Hopefully you caught the 2nd episode of Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure, broadcast last Sunday. If not; you can find it and episode 1 here on ITVPlayer for the next three weeks. As with a holiday that’s coming to an end too soon, we’re already on course for the final episode of the trilogy, set to air on 26th July. My only real criticism of the series is that it leaves you wanting more – a lot more! Such are the potential riches available for exploration.
To be pedantic; Joanna’s adventures so far have been northwestward along the Trans-Mongolian railway that connects with the main Trans-Siberian line at Ulan-Uday, west of Lake Baikal. It’s a much more interesting proposition than a jaunt from main-line Vladivostok, heading west. “Here we are at the used car capital of Eastern Siberia” she might have said as the journey commenced. Hmm, not so good. It’s safe to assume that culturally and historically, China and Mongolia ‘won’ hands-down.
Last week’s consultation with the Mongolian shaman was a particularly haunting sequence, involving the channeling of an ancestor and the delivery of oddly relevant information concerning Joanna’s deceased mother. Taking it all in her professional stride, she continues in Mongolia with a squeeze into an unfeasibly tight looking saddle for a horse ride around the steppe.
Her hosts are a family of nomads who follow the traditional Mongolian life-style; moving small herds through rich grassland whilst living out of eminently practical and portable gers. It was interesting to finally witness something of the production of fermented mare’s milk and cheese – the products being famous world-wide though an everyday occurrence to the average rural Mongolian.
It’s also remarkable just how welcoming, good natured and hospitable the family are. Perhaps the situation is somewhat engineered, but even Joanna remarks upon it, recalling similar encounters with indigenous people across the world. Their lives may be simpler and relatively impoverished when compared to the average Westerner, but it quickly becomes apparent that their riches lie elsewhere. As I read somewhere: “Some people are so poor; all they have is money”. Food for thought.
As promised last week; we got to see the incredible monument to Ghengis Khan located 50 Km out of Ulaanbaatar, Monglolia’s capital. It’s a stainless steel statue of the man himself astride his war horse. The whole construction is 40 metres high and rises out of the steppe to face East, as if to ward off former enemies. The artistry is worthy of note, being rendered in a dynamic, almost futurist style – unusual for a monument to history, but it’s a strangely dualistic experience to witness the statue and confront just what it represents. Beyond the initial awe, there is the issue of who the man was, what he achieved and at what expense. Joanna skirts around the issue when meeting the man who bankrolled the piece; she’s a guest in a strange land after all.
A colleague of mine was more direct, stating plainly: “I’m not impressed with monuments to mass murderers”. As Joanna reveals in commentary; Ghengis Khan was responsible for the slaughter of around 40 million people, and the word “slaughter” is quite appropriate when you consider how the victims (a massive proportion of them were civilians) actually died. That’s not counting the slavery, financial ruin and other (not immediately fatal) ordeals that were wrought upon foreign populations during his ongoing world conquest. National pride does strange things to your vision and hindsight.
Joanna touches upon another Mongolian issue: that of the the current ‘gold rush’. It’s a country in the process of exploding onto the global financial stage due to its vast and largely untapped mineral reserves. Gold is just one of the commodities on offer – but it’s certainly the most seductive as we see in the glitter of nuggets, both in the sun and in Ms Lumley’s eyes. The unsmiling heavies that surround her seem notably unmoved however as they wait to rugby-tackle her to the floor, should she make a run for it, treasure-in-hand.
By contrast, the horrific, monstrous gash in the ground, populated by dump-trucks is a testimony to the other-side of a financial boom; A Yin for the Yang. It is supposed to be filled in when the excavations are over, but just when exactly is that? You’ve got to hope that the obvious pride that Mongolians have for their country and culture will prevent them (and others) from destroying both in return for some inequitably distributed wealth.
The excursion to the studio of an instrumental and throat-singing group is welcome for both its relative levity and for the excellence of the work at hand. Their form of vocal performance coaxes both a lower root-note and a pronounced harmonic, simultaneously from the same set of vocal cords. The haunting result resembles a combination of human didgeridoo and wind-in-the-wires, and is better heard than described – especially when it’s accompanied by the diverse ensemble of modern and traditional instruments that the group expertly employs.
Other musical treats presented by Joanna include a group of enthusiasts preserving the tradition of Victorian ballroom dancing and the self-styled Jimi Hendrix of bell-ringing in Irkutsk! There’s also an insight into the methodology of the train-bound clothing smuggler and a cautionary tale of what happens when you surreptitiously try to film Russian customs officers at work. Basically: don’t. All in all, this was an episode full of great insights.
Next time: Lake Baikal and much more.