Going mad in Mongolia

80 Chinese in the Gobi desert and no pot noodles!

For a writer, nothing can be better than being in the thick of the Cantonese when they descend into madness. When eighty of them go to a country with a foreign trade account the size of a Hong Kong movie budget, one has many occasions to ponder the nature of existence. Or at least food poisoning.

Imagine if you will the horrors of eighty Chinese tourists travelling through a land without food, bar mutton and gristle, enlivened by the odd dose of rancid dairy produce and chopped tomatoes. Given that Chinese consider a pizza not a pizza unless devoid of cheese and tomato, then you are imagining a frazzled and touchy group indeed. Take them away from mah jong and horizons that spread as far as the large screen DVD player in their six square foot of Hong Kong living space, and the Hong Konger is reeling with vertigo. Then leave them standing in T-shirts and shorts, in torrential Siberian rain, on a plain so flat that only the curvature of the earth itself interrupts the unenlivened view, and we are talking eighty Lears naked and mad in the Storm.

At the beginning there were grumblings, there were shoutings, there were words of discontent but nothing that would have made one guess that by the end of the journey they would be haranguing the Tour Guide on a public platform. One would not have guessed that the usually placid Chinese, would have indulged in itinerary waving and howls of abuse. One would never have guessed that alone, head hung, on stage before the mountains and seas of Chinese, Mr Milesandmiles (terrible multi-lingual pun on his real name) the tour operator would have been forced to re-enact the Cultural Revolution's more enticing spectacle: public humiliation and self-criticism. One would not have guessed that Mr Milesandmiles would have tried spin the story into one of unavoidable calamity and thus, er, unavoidable under the circumstances, but nonetheless, only disastrous for a brief two days leaving a few days of relative calm. Therefore, good in reality, if only you would forget all the rest. Mr Milesandmiles would be grasping at straws and escaping having a dunce's cap placed on his head only by the quick thinking of an assistant who managed to burst into song and set off a karaoke frenzy. Actually, this last one, one would have guessed, for no matter what, the Chinese will always try to recreate home with plaintive unaccompanied Mandarin songs of rivers and mountains while dreaming of the shopping malls of Pacific Place. Inexplicably they always clap along out of step with the tune.

The Chinese have a civilising mission, and are notorious for their sniffiness on confronting the lesser civilisations, i.e. everyone else, especially if they think they can get away with it. The Mongolians are thus, that great unwashed nation of mutton soaked campers beyond the Great Wall, craving the benefits of sharks fin soup and cement. To accommodate the Mongol in the great scheme of Chinese things, the Yuan Dynasty is evoked. So over one banquet consisting of indeterminate meat, I entered into a strange conversation with a Chinese Rotarian Scout leader. The Chinese, he informed me, would have spoken Mongolian if Khublai's boys had kept a tighter grip on things. This was his explanation of Mongolia. It was merely a "developing nation" not so much because China lost Mongolia during the upheavals of 1912, but more because Mongolia lost a grip on civilisation a few hundred years before.  It had never before dawned upon me that the severance of the link with China, either last century or several centuries earlier, was the source of its problems, but in this company it was taken for granted and the nuances of who slipped up and who did not, a matter of national pride.

So when a fraught tour leader muttered the word, "inflexible!" to describe Mongolians explaining why there were not enough wheels on the bus, it was full of the sighs and gnashings that history's waywardness engenders in those who think it on the side of the civilised. Instead, as history really tells us, it is always on the side of those with the most potholes for like the cockroach, they will always survive. They survive because they are never surprised. When wheels fall of, it is of little consequence, but in the case of the civilised it drives them nuts. Wheels, for a Mongol, are for falling off. That is why the horse was invented. Roads are the devil's work and merely get in the way of a good gallop. But if you are Chinese, you insist upon buses with four wheels and all the bolts necessary to keep them in place. Now who is being inflexible here?

Despite the Chinese habit of stoic indifference, the bus destroying capabilities of Mongolian roads had my fellow travellers incensed. At one time, when I luckily followed behind in a mini-van with all its wheels, those unlucky enough to be travelling in the main bus, grabbed their bags and leapt from the exits into the torrential rain to escape yet another bump. I had to bolt my doors as they hungrily sought to commandeer the only vehicle still capable of moving and eat its passengers. At such moments one notices stereotypes' throwing themselves off high rises. I now know what it was to be on the last lifeboat off the Titanic. But I get ahead of myself. History gets ahead of me. Time whistles past like a bullet and ricochets around the mountaintops like an army.

