Marching across the steppe

I’ve just finished Tim Cope’s On the trail of Genghis Khan. I enjoyed it a lot. Partially, for me, that’s because it’s so evocative of an incredibly beautiful part of the world.

Cope tells the story of his journey on horseback, starting from Mongolia, riding across the steppe. It’s a remarkable story; even at 440 pages, that’s only a summary of the three years he spent on horseback, across an incredible number of different landscapes, in different countries, with different adventures.

Cope’s writing isn’t brilliant, but it doesn’t need to be. The story itself, and the experiences that he’s had, are remarkable, and he tells them well, without getting in the way of the story. There are points where he walks a delicate balance between telling parts of his personal history that are inextricably bound up with the story (a relationship break-up early on, and a death that leaves him devastated), but also being discreet at points (he meets some very real characters on his journey).

I found the book quite moving, because it reminds me of an incredibly beautiful place. If you like long riding, or central Asia, you’ll love this book. If you like good adventure travel writing, you’ll probably enjoy it; if you’re looking for writing that’s brilliant in itself regardless of the topic, this may not be for  you.

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More books :)

I just finished The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (and, on googling, I just found out there’s a movie). I enjoyed it. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but it felt as though it was a little different than whatever it was I expected. Perhaps because he didn’t talk so much about the mental experience of being trapped in his own body? I’d thought there would be more of that, perhaps – but it was more reminiscing, imagining, drifting. Lovely, but I didn’t feel that I understood much better, at the end, what it was like to be him, as a person with locked-in syndrome. 

The other one I read was The Naked and the Dead. Which was excellent. Mailer creates an in-depth world, one that feels real, and present, and because he picks the right scale, it manages to be a story about a part of the war, where you see the soldiers and the general. No sense of the overarching sweep of it, but a sense of what it might have been like to be there, a little bit. 

Some of his flashbacks felt incongruous – possibly it was as simple as the formatting, a typographical marker when there weren’t any others anywhere in the novel, and it might have been done more simply with words. 

One thing I did really enjoy was how he portrayed human minds, human experiences of the world, shifting rapidly between one state and another: 

But the moods all change. After they become drunk, there is the pleasurable sadness of late spring evenings, the cognition of all hope and longing arrayed against the casual ugly attrition of time. A good mood …

There are others, but I’ve lost the pages. It’s worth reading. 

Oh; and while I won’t say too much, for fear of spoiling the plot, Mailer in this one does a brilliant job of investing in every character, even in those who will die suddenly halfway through. Well before Game of Thrones was willing to kill characters you’d started to care about, apparently Mailer was already doing it. 

Whistling cont.

I’ve already come across some ideas about whistling in Mongolia – like the idea that it causes snow and storms. But I came across a few new ideas recently. I was talking to someone, and he suggested that some believed it can attract snakes – or that if you whistle inside, your income will fall. Apparently, the snake belief is linked to the idea that whistling is how snakes communicate – a sort of parseltongue, perhaps.

The other interesting thing I learnt was that apparently Mongolian has two words for whistling. шүгэлдэх and исгэрэх convey different types of whistling – I think it’s perhaps as to whether you’re using a whistle, or just your lips?

Strangers in strange lands

As someone who’s lived in a few countries at various points, and quite often felt like an outsider, I’m fascinated by Ta-Nehsi Coates’ recent journey to Europe (France and Switzerland). 

At 8:45 I will board a ship. It will punch through the sky. At some point, God willing, that ship will emerge over airspace far from the beloved West Baltimore of my youth.

From an earlier piece

I am feeling the need to, again, express to you how precisely afraid I am. My passport arrived last Friday and I was — all at once — excited and horrified…I don’t know. I don’t know anything. This is truly frightening — and exhilarating — part of language study. It’s total submission. All around you will be people who know much more than you about everything. And the only way to learn is to accept this. You can’t know what’s coming next. You can’t think about false goals like fluency. You just have to accept your own horribleness, your own ignorance and believe–almost on faith–that someday you will be less horrible and less ignorant. 

I think when I arrived in Mongolia, earlier in the year, I went through many of the same reactions. It’s strange to see them and recognise them in someone who’s so honest and open about them (mine are buried away in a journal on a different computer that I can’t access at this very moment). And to remember them, too – even in being here for only nine months I’ve found a strange new kind of normal. The kind where you don’t belong (because you never will), but you understand a little about some of the rules that apply to you, the foreigner, in a strange place. And it’s easy to forget that strangeness, and the good things that come with it .

Because as TNC goes on to say in a later piece

The loneliness was intense. I knew at a least few people in Paris. But this train winding through high and gorgeous country, leaving behind small Hallmark towns, was truly taking me into foreign depths… I have spent almost as much time away from my family in the past year as I’ve spent with them. Is this how it’s supposed to be? Is learning forever winding through these strange and foreign places?  Is study the opposite of home?

I think going to strange places is learning – in a way. Part of it is how you carry yourself, how you walk through a new setting. TNC, undoubtedly, will reflect and process and learn and grow. I try to do the same things, to make the things that I am experiencing food for my thinking, to reflect and use things as an opportunity to grow. It’s easy to do the reverse – to cling to what you know all the tighter, and it’s a habit I fall into often enough.

But at the moment (sometimes my opinions change) I think that part of learning is coming back into the comfort zone, to places you have been before, and seeing how you interact differently. Having been overseas for a while I’m ready to be back. I think I’ll see old places differently, old situations in a new way, and … that’ll be a good thing. 

Perhaps it’s that overused word, liminality. Being in a strange place we see new things, but we also see simple things with fresh eyes. And coming back, too, we see the old with new eyes, and that changes things for us. 

Ulaanbaatar

Now that the weather’s warmer, I’ve been walking around a little more with my camera.

Along the streets.

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On the sidewalk outside the secret police (former KGB/internal security) building.Image

Past Government house after a light dusting of snow.Image

The next weekend I wandered into the Natural History Museum, where they have a dinosaur hall. You’re not actually allowed to take photos, but there’s a balcony overlooking it from a different floor, so that was okay. I particularly liked the shadows the dinosaur skeletons cast.

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I was also struck by this display of two skeletons (not sure if they’re real, or what they’re meant to convey) – I really liked the dim lighting and the way they just grinned back at the museum visitor.

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After lunch, a final stop at the гандин monastery

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Where I saw the amazing three story statue in the main temple. For a number of reasons these photos aren’t great – I found it hard to capture a sense of how big the thing is. It really is three stories tall, and in this high, dusty building. It’s quite an experience. ImageImage