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..."


  1. Wauw, how great is that, 100 countries and your book published!


  2. Ian, I'm glad your one dream is almost completed. 100 countries, truly amazing. How long did it take you to visit 100 countries?
    I'm sending positive thought for your second dream to come true too. Is the book fiction or non? Oops sorry for all the questions.

  3. WOW! That is fantastic! I can't wait to read the full book.

  4. Best wishes with making the rest of your dream come true.

    (hope you could make it to Bionic Bong!, once you get past the name, it's a fun place to visit)

  5. Joyce, it's taken 39 years. My first foreign country was the Netherlands in 1970. My novel is, well, a novel.

  6. All the best for your 2nd dream !!!

  7. Hello Ian, I'm happy that you are so close to complete one of your biggest dreams. To visit and live in 100 countries is quite an achievement! It's a marvellous subject for a book too. I haven't read any of your "The Mongolian Girl" parts yet but I feel it's the highest time to make myself cup of tea and read...

    Best wishes,

  8. I wish you to realize your second dream !! I have the same ;) so I understand how it is important !!! And for you comments on your nights... I see what you mean too !!!

  9. We share the same dreams. But, you got the guts I don´t! Good for u. Great blog.

  10. Good luck with publishing Ian. Hoping both your dreams will be realized :) Cheers!

  11. How wonderful and refreshing to read of dreams realized. I can't wait to read the full book and would love to see a list of the countries you've visited.

  12. Must feel amazing to be so very very close to your dreams coming true... wonderful wonderful times!

  13. 100 Countries? That's exciting. A lot of people will never even travel outside of their own country in their lifetime. What a great dream.

  14. Great dreams and I do hope you manage to get your book published!! I think 100 countries is pretty impressive - when I think I have managed 20 I smile....100 would be amazing!Where will the final country be and what is your favourite (evil question I know!)?

  15. Wow! Well done!! You must be very excited.
    I am quite sure you are not so far to accomplish your second dream! You look like someone who doesn't forget his dreams and who takes the necessary steps to get there. Congrats and best wishes!!

  16. Those dreams are great! It's incredible you visited 99 countries, how i wish i had... sorry i don't understand enough english to read your novel but i'm sure it's great too. So, good luck for your second dream!

  17. It's so good to see someone actually living out their dreams. Good luck with the book. I, for one, am eager for more!

  18. je te souhaite de réaliser tes rêves! surtout le dernier!
    bonne soirée!

  19. They are very different dreams, and you almost lived out. I wish you the best of luck with the publishing world!
    PS I wrote a more inspired comment a while ago, but blogger is not liking me, or non-blogger-IDs today!

  20. I would love to live your first dream !!! And can't wait for you to realize your second dream so I can read what looks like it will be an amazing book !!!

  21. but you are a full time writer !!! Lucky you are to travel and to have this talent !

  22. that's a kind of frustration si I will dream to be able to read what's next....
    I hope your dream will happen soon...

  23. You are a very inspiring man, Ian!

  24. Good luck with your book project. I will now get large cafe latte and start reading the two parts:-)

  25. those are two great dreams! i wish you will see them come true soon :)

    i did not read the mongolian girl yet, i will come back when i have some more time to appreciate it (coincidentally, that is exactly what i am dreaming about, time ;)

  26. best of luck, ian!
    well, first one's already in the bag but best of luck with the novel (have to admit I haven't read it yet either but shall do when I find the time to. I'm v. curious)

    you are also v. trusting sharing your "baby" here, I find. how does that work in the world of internet plagiarism and all that lark?

  27. Oh Ian - i love it. I'd pre buy!

    I haven't read...what's the last country going to be?

  28. May your dream come true, Ian! I have not read your novel, but I promise I will. Ciao

  29. i raise my hat!

  30. Inspiring to see you following your dreams, and make them come true! I'll come back to read the novel - seems really great!!


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