Let us then say that our first day on the steppes was interesting. We, my wife, myself, my band of Hong Kong adventurers, sat in a ger and drank an araki toast to the brotherhood of the Mongolian people. The shivering plump Hong Kongers' facial features were declared of Mongolian descent by a pinched faced, pointy nosed, eighty five year old in a great coat and thick curly toed boots. The Hong Konger's sniffed at the drink, turned up their noses, bristled at the brittle dried stump of cheese that was also offered, and carefully talked among themselves. Those nearest the exit backed out in case more of the fermented mares milk and vodka was handed round. Here, inflexibility was not the problem, but the battle with Mongolian translated into Monglish translated into Chinglish then into Cantonese.

Having fought in two wars, though which he did not say, the Mongolian told us he had two sons doing party work. This let the cat out of the bag. We were not visiting an ordinary Mongol, but an apparatchnik wheeled out for passing VIP's with money to burn on infrastructure projects that never quite happen. The ritual was most likely a left over from the pre-democracy hunger strikes, but we will not talk about those and the mysterious re-election of the old communist party after the assassination of the democracy movement leader. We look to the future.

Ulaan Bataar then is a town of pleasant light, wide-open streets, noisy traffic, scruffy half-finished hotels and belching chimneystacks. There were hardly any shops but for street booths, newly converted ground floor flats turned into shops because the government gave them away for free, and one grand central shopping centre selling cheap plastic furniture and green leather sofas alongside the saddle bags and carpets. It is an anti-town. It is a town where people are leaving their expensive ill-fitted apartments for the pleasure of a plot of land in the suburbs where they can erect a ger. It is a town where the purges of the thirties decimated the Independence fighters and turned Mongolia into a Stalinist society. Without that, it would have been turned into a Russian province, or retaken by China and so the perpetrator of such cruelty and treachery still stands on a plinth, along with Lenin, as a sort of saviour. Though Stalin, who must have seemed a rather familiar type in the land of Chinggis Khaan, has disappeared.

It is a town with a large number of museums and art galleries full of their own history and art. If one goes throughout the length and breadth of China one rarely finds much of its own history systematically and interestingly laid out with good English. The Russians, whatever their faults, educated Mongolians in the art of preserving history and tracking its narrative, but then history is a backward story and Mongolians always did have a secret history. Their one great cultural masterpiece is called just that, the Secret History of the Mongols, a contemporary account of Chingghis's campaigns and empire building.  It implies a shamefacedness in the creation of a written record but now, the reticence is gone.

During Russian times Mongolians forgot their great leader, lost their tribal surnames, and learnt reading, writing and Russian drinking habits. This heaviness has lifted and the Mongols own history and family names have slotted neatly back into place along with Chingghis beer, a good marauding sort of drink, instead of consoling vodka. But reading and writing has stuck.
Ulaan Bataar is cool. Everywhere you see short skirts, high heels, long black hair, big handbags, with the air of the business gal on the go. The men are mobile phoned, shaded eyes, geezers on the dodge and goons on the make putting their Russian education heart and soul behind a bit of business. Not much business mind - well, not officially - but enough to keep the City alive and thriving with a nice new airport. The scruffy hordes are encamped elsewhere, kept outside City boundaries by fierce looking police. Ulaan Bataar is an island of smooth roads amongst a sea of potholes. It is a land unto itself. Here is an administrative colony while out there are the natives over which they rule. Here once were Russians. Now there are youths with their hair dyed ginger and their eyebrows pierced.

The Russians created factories like the infamous wood processing plant capable of taking three months to mulch every tree in Mongolia. Mongolia does not have a lot of trees, though one is not sure whether one can blame that entirely on the Russians.  Wood, one would have thought was not the ideal building material for people living in the huge areas of Mongolia that have been devoid of wood since the Dinosaurs. And even despite the supposed beauty of the stench of burning camel and cow dung, a Mongolian also thinks nothing of slinging a chunk of rare lumber into the potbelly stove when the sudden chill winds from the north rip through the valley. Those close to nature, rarely hug trees.

When the landscape, remarkable for its vast stretches of unremarkability, can supply little in the way of surprise, people have to generate their own. So, despite a political culture changed little from the era of Chinnghis, Mongolians threw off the Russian yoke and established a parliamentary democracy. They then assassinated the founder of the Democratic Party, elected 74 communists to their 76-seat parliament, and opened up talks with US military officials to develop their non-existent defence forces. None of them, in the latest official announcement, mentioned the pothole problem though.

I personally saw groups of men in the middle of roads that look potholed enough by my lights. They dodged the traffic, which drove at them as if herding goats, and slammed pick axes into the road creating neatly squared holes of a regulation depth at varied intervals. This way no bus may pass without breaking an axle. I assume this was a left over from the centrally planned economy that demanded all holes be of a regulatory size and equitably distributed throughout the nation.

