I believe Genghis Khan, as we know him in the West, has one of the most variably spelled names in world history. In his own land of Mongolia, they call him Chinggis Khaan, and when I saw the sign outside the airport in Ulaanbaatar proclaiming it the Chinggis Khaan International, it immediately – and shamefully – invoked a lesser cultural identity, largely forgotten early 2000s hip-hopper Chingy.
You can see why I made the instant comparison.
Noble bearings ahoy.
One likes grilling meat; one has grills.
Both have stupid hats.
Actually, the striking parallels go beyond their names. Both obviously enjoy(ed) music, though from the divergent genres of rap and throat-singing. And both left indelible legacies – Chinggis going on to indirectly sire literally 0.5% of the entire male population today; and of course Chingy had his epoch-defining hit Right Thurr. There are probably
far deeper depths to be plumbed in re Chingy (he went on to contribute such classic tunes as Holidae In and make a classic cameo appearance in Scary Movie 4), but for now, let’s stick to the Mongolian warrior legend.
As I waited at the airport for my ride to the hotel, no doubt delayed by some sort of yak-related traffic jam, an old man put a postcard of Chinggis in my handbag. “For free”, he said. “Dor-jeh!” I responded, continuing my recent tradition of just speaking Cantonese in any country I happen to end up in. I don’t know whether he understood the Guangdong-ian tongue or just took an opportunistic opening, but he quickly handed me a piece of paper outlining (in English) that his wife and kids had died last year in a yurt fire. I touched my heart in what I hoped was a universal gesture of sympathy but he indicated that he would prefer money of any currency. The Hong Kong change I handed him didn’t suffice, and he demanded HK$100 for his postcard. My sympathy turned to indignation and a distinct feeling of being about to get mugged as he reached into my handbag to try to get my wallet. At that moment my driver, a large youth in a black puffer jacket, finally arrived. He seemed nonplussed at my predicament, merely uttering a few laconic throat gargles toward my elderly harasser before leading the way to the car, where he told me to sit in the front and then proceeded to reach over me to put my seatbelt on – a wholly unappreciated and alarming service.
As we drove out of the airport, I was ready to turn back and return to Hong Kong, would there be any more frequent than every-two-days flights there. So far I’d had dealings with two people, and both had finely upheld the barbarian reputation.
I longed to see a ruddy-faced child in national costume, or a white brumby, or some lovely cashmere to balance the ledger, but alas the road from Chinggis International to Ulaanbaatar proper is a journey in depression. It starts promisingly with this welcoming archway…
..but doesn’t continue as it began, with mile after mile of potholed road lined with mounds of dirt. This is a city under rapid construction, and apparently they get all the excavated earth and rocks from every building site and dump it down the side of the main road, where it serves as an open pissing trough for the gentlemen of the outlying suburbs. In the distance I could see some hopeful glimpses of colourful yurt-type accommodations, but they were largely concealed by belching smoke stacks. I saw a single straggly pack of yaks wending their way over the uric dirt.
Everyone was wearing black or grey, and the prevailing transport arrangement appeared to be to simply wait on the dirt verge and try to hitch a ride with any passing car. Very few cars stopped and I have to wonder how businesses operate here. How can you get to work on time when your arrival depends on whether a jalopy stops or not – and when it does, whether you can fight your countrymen for a seat? Or, maybe work start times aren’t a thing in a country like Mongolia.
As I nervously did that thing where you dodge potential collisions with your head while inside the car, my driver – confusingly driving in the “right” side of the car but also on the right side of the road – executed complex pothole-avoiding manoeuvres, along with every other driver on the road. A fraught situation. I looked desperately for a sign of what made this a country so beloved of the marauding hordes. What made Chinggis keep returning here?
Actually, it wasn’t too hard to see – pending much better eyesight and open-mindedness than mine these days. Behind the monochromatic mounds of mud, downtrodden faces, drab clothes, and unsealed roads masquerading as proper highways, was this:
I just had to open my eyes (and also change from sunglasses to my prescription specs). But I could see it. I could see what Chinggis must have seen as he drove his magnificent steed over the ridges of the Khangai mountain range, his band of boors following behind with woollen hats and frosted breath and lots of joints of meat. He would have thought, “Yep, this is alright. I can start siring my 16 million descendants in the joint. Pitch the yurts you guys.”
