And as those of you who have been with me since the beginning will also recall, this is how my blog began:
THE MONGOLIAN GIRL - PART ONE
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
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
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
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
The plane was, at last, flying into the awesome vastness of the People's Republic of
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
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
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..."