The towns outside UB, are less exciting places. Communal farms that became towns that never quite became anything more than a collection of wood sheds. But the people had the same manner, the same cool. There in the town of Kharakorum, I saw a bevy of scruffy children sat on the back of their father's donkey cart, where he, in his long rusty coat and big Mongolian hat, purchased ice-creams for them from a small shop plugged into a rickety string of pylons winding through the mess of backyards. The ice cream habit might be another Russian introduction but the ruddy faced cheerfulness spoke of some sort of capital in some sort of bank. Favours, family, old socks and mattresses run peasant finances, but then so do stinginess and a suspicion of foreigners. Here, there was none of that. The Russian scowl is unknown. Self-possession broadcasts long distances in a land where it would be all too easy to go mad.

Our flight to the Gobi began a little uncertainly in a propeller driven craft containing the sort of seating used for escorting prisoners between court and jail. This was followed by a trip across a roadless wasteland to more wasteland much further away. Whereupon, a bevy of startled Mongolian children ran across the desert shouting "Mum!" as if their grumpy disapproving old maiden aunts had descended, eighteen suitcases in hand, announcing a short stay. Mum emerged from the ger bleary eyed from the smoke of the pot-bellied stove. She was even less prepared for a confused collection of Chinese men, women and children seeking a dip in an otherwise unbroken plane where they could squat and relieve themselves without seventy nine video cameras being trained on them.

We all get the foreigners we deserve. The English have the French. The Americans have the Mexicans. And the Mongolians have the Chinese. Where the Mongolian never complains, the Chinese step in. The desert was too hot! The desert was too cold! And where was the lake? And where were the dinosaurs? And where were we? The Mongolian guide might have told someone but it was never translated. The Chinese guides were probably not interested anyway, since geography, history, geology, or anything one might find in a startlingly featureless desert, are not what the Hong Konger is all about. There might be karaoke on the bus back, if not wheels, but since there were no shops or food, what guiding was there to do? In a land without prices, silence was the only rational response.

When in remote climes I have noticed the ability of huge animals, armies of souvenir salesmen, and entire civilisations to emerge from nowhere and sink back into the shadows. How they do it, I do not know. Maybe it is a trick of the light, or some alternative tourist universe that a person steps into now and then. Either way, from beyond the horizon, Mum, her cheeks cheerfully as tanned as a saddle, whistled up a team of camels. All guests were then sat on a fat dromedary and plodded dutifully in a circle to the whirr and snap of cameras. Today was a good dollar day in the Gobi. Tomorrow, like in Brigadoon, all traces of life would return to the fossil layer.

Our camel lust satiated, we took our bus, seemingly without a radiator in the front and uncluttered with softy air conditioning. It drove towards the next empty space, until a wheel came off. This did not worry us too much because a wheel came off on the outward journey as well, so we were used to this by now, and the locals were prepared for these things. Wheels fall off in Mongolia. That is their purpose. So to take eighty tourists out into the middle of nowhere without water in a land notorious for sudden sandstorms that wipe out entire civilisations would not have been undertaken lightly, except by very cool people. However, Mongolians are cool. They are the coolest of the cool.

In one of those pointless Internet conversations about such things as: what was the sweatiest movie ever made? Answer: Cool Hand Luke. What is the most disgusting thing you've ever been served at a meal? Answer: pickled cockroach, live scorpion and chicken's feet equal top placing. And what does Cool actually mean? Answer: it's indefinable but Mongolian Throatsingers are the only examples of Cool that everyone agrees are cool.

Cool is thus definable as Mongolian and cool people know that out of two dilapidated, puffing and wheezing buses, a spare would be available if only by removing the working wheels of one to service the other. Thus coolly they bit the bolts off with their teeth, lifted the bus up from the sand with their bare hands, and kicked that square thing with the bald tyre on back into place. The expedition was again rolling and rocking.

The slow northern darkness descended and we drove past lonely outposts where beacons flashed to welcome camel caravans. Eventually we arrived at the ger encampment containing hot water taps for the decadent tourists. There, at last, the promised dinosaurs appeared. An old National Geographic Society video about dinosaurs of the Gobi was dusted off and we were served the flesh of dinosaurs with our pickles, or at least it might have been. I nearly did not get served any at all, being unaware of a change of venue. In a land without people, or cuisine and only two buildings within several thousand square miles, it was assumed we would realise both were restaurants. If the venue change was announced, it was not announced in English. It was my own fault. I should never have claimed to understand Cantonese at all. Now I had given them an excuse to forget the gweilos. But I did get the food, which seemed to be more than some others managed, despite linguistic qualifications and supposed Mongolian ancestry.

