tom noticed that she had a gold medal pinned, with a rainbow-coloured ribbon, to the front of her old cardigan. When he asked Mr Batbold if she had fought in the war against the Japanese, he replied, "No. It because she five boys have. Government give medal.” Mrs Jargal, the Heroine of the State, smiled benignly at the slightly younger Mr Batbold, if not at the suspicious foreigner. She turned her back on him and walked into a dark recess, with their coats still draped over her arm.

Tom was whisked into a meeting, in a cavernous room, with a long mahogany dining table running the length of it, at the head of which sat the sinister looking, old man, who had been waiting in the limousine for him outside the airport. His name was Mr Enkhbold, and he was Mr Batbold's boss: the Director of the Committee for Relations with Capitalist Countries and U.N. Organisations. He spoke through an interpreter. They were something of a mismatch vocally: Mr Enkhbold droned on monotonously while the interpreter, a woman of faded elegance, in her late thirties, dressed in an old-fashioned business suit, said just a few words of English in a bright, almost chirpy voice. She stopped interpereting Mr Enkhbold's words momentarily, when there was a thud from the room above. He could see that she was making an effort not to turn her face upward to the source of the disturbance, and it was then that he first looked really closely at her and noticed the beginnings of the dark rings under her sad eyes.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Corner View: My Dream

The theme of this week's Corner View is My Dream. I have two big dreams in my life: one I am close to realizing and the other remains very much a dream. The first is to visit 100 countries, and those of you who have been following this blog will know, I am nearly there: just one more to go. My second dream is to become a full-time writer. In fact, if my novel The Mongolian Girl gets published, I will feel that I have had more than my share of good fortune in this life.

And as those of you who have been with me since the beginning will also recall, this is how my blog began:


An old man attired in a long brown buttonless tunic, wrapped at the waist with a saffron sash, hurried by. His brown fur hat and felt boots, with their turned up toes, had a home-made look about them. He disappeared under the staircase. Tom picked up his bags and followed. There was a little cluster of similarly attired people - Mongolians.

MIAT's only routes were to Moscow and Beijing. The entrance to their terminal at Moscow Airport was hidden away underneath a staircase. Tom sat apart from the other passengers at the end of one of the rows of grey plastic chairs.

When they got up, he followed a little behind and trudged through the light snow to the plane: it was a Tupolev. It looked old. I am lucky, he thought. There can't be more than fifteen passengers here. Nobody talked. They boarded. The plane was full. Tom was left standing in the aisle. The stewardesses pleaded with some of the passengers in Russian. They'd barricaded themselves in their seats with their cardboard suitcases and plastic bags. Grudgingly, they made space for him, and he found himself squeezed next to a grey-faced Russian. Tom's long legs were always caused problem on planes. The passenger in front turned round with a look of annoyance as the points of Tom's knees dug into the back of his seat. Grey Face started to rebuild his barricade. Lucky I'm in a good mood, Tom thought. That's when he first noticed the Mongolian passengers staring at him. It's not so surprising really. At 6ft 2in he was about a foot taller than most of them, and he looked strange: reddish hair; green eyes; pink skin. There had never been a Mongolian like that. Actually, it was the brand names on his clothes and baggage that they were staring at. They'd seen plenty of Russians before, but not many wore Levi jeans and Timberland boots.

"You first class."

Tom shifted nervously in his seat. "Who me?"

The midnight-blue-uniformed stewardesses on Mongolian Airlines were as one would have expected: Mongolian; the planes and the uniforms were Russian.


Yes, she did mean him. Tom started to rise.

She beckoned. He followed. The other passengers turned to watch him pass. She led him from the cramped confines of Economy class, with its in-flight cold sardines on stale bread, through a grey curtain. Tom hesitated, then entered the small first class section. It seemed to be full of men in grey suits. She ushered him into an empty seat and gave him a bronze-coloured plastic Buddha and a small bottle of Chinggis Khan vodka. Little did he realise what a significant role Chinggis Khan vodka was about to play in his life.