Ulaanbaatar is a city of only 800,000 people. It has the only international airport in Mongolia. The Trans-Siberian railway runs through on its journey from Beijing to Moscow. Considering these mitigations with a kindlier (and better-seeing) eye, I began to find the potholes rustic and the slight variation in shades of grey trenchcoat charming reflections of individuality.
The open pissing was still foul.
My hotel was fittingly called the Blue Sky.
When I woke up on the second morning, and the weather had moved on from the light storm of the night before to glorious sunshine, I instantly understood why this land is almost as famous for its sky as its warrior legend. The rising sun was so huge and bright I couldn’t take a photo of it. BUT YOU KNOW I MADE SOME SHITTY ATTEMPTS.
The job I was here to do was a deposition, being conducted in the hotel room of the taking attorney and his wife. I had a number of technical problems, caused either by my bag coming off the plane soaking wet from melted ice, or else my plugging everything in without checking voltage/grounding requirements. It was satisfying to be able to resolve every problem that arose with either ingenuity or luck, and the clients received the seamless realtime they had ordered, none the wiser to my travails. That was pleasing. So was the view from the room.
There were a lot of breaks, where the Mongolian interpreter told us about the development of the Mongolian language and its devolution away from its traditional form, and Russian. They had also never seen realtime, or indeed stenography, so we all learned something.
The job finished early enough for me to cruise across the street to Sakhbaatar Square, home of the Mongolian parliament, government house, stock exchange – and a random dinosaur museum in a shipping container. And, at last, a collection of adorable ruddy-faced kids.
I walked around the massive square for two hours or so, enraptured by the quaint Mongolian-ness of everything.
Wildflowers! Couples on tandem bikes! Ubiquitous gatherings of old men interfering in each other’s games of chess!
This singular excursion was one of the more magical experiences of my life.
Ultimately, Mongolia gave me one awful day and one truly breath-taking one, with an interesting job in the middle. That’s probably a win, despite my complete failure to ride a yak or consume any snack food made from one, or set foot inside a yurt.
On the flight home, on little-known airline Hunnus Air’s prestige service of three flights a week to Hong Kong, in one of its fleet of tiny unstable planes that appear to be made of balsa wood and get airborne using Wright-brothers-style aviation techniques, I sat next to two Australian travelling companions. The far elder of the two was a 92-year-old New South Welshman who was “in property” and had been looking at Mongolian joints to get his hands on, I guess. He took photos out the plane window as we flew low over central Chinese villages using an actual film camera. This anachronistic behaviour encouraged me to do this blog by pen WHAT.
The lady was the owner of one of the biggest sheepholdings in Australia (somewhere in Adelaide). She was heading home because an ex-Argentinian president and his casual entourage of 75 people were coming to stay on her farm to learn about carbon credit in grasslands. I don’t know how she’d paired up with Ole Manual Focus Property Mogul, but her business in Ulaanbaatar had been helping Mongolian officials see that if they can get their international currency situation stabilised, they are ripe to make a nation-changing amount of credit from their endless community-owned steppeland. Chinggis was too busy marauding, and also just by dint of existing in the 11th century, to conceive of trading grass for carbon credits, but he’d surely approve. It’s a brash scheme perfectly suited to these brassy-faced people under their golden sun and infinite sky – and with a nice full-circle link to the nomadic past. In fact maybe they’re already savvy to it and that’s why they whiz freely on the dirt mounds – fertilising their future.
Once again, the things I have been lucky to learn simply by knowing how to press a few buttons on a little machine. To cite one of Chingy’s more apropos lyrics, “Twerk ya meat, go get it till it hurts ya feet” (er…what the hell?). (Turns out Chingy doesn’t actually have any apropos lyrics. Of anything.)
PS It’s a statistical probability that Chinggis is actually Chingy’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (claim made without reference to any DNA sequencing research). The circle of life. Freaks me the fuck out!
I was down with Right Thurr
but you’re dead to me after that twerking thing, idiot.