No shopping is one thing, but for the average Canto-nosher, no food is hell indeed. My travelling companions were now descending into a state of severe - as opposed to mild  - shock. There was nothing as yet to indicate a reversion to Maoist tendencies but a typhoon was definitely brewing, or at least a howling wind with a swirl of grit in the eyes and teeth. This suddenly turned into a drench of rain, and I feared that we would be no more than an archaeological curiosity dug up a thousand years hence and displayed in glass cases. Look, the robotic beings of the future would say, how fierce their teeth are!

As suddenly as it came, the wind and rain went and gave way to a mellow evening where my wife and I picked our way across the runway, or rather the bit of desert marked with an X, to an improbably placed arts' club. There we sat in on a performance of throat singing. No translators were anywhere to be found, except a German translator, who left to have a fag halfway through. The Mongolian leader of the band suddenly noticed he was gone, and looked rather lost as he tried to persuade us to buy recordings. Cassette however is the same in Mongolian as it is in English. We bought two, knowing where our duty lay, but they are a pale shadow of the performance only fit to be played while sitting in a cat litter box wearing the Mongolian camel hair waistcoat that seemed so stylish in Ulaan Bataar.

Imagine then, a bare lightbulb in a cramped low ceiling room, a band of musicians equipped with a goat's horn, horse head fiddles and a zither giving such schtick that one could have sworn that a whole philharmonic, complete with a joint Russian, Welsh and Zulu choir, were raising the roof off the Albert Hall. They may have only been singing "Where are the sixty horses in my herd" but if ever one heard an anthem that could unify the tribes and conquer the world, this was it. I realised that Mongolians frankly, would rather be conquerors of the world, or completely free spirits without wheels or responsibility. To a Mongol, it makes perfect sense when for cosmetic reasons one's government announces to an unlistening world, the astounding news that it will have some policies eventually. For nature should take its course. In the mean time, we should all growl out a quick verse of the camel caravan song: KHOOMEEEEEEEEEI!

Throat singing could only have been developed by a nation of men travelling on horseback over barren terrain. You string up an old box with the tail of your horse and pluck two notes in one key. Then you have to think of someway of breaking the monotony. The solution they came up with was to play around with the human voice's harmonics. They could have added a few more strings but on horseback that would be an additional burden. Besides, the rhythm of the walking horse lends itself to plucking two notes and little else. Plum plom plum plom... KHOOOMEEEEEI! Plum plom plum plom... Grrrrrrrrowl... Plum plom plum plom... WARRRRRBULLLL! And when the whole posse add in Mongolian animal calls, imitations of the Gobi wind, and battle cries in tight syncopation, you end up with a remarkably tuneful and exciting music. One wonders if China developed music for crashing cymbals, p'doigns and high pitch shrieking, as some means of keeping the more musical Mongols at bay. Nothing would get up the nose of a Mongol more than discovering his kidnapped Chinese bride sang like a banshee. When the world is full of thieves, it is best to dress in rags.

The Mongolian temperament can be summed up by the phrase "why just whistle when you can hum at the same time?"  A man can trot through perfumed hillocks, each hoof of the horse crushing more rue and thyme used in the average French meal than the whole Mongolian culinary experience of the past eight hundred years, sup one's mare's milk, and still raise a quick urga in a bonking hollow. Thus all that life can offer can be experienced in any moment provided one is open to it. To the outsider, not a lot is going on, but on the inside of a Mongolian, everything that can be going on is at full pelt.

In Ulaan Bataar my wife and I were discriminated against and told there was no room on the bus for us. We would have to wait in the foyer of the hotel for the head of the Mongolian Tour Company whose English, we were assured, bore some resemblance to our own. We had no pronounceable name, and no telephone number to call, so four hours late, after a five o-clock morning call, we were finally picked up. Disgruntled though we were, we were charmed by his young daughter, who at four years old picked up our English and proceeded to teach us Mongolian, or at least the words for Wind and Horse, which are probably all you need to know. We were even happier when we passed the first broken down bus, and even happier still when we passed the next bus with its sad passengers vomiting over the perfumed steppe. Our journey had been rough, but a four wheel drive with air conditioning and a boot laden with supplies, made it all the easier for us.

