The Great Escape

By Hartley, Aidan | The Spectator, May 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Great Escape


Hartley, Aidan, The Spectator


Gobi Desert When tourists from the world's crowded cities first encounter Mongolia's steppe, an ocean of grass empty of humans, they frequently turn hysterical.

They weep, strip naked and run about like idiots. My own urge to do this was thwarted by the temperature, which can be colder than the North Pole in mid-winter and is still freezing in spring. I was surprised that my director James and I even got our press visas to Mongolia. Recently, South Koreans posing as serious journalists had made a porn movie starring Ulan Bator's university freshers. Members of the Great Khural parliament were sorely offended.

Mongolians, I sensed, are not a people to be abused.

In Jasper Becker's wonderful book The Lost Country, I read how, under Genghis Khan, a sheep thief had to return the stolen animals plus an equal number in compensation. If he had no livestock, he had to pay with his children. And if he had no offspring to give he would be slaughtered like a sheep himself, his belly ripped open and his heart squeezed by the executioner until it ceased beating.

Ulan Bator's downtown is all Genghis statues, rotting Stalinist era concrete, karaoke bars and coal smog. In suburbs of felt tents and whaling station-style shacks, the men are often so drunk on fermented mare's milk that they remind me of sailors on deck in a typhoon. The women, meanwhile, are handsome dominatrixes in high riding boots. The Mongolian language sounds like Mr Bean in full throttle, but I can read their facial expressions better than those of other Orientals. I wonder if there might be good genetic reasons for this, given that Genghis raped many of our ancestors.

The only Englishmen I've met are both from Manchester. They talk dreamily of Mongolia as others might about the South Sea Islands. Andy is gaga about fly-fishing for goliath taimon and riding across the taiga north of the last settlement called Moron. The other is Robin, who has settled here for good. 'I grew up being used to twisty lanes, little fields and bridges, ' he says. 'Britain's all pretend, a guidebook, a right-of-way path. There are no paths in Mongolia. You drive where you want, pitch your tent where you like. Mongolia hasn't been enclosed and herders move with their flocks where they please.' The steppe begins immediately we leave town and head south into a treeless landscape dotted with yaks, ponies, Bactrian camels and goats. …

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