Stanley Stewart shares with us in his book about his travel through the lands of Genghis Khan. Even before he gets to Mongolia, you get to enjoy his anecdotes from traversing what is to me an obscure corner of our planet: Central Asia. And, I may add, a part of the world I am dying to explore myself, inspired partly by another book I reviewed earlier: The Alluring Target.
Stanley, or “Stalin” which was the closest some people could get to his name, shares about his journey which started in Istanbul, crossing the Black Sea on a ship where he met some interesting characters. Two of those characters in this ship, which was no cruise liner, Anna and Olga, were described as a “dramatic illustration of the way that Slavic women seem unable to find any middle ground between slim grace and stout coarseness.” And this will be the freedom that he uses along the book to describe his experiences and the sights. His observations are funny and truly helped me picture the scenes.
He hits Sevastopol, recently in the news to the Russian invasion of the Crimea, and eventually trains his way across parts of Russia eventually exiting it at Kazakhstan. Perhaps Russia invaded the Crimea this year to get Sevastopol because, as he explains, back in Soviet times, Russians from Moscow would go down there “just to look at the vegetables.” LOL, Putin just needs some fiber! He also finds -and shares with us- wisdom he gets from a Russian: “In Russia, everything takes time. We have a saying: ‘The first 500 years are always the worst.’ ” Good news: no dictator lasts even a fifth of that, right?!
In any case, the author keeps moving east and begins talking more about the focus of this epic journey: Genghis Khan. He explains how Genghis could not respect towns as he was a nomad from the steppes, who viewed townsfolk with pity, from “a position of cultural and moral superiority” while viewing settled farmers as nothing more than a “flock of sheep.” The freedom of the nomadic life was highly valued. Therefore, destroying these settled peoples did not trouble good ole Genghis. Mongols were seen at the footsteps of Vienna but like the Ottomans later, they did not make it there. No, it wasn’t a Polish king that saved Vienna from the Mongols (like from the Ottomans) but it was an odd thing that kept them out: the Khan of those days died; and all the Mongols had to haul back to the capital to be part of the election of the next Khan. So just like that… poof! … they left and Europe was spared further destruction.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is this mixing of the observations of a traveler with the historical info, all giving me enjoyable insights into this part of the world. For example, he describes Bishkek, the not-well-known capital of not-well-known Kirghizstan as a “sweet provincial place of tree-lined streets” – it only makes me want to see this place along the Silk Road with my own two eyes.
In another part of the adventure, he describes visiting a highly isolated monastery of only two monks who seemed to have barely escaped the 11th century… and stayed at the 12th century. Further on, he describes flying into Mongolia since there was no land route with an open border in that corner where Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet. The plane was from a company with only one commercial flight that was clearly not regulated by any aviation authority. No, no, it was not Aeroflot. He lands in the town of Olgii which proves to him that “Mongolians are not very good at towns.” He elaborates that it had “an apocalyptic air,” a town “built by people who hate towns.” Good stuff!
Through his time with his Mongolian guides, he learns about the Mongolian worldview. Choice stuff. Like: “We hate the Chinese… And the Chinese hate us right back.” Stanley points out that no better evidence of the latter than the Great Wall itself, to keep the barbarians out: “To the Chinese, the Mongols are the neighbors from hell.” I am not sure about that. Let’s ask the Tibetans, shall we? Another great nugget into this relationship is the Chinese saying he shares: “When Mongolians party, the rest of Asia locks its doors.” So the Mongolians, it would seem, would belong in the SEC if they had a college football team.
And the insights into how Mongolians live are aplenty. For example, we read about the wrestling competition where the jackets worn by the wrestlers have long sleeves but are open in the front. That’s to be sure no women wrestlers pretend to be men. You see, he explains, women wrestlers are well feared in Outer Mongolia and, this way, they keep men wrestlers from getting hurt… Another insight is why jeeps tend to have no door handles on the left hand side of the vehicle: jeeps, like horses, should only be mounted from the right hand side. A final insight I will share here is how nothing “horrifies Mongolians quite like the admission that foreigners, like animals, regularly consume raw leaves.” Horrifies me too.
Now, I am NOT going to take that crazy flight into Mongolia by a local airline with one plane… Nor am I looking to spending weeks on horseback, much as his crazy horses sound like a barrel of laughs… But I have to say that the anecdotes, the observations, and the facts shared make me wish I’d been right along him -not all the time- in this journey and feed my hunger to meet Central Asia some day!