On the buses though, mutiny was brewing. Under the circumstances I suspect that even I, the adventurer who takes journeys as they come despite deprivations and inconveniences, might have forgotten that the journey is the point not the destination. Out on the steppe, I wondered if Chinnghis ever thought that he was on a journey. After all, in his day, there was even less to distinguish one scruffy town of camel traders from another. One plodded on across the deserts, over the mountains, and into the valleys where people lived and bickered and squabbled, enlivened only by the prospect of sin, retribution and redemption.  There would have been little sense of there being an "A" from which you went to "B", especially for a nomad who carried the home and entertainment's centres with them. No wonder when confronted by a town there was little hesitation in burning it down. They were ugly places full of stupid cheating people and fit only to provide tribute or a refill for the harem. Where the Mongol Empire ended, the major cities of the world began. China succumbed entirely, but quickly turned the Yuan dynasty into a Chinese dynasty and then kicked them out with a reversion to pure Chinese. The lands of Cities never really let themselves be ruled from Kharakorum. Tyrannised, yes, but never ruled and as Cities grew, the power of the Mongol waned until finally Ulaan Bataar grew up and in the 1920's replaced its tents for Russian concrete.

The journey of the Mongols has always been backwards. During their expansion they were moving about and camping on the edges of cities until the inhabitants paid up or died. And then with booty strapped to their camels and horses they went back to their tents, and when threatened, took the tents back into the heartland. Chinnghis himself took to staying in Kharakorum overseeing the squeeze operation at a distance, leaving his generals and sons to their own turf. Everything went back but little came forward, and what came back, was consumed. Kharakorum boasts little but a few rocks from Chinnghis's time.

On the way to Kharakorum there was supposed to be a visit to a monastery but we never got to see the Monastery, except in the distance. The wind howled up a dust storm, and the busses lost their way across the unmarked track. Their sickening passengers were threatening to take the next taxi they saw and go home. Only a Hong Konger would think a taxi could rescue them in the back of beyond but one should not dismiss this as a softy Hong Konger reaction. We who were lucky to have a four-wheel drive were suffering the frustration of a long journey seemingly going nowhere, which was bad enough. They in the bus, had the added pleasure of hitting every pothole and losing wheels. We merely had to wait in the middle of nowhere while our driver went off to rescue them. They had to be rescued. We merely had to wait.

Mongols do not journey. They take every moment as the moment to be. We, who journey, think there should be an arrival and when the arrival comes we shall be saved. If arrival seems hopelessly postponed, we fret, we sicken, and we go mad.

The arrival that night was traumatic. Half a bus worth had no Ger's to sleep in so were bussed off to camp purgatory. The missed food during the day had also been a little difficult for some to take, but then so many had been sick they probably would not have managed much even if they could. Besides, pot noodles were provided the next day, after the evening meal, as a supplement for the day before. It was to keep up the comfort level until the goat had been stuffed with the rocks and a party could take place later on that night, long after most had collapsed in exhaustion. Hong Kong schedules and Mongolian time and space do not mix easily.

The Hong Kong ex-pat, the Gweilo, can be a strange creature. And all of them swear that the other ex-pat is barking mad. They tend to fall neatly into two categories, those with children and those without. Those without children can be sad old couples roaming about strange lands with a glazed intestinally damaged look about them or wild adventurers whose children, if they ever had them, would have been carried off by wild dingos. Those with living children would not be seen dead anywhere short of a Holiday Inn with a kennel to house their Filipina amah and psychotic offspring. Us adventurers, however, when taking these package tours,  are never certain whether one is adventurous or rather sad. Those others doing their bit for the future are only too glad to be rid of the brats and divorce as soon as the wisdom teeth come through. The women re-train as spinsters and the men shack up with improbable little girls from Cambodia. We others, whether sad or savage, stagger on in our self-contained smugness.

What keeps us hopefully travelling is often a weird desire to touch the hem of a syphilitic old Imperialist who paved the way and enthralled our childhood imaginations with the Bowdlerised versions of their autobiographical ramblings. One was inspired to travel by the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Aureal Stein, Captain Frederick Burnaby, soldier, traveller, writer and pioneer balloonist, not to mention Captain Younghusband who marched an army in to Lhasa only to wonder why anyone should want to go to such a bleak and hygienically challenged place. Burnaby is one of the most inspiring since he wrote books with chapters like: "Filthy state of Kasala",  "Spectacles with side springs useless",  "Why the turkomans were massacred", "Eating a horse", and "Christianity and Civilization."

