Trips and Tales (Part 85)
Launching the (literally) forbidden fruit out of the train compartment and into the carriage’s corridor was a pointed non-verbal statement that MA‘s companion would no longer tolerate their payed-for private space being casually used as someone else’s illicit fruit barrow.
When words (in another’s language) are not enough to wield successfully in your argument, then actions speak much louder. Volumes in fact. Volumes of smuggled, lazily half-hidden yellow-green fruit clattering out into the walkways. “Companion” had started a craze amongst the disgruntled in-comers who, in a display of solidarity, duly followed suit. A unified act of protest and rebellion, much to the irritation of the uniformed Mongolian provodnitsas.
How to cut straight through the conventions of politeness and formality, down to unearth pure hostility both in another tongue and with corrupted authority on its side. Not a great place to be.
There seems to be a common thread, by all reports, that those peoples of the world who are often renowned for their open hospitality and welcoming of strangers, are also folk that you really don’t want to hack-off, lest their positive ebullience be flip-switched into the negative, and with equal gusto. Oh dear, not a good start to a voyage into Mongolia. After the barked orders, the decipherable and indecipherable anger and the uneasy peace that followed, the impression of the impending country was unlike the fruit, decidedly sour. Fortunately, the balance would later be redressed.
Hasn’t there always been a deal to be done here though? Or an angle to “pull”, in an attempt to get something done outside of the official channels? The bribery price list offered at the clerk’s desk for the fast-track, or the right phone number called to ensure that you exited customs with your Western laptop still in your possession. Maybe the tourists just don’t “get” how things are done.
I recall stories of rare books or even rare dogs imported for favours during the communist era, when money was worth so much less in comparison. Or of strategically placed foreign cash exchanging hands for an aircraft to have its departure lane blocked by a “carelessly” placed fuel tanker, thereby gaining a precious hour to accommodate an incoming connection. Apparently, the only difference these days is that it’s all just less overt. But that’s about it.
Buryatia had passed like a blur, largely because MA had known little of it prior to his excursion here. The territory’s cupped hand supporting Lake Baikal on the map was but a shallow southerly passage, of similar steppe and similar faces, its boundaries lost in the slow cultural cross-fade from pale European skin to darkening Asiatic whilst the carriages and platforms repeatedly looped their on-board, off-board cycle.
So he had visited Buryatia without realising it, that’s how it seems. Heading west, off Baikal’s southerly tip he had ventured on a trek into what must have been the extended Buryatian homeland, through villages of astounding poverty by any Western standard. Silent wooden-slat houses with lives hidden within, all surrounded by modest grounds converted to garden small-holdings in an effort to cultivate nutrition amidst the hardship. What exactly do they eat, he had wondered; fish probably, game certainly. The diet here is mostly meat, with not a veggie-burger in sight. Oh those first-world problems.
Standing out against the squalor, a clue as to how they manage: diminutive Orthodox churches at odds with the downbeat shacks, preened and maintained and displaying a faith who’s buoyancy could perhaps maintain a community’s cohesion throughout the rigours of a Siberian winter. A scenario that we could hardly contemplate, let alone endure. Entering one of these sacred places, he had been cautiously monitored by a local woman and her silenced offspring, lest he put a foot wrong in this small community’s pride and joy. Fortunately he did not, and left with photographic image of the church’s guardian and children, by way of reward. So that was Buryatia.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 86) In and out of Ulaanbaatar: A strange and familiar land
[Photo by David Berkowitz]