Trips and Tales (Part 86)
The first Gerr had been a memorable milestone, as viewed from the snaking train. An understated announcement of arrival and at the same time a statement to redress a Western tourist’s rustic expectations. The small fire’s coil of smoke and the attendant relaxed horses set a scene completed by satellite dish and solar panel. The whole ensemble completed a model that would define rural normality throughout the region.
This fits with other reports about the Mongolian people, proud to maintain their identity still, after 200 years of subjugation by China and a further 70 under Russian control.
Sure, they’ll embrace elements of external modernity, should these prove useful to supplement full lifestyles rich with their own tradition, culture, values and identity, but in no way are they about to abandon it all in a bid to embrace the West. Not a chance.
Well, you’ve got to hope that it will stay that way. The nation is barely 20 years into its democratically independent incarnation and stands with a vast mineral wealth yet to be exploited and, by extension, exported.
As the evidence of history attests, when first world industry arrives waving denominations of hard cash in a bid to cart off your natural resources, things tend not to pan out too well for the general population at large, not to mention the scenery. Although a relative few in the upper echelons of control usually do very nicely, thank you. If any nation can hold out against an imported greed and corruption time-bomb, it may well be Mongolia. It has the experience of surviving murderous oppression; let’s see how it copes with the insidious lure of affluence.
It’s easy to moralise here in Western comfort. As with the melon smugglers (see last post), we can’t expect seemingly untainted nations to remain impoverished just because we find the “purity” of it quaint.
We may never have to bounce across the steppe by jeep (or even horseback) with a broken leg, because there are no ambulances (or even roads) to whisk us smoothly away and into hospital. Experience that and then make the call about the evil influence of imported wealth.
One Western import that is bizarrely ubiquitous, popular and cheap to pursue is Western Premier League football, viewed on cafe screens or via domestic satellite boxes wherever reception is available. MA recalls conversations on the train concerning names such as Beckham, Rooney, Lampard and the relative merits thereof. How strange. As within certain unlikely depths of India or Africa (so I hear), you are more likely to have an enthusiastic discussion on the performance of Manchester United than the performance of the local economy. However, in spite of sharing the immediate joviality of common, border-transcending ground, trouble had effectively been summoned back at Lake Baikal. And now that trouble was here.
Misinterpreting a warning about the rigours of the Lake Baikal trek, MA and Companion had both read it instead as a challenge: a red flag to a bull, and had set out determined to show the trip organisers – and nature – who was boss. Sure enough they had succeeded, admirably staying the course, but now it was time for payback. Companion‘s gout had duly flared up in complaint of the strain, laying him low for several days and throwing the trip’s schedule awry.
So, the aggravation of the melon-smuggling incident compounded by physical incapacity, and now a paid-for schedule incapable of being met. What to do?
Fortunately the balance was about to be redressed, in the form of their Mongolian guide T who, as MA put it, was a true ambassador for Mongolia, cheerfully doing everything he could to re-arrange the scripted events once the magnitude of Companion‘s sickness had been brought home to him. This included an improvised meet-up in a down-town Ulaanbaatar coffee bar for some of that big-screen UK Premier League action: the ubiquitous international ice-breaker.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 87) In and out of Ulaanbaatar: Horse trail etiquette
[Photo by David Berkowitz]