Late one Mongolian night, as I stood among the hopping nocturnal Mongolian desert rats, an icy drizzle freezing my arched back as my stomach emptied its contents over a scuttering marmot, I cursed the Empire, I cursed my mediocrity and cursed my timidity. If I was to suffer so much, I should be at least galloping across the Gobi hunting the last living dinosaur or following the path of Chingghis, not on a broken down coach tour of middle aged, middle class, Hong Kongers. I pondered how sad, how marginalised, how far from the movers and shakers of the world, I was. Should life be thus? Could the sum total of achievement in one's life be measured by the length of time one spent as a mere tourist?

Nowadays one cannot quite capture the adventure of the ancients, though perhaps anywhere without a McDonalds still counts as some kind of adventure. Are we sad, are we adventurers? I suspect it was a question even the Victorians pondered. What in the end is the point of this obsession with travel?  Can I write a book about it? In order to write travel books one has to justify one's journey either on literary grounds, meaning you follow the course of some historical figure, or undertake an impossibly stupid trip. It has to be either endless train journeys for the steam enthusiasts, or foot slogging over the Hindu Kush in the wake of Alexander's army for the closet generals. Stories entitled "What I did on my Holidays" though tend not to sell unless packed with information about hotel service, flight arrangements and the price of beer. Is that sort of travel ennobling? Certainly that sort of writing is as boring as hell. So why travel when there really is little one can do with the experience beside provide a bit of copy for a magazine to surround with advertising for tour companies and airlines?

I harboured the suspicion that this maudlin moment was the result of Mongolian hospitality. The Mongols, despite the dark accusations of Chinese tour guides, are a friendly bunch. They will happily lop the head off the nearest goat, stuff it full of hot rocks, blow torch the wool off its back and share the viscera, copiously soaked in fat, and washed down with paint thinner. They call it vodka but one sniff will tell you the truth of this. Further, to ward off the dangers of drying out in a Gobi desert sandstorm, they will pass around the grease coated hot rocks from the now devoured goat and let you wrap your hands around them to enhance your strength. It has to be said that not a lot of people in the world would let you do that.

They will let you touch their bow as well, even though one has to pull the string back carefully, applying equal pressure on both ends, so as not to deplete its powers. Each bow has its own temperament, so the safest place to stand, for a Mongolian with a tourist in hand, is in front of the bow. Maybe when confronted by idiots capable of letting fly a shaft straight up their own nose, they believe that it is safer to stand where they can see the arrow coming.

Horses and camels also seem generously distributed. If nobody can run you down, much prestige can be had from cadging a crafty gallop. Women also seem to fall into this category. Not so long ago, a good ruse was to rob a wedding ceremony of the bride and have one's own way with her. Whatever the marital status of women now, Chingghis Khaan, the tyrant formerly known as Genghis, came about through some such shenanigans. What was good enough for him is most likely good enough for anyone. Which might be why, so I was told, the former communist leaders spent every morning discussing their marital statuses. Any sign of infidelity was deemed a purging offence. Consequently party people lived in one ger publicly, and several secretly. The Ger by the way is Mongolian for Yurt, which is Russian for Ger, and not surprisingly, since Chinese think only of food, it is a Mongolian Bun in Chinese. Mongolians, naturally, are the bun-less nation though Chinese would not notice this. Chinese are many positive things but en-masse they tend to see only what they expect.

 In the tourist trade the joke has it that gweilos holiday for the three S's: Sun, Sand and Sleep... or sex depending on age group. For Hong Kongers the three S's are Shopping, Schedule - preferably jam-packed - and the Same as Hong Kong! No matter how remote, how exotic, if they do not have the same food and accommodation that Hong Kong offers, then they are unhappy campers. So horse racing should bring tears of joy to a home sick Hong Konger.

However, the event staged for our group out on the steppes started before it was announced and finished in confusion in the path of the one car in forty square miles whose driver decided to forgo all roads and use the smooth surface of wild pasture. He managed to turn up and park on the finishing line at exactly the same time as the galloping horses ridden by four-year-olds doing Red Indian impersonations. The confusion bore what must have been an exciting similarity to General Custer's last moments. Not that this was noticed, because, in the confusion, money had not been waged. The race literally passed the Hong Kongers by. Then the rains came down.

Mongolians were cool though. They were smiling. They had their gallop, as they would have had anyway, and fulfilled their contract to the tour operator. By the simple expedience of not being life threatening, the Mongolians have discovered that letting tourists watch what they do, lets them do whatever they want and be paid. It does not quite rank with piling up the bones of one's enemies then squeezing the tits and sucking the lips of their women, which Chingghis considered one of life's greatest consolations, but when one's hordes are a bit thin on the ground, it will do.