Tom was in seat 1a, with his Chinggis Khan vodka and a plastic Buddha, as the plane came in for a bumpy landing in Irkutsk. It was -27 degrees Celsius and there was a layer of grey ice on the runway. Tom's head ached with the intense cold. He had heard that if you spent too long outside without wearing a hat in those temperatures, you would suffer irreparable brain damage. Tom didn't have a hat. He'd never needed one in Henley-on-Thames. He shivered the two hundred yards to the small, grey, concrete airport building. It wasn't all pale greyness. On one side of the building there were two dark grey trees, and perched on one of them was a scarlet-breasted bullfinch. Tom wondered if it was brain damaged. It probably was. What sane bullfinch would have chosen to perch on a leafless tree at a desolate airport in the middle of Siberia in January?

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 Mongolia 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 outside 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 looked 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. It looked a tranquil enough scene. But, perhaps Tom would have stayed on the plane if he had known that one night all of the inhabitants of one of these blocks would pour out of their yurts, form a raging mob and chase him down one of those dirt tracks.; 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.


The Tupolev landed with a bump and skidded to a halt at the end of the runway. Tom stepped off the plane and looked up at the snow-covered mountains. On one of them he could see the Monument to Soviet Soldiers. The country was overrun with Soviet troops, helping to keep the Moscow-backed regime in power. The Berlin Wall had just fallen and revolution was in the air.

He was met at the airport by Mr Batbold, the Secretary General of the Committee for Relations with Capitalist Countries, a squarely-built, dark-suited man, in his mid-forties, who was clearly aware of his own importance. Tom was waved through passport control and customs ahead of all the other passengers. He looked back over his shoulder at the heaving mass of fur-clad people poring over the scattered contents of opened suitcases, and desperately hacking away at boxes, under the impatient gaze of the immigration officers. Mr. Batbold grabbed his elbow and led him away. There was no turning back now.

They hurried out of the dark, congested airport building into the Land of the Blue Skies. Mr Batbold took his bags and loaded them into an ancient, black Russian limousine. Inside were the driver and an elderly man with a sinister face. They were both swathed in several layers of clothing, surmounted with mink hats. Neither of them appeared to speak any English, but the old man looked at Tom suspiciously and whispered to Mr Batbold as they swept through the snow-clad landscape.

Mr Batbold frequently rubbed his eyebrows. He looked tense. Tom wondered why. He didn't know that when he was somewhere above Eastern Europe, the first Mongolian opposition party had been established at a mass rally in Sukhe Bator Square. They were demanding a multi-party system in this, the second oldest communist state in the world, where thousands had been executed for expressing milder views in Stalinist-style purges.

They drove quickly and silently through the yurt suburbs. Tom stared out of the window, but could see no sign of life, until they entered a square. The car screeched to a halt behind a statue of Lenin. They had arrived at the Sukhe Bator Hotel, a grey, oblong block. Mr Batbold guided Tom through the pile of forms the receptionist had thrust at him, which was just as well as she didn't speak any English and seemed to consider the arrival of a guest who spoke neither Russian nor Mongolian quite outrageous, if not something to be actively discouraged. As Mr Batbold turned to go Tom opened his mouth and almost said something, but what could he say? This has all been a dreadful mistake. Can I go home now?

At the end of a long corridor covered with threadbare, red carpet, he reached Room 315, where he fell into a fitful sleep, staring at a long, dingy, brown stain on the wall and listening to a pneumatic drill at the building site conveniently located outside his window. He awoke several hours later with a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. He returned to the reception desk; it was deserted. There was an eerily large dining hall; it was also deserted.

Tom wandered around, forlornly, clutching Mr Batbold's calling card in one hand, and periodically calling out, "Hello. Is anybody there?" His voice echoed around the empty hall. Then, he saw the kitchen door and entered, groaning, "Food". A stout woman in a blood-spattered apron tried to shoo him away. A younger woman emerged at her elbow. Tom rubbed his stomach and clutched his clawed fingers to his mouth. The two women seemed to be arguing.

The result was that Tom returned to his room with a bottle of something brown, sweet and fizzy, two slices of stale bread and some lukewarm chunks of fatty mutton, like a mouse scurrying back to his bolt-hole. The pneumatic drill fell silent.

He awoke again briefly to the sound of a group of men shouting next door, but his head was too heavy to lift until six hours later when a black Bakelite telephone, of the sort that he had seen in 1940s detective films, started ringing, "Durring, durring, durring..."

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