The rain did not deter the wrestlers and this was a great success, especially for the ladies. My wife was much taken by the shiny little pants that a bunch of the rangiest young Mongols wore as they enthusiastically grappled and did the Eagle Dance of the Victors. These guys, like the horsemen, did not give a damn about the tourists and did what they did as if it really was what they did. If they could have sold those pants I would have bought a pair just to spice up my own wrestling career. Cool though they may be, they still failed miserably to interest any of the gathered Hong Kongers in a tag match. But flabby well past forty generations should not be allowed to see such litheness, let alone contest with it. That goes doubly in a land where there were no airlifts to heart units and thirteen hours of bumpy travel to an airport.

Despite the deprivations of the journey, spirits were rising again and, beside a quick raffle, there is nothing like a stupid competition to boost Hong Konger morale. Hong Kongers love silly games. They love to shout. They love to win and to lose.

Building a Ger is not as easy as it looks. Not that it looked easy but it seemed relatively simple in concept. Except when one adds the spars of wood, one discovers that spars pushed into the roof held aloft by a very tired Hong Kong man who looked beyond the help of the California Fitness Club, tended to push the spars on the other side out. These clattered dangerously about the head of the hero stoically centred like Samson in the Temple.

Yat Yih Saam, B Joh lahp sahp, A joh gam... The two teams chided each other with chants as bemused Mongolians did not know whether to aid or hinder or run away from such madness. "B" team were rubbish. "A" team were Gold. Except "A" team lost due mostly to "B" having extra Mongol help when it counted, which perhaps compensated for A team hiding some of the required spars.

For reasons unknown I had captained one of the teams, not that anyone took heed of my orders, which consisted of, ling gotiuh nidouh. Siu Sam di la! OWH! I still have the cuts and bruises of erratically wielded timber.

City slickers can just about manage to dodge out of the way of a galloping horse or sit in the rain or giggle struggling with strange tents but the itinerary also billed a fishing expedition. Our ger companions for that night, a couple of Australians, one of Chinese descent, took to the ger with cans of lager muttering that fishing does not do it for them. Instead, the ale brought out the story of the man they loved. An old drunken Australian airline pilot who had, in his dotage, craved, for reasons not entirely clear, to build a ger on his desert plot. "A lovely man, he was, who always had time for you," explained our sleeping companions, "Funny too. We'd go round there and we would laugh. A funny lovely man. And his wife was posh. She'd had ponies and nurses and servants and she married him and went slowly down the social ladder, from his days as a pilot to end up as a crop sprayer. Unstable though. Funny old man. A socialist. The opposite of what I am."

Listening to an Australian descend into drunkeness made me feel very dull, very ordinary, very trapped on a tour with dotty ex-pats and people with little interest in anything but making their own noise.

I dutifully joined the gathering mass of adventurous Chinese marching behind two ruddy-faced flat capped Mongolians swinging a Christmas tree's worth of mini-grappling hooks. They intended to equip would be fishermen with the wherewithal to survive in the wilderness. The river among the bare hills had a cement colour rather than a crystal clear mountain stream appearance. It flowed sluggishly, if at all, and words like majestic failed to materialise. All I could think of was the sacred river Alf upon which, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on one of his more inspired opium trips, Kubhlai Khan did a pleasure dome erect. If ever a river should be called Alf, then this river was a good contender. It had a common look to it. The black shambling rag of a yak stranded on a six-foot square island in mid flow added a moronic touch. It was a flat capped sort of a river to go with the flat capped youths. Chingghis's capital was just up the road and one suspected that even in its heyday, it too was a flat capped sort of affair consisting chiefly of tents, cattle markets, horse paddocks and specially imported Geordie whippet breeders. It may have even been the reason Chingghis decided to gallop as far away as possible in search of the usual rape and pillage young lads leave the countryside for. I remembered that Chingghis died the inglorious death of falling off his horse onto his head. He was a flat capped sort of tyrant really.

Flat capped youngsters brought up on mare's milk, who kill sheep by slashing a hole in their belly, reaching in and strangling the aorta, do not have a gentle humour. When they look at the pasty-faced city types in search of a willing fisherman, they are bound to pick the one who will give them most sport. And so Mr Ng, sixty odd, dreaming of adventure, stumbling over the blades of grass, dazzled by the wide open spaces, was volunteered to have a go and promptly swang the whole lot of lethal hooks around his head and snagged himself on every one of them. We all gathered round for a while as they unpicked him from the barbs and then lost interest. I felt even more like I was in a Carrying On Camping movie. Oooer, Mrs!

Back at the ger I feared that my Australian companions were doing the kind of thing that I might indulge in if I was Syd James and lathered up in the company of a gin eased woman - Actually, probably even if I was not Syd James. Anyway, I carefully knocked on the door before entering to collect my umbrella and received a grunt in reply. I averted my eyes for rain was rain and intercourse was no stopper of the wet. I need not have been so coy for these being Australians, a couple of cans of Carlsburg had sent them to separate beds to snore the night away. I assumed the previous day's journey had taking it out of them.

Finally late at night, after more throatsingers, before a flickering camp fire beneath stars struggling to be seen through the dust in the air, we picked are way through the fat drenched bones of an eviscerated goat. You knew you were eating something that died a horrible death and just like the Buddhists of Tibet, the Buddhists of Mongolia are determined meat eaters. It may be a sin to kill, which is left to sinners, but eating was perfectly OK. Washed down with embalming fluid the flesh was strangely salty. Despite the herbs of the steppe, it seems that only salt and rock are used in Mongolian cooking. And during the summer one only ingests mare's milk, for meat settled badly in the stomach and one needed to give livestock a summer to fatten.

 It was that night that I vomited on the marmots, who apparently carried plague fleas and if one BBQ'd them one had to watch out for the fleas hopping out of the fire. I heaved late into the night and it rained and it was cold. And as I finally headed for my bed, our Ger companions rose, dressed and informed us that it was time to leave.

This was not a good day. Firstly we claimed our seat in the four-wheel drive jeep. We were then gazumped by four Chinese girls who suspiciously seemed to know someone. We were informed that a mini-van had left UB at midnight to try collecting us. At this time people on the Death Bus, were screaming and shouting that there should have been more alternative transport because the buses did not work. They threw the luggage of some of the passengers out into the mud and those passengers, confused as to what was going on, joined us to wait in the designated area for spare passengers.

The busses precariously departed, slowly wending their way across the track towards the line of linked potholes that passed for a road. And we awaited the mini-van, which arrived several hours later. The driver had already driven all night and did not look well. He coughed and sneezed and fingered fondly his packet of Marlboro as he played tag with the busses. We assumed he was following and stopping and following and stopping for some purpose but we could not quite see it. I was in no mood for stopping or starting for my intestines were attempting to rid themselves of more stone stuffed goat than I could possibly have eaten. The prospect of running off into the featureless plains seeking out privacy made me keep very very still.

Torrential downpour and bogs also did not encourage me to let it all hang out despite every single pothole being designed to increase my chances of ruining the upholstery. I clung to my seat belt and hoped that we would reach Ulaan Bataar some time within the next seven hours. (Mongolians do not use seatbelts. I assume this is because head injury is considered the least of their worries and of course, it is uncool.)

As the rains belched over us, in the distance we saw that one of the busses had broken down. This was no surprise. What was a surprise was to see people throwing luggage out of the windows. It looked like an emergency evacuation of the bus and when our van pulled up behind, hordes of angry passengers ran for us, yelling at us to open the doors. I locked them. When it was apparent there was no room and that the wheels from the mini-van would not fit the bus, we managed to escape. This time the driver stopped playing tag and five hours later we arrived seconds before I exploded and in time for a late lunch.

Meanwhile back out on the steppe, eight of the passengers were left stranded without any transportation. The bus had limped away to some nearby settlement in search of a fan belt and a rescue party was organised. Ten hours later they turned up for the evening meal and Mr Milesandmiles barely escaped lynching.

"Let us put all this behind us," he said, "Let us think of the good things. Let us remember the beauty of the Gobi. Let us remember the extraordinary culture. Let us remember the sites of Kharakorum. Let us put this behind us and move forward."

He obviously learnt his organisational skills at the same school that Hong Kong's Chief Executive learnt his. Every time there is a scandal, a cock up or even mention of that Beijing massacre, he trots out the line: "Let us put these things behind us and look to the future."

Mongolians do not have cock-ups. That is the way things are.

There was one last burst of madness at the airport. Some people were told their luggage went one way and they were to go the other. Others however, were not told anything so desperately wanted to check their own luggage in. Add into that another flight in a great hurry to board, and in the confusion a rumour spread about over-booking. Since Mongolia only has one jet in safe enough condition to land at Chek Lap Kok, the next flight was twelve months hence. It was every man for himself and so there was a mad rush for the departure lounge leaving the tour guides standing wondering what on earth they had done now.

On the plane back to Hong Kong, Imodium comfortingly working, I watched as one of the tour guides wandered about the half empty aircraft with a collection of plane tickets in his hand.

"Has anyone not got a ticket?" he asked sheepishly.

I could see in his eyes that he was hoping that he had not left anyone behind because he would have to go back and find them. He would probably apply for another job before that happened though.