By Sir Taki Theodoracopulos
Way back in 1993 the London Sunday Times approached me and proposed a regular job as Atticus, a column held in the past by not only the creator of James Bond, Fleming, but also Graham Greene and other such luminaries. Although unemployment is nothing to joke about in Greece at present, it happens to be my favorite state of being. I have always hated work despite the fact that I have been a columnist for the London Spectator for 41 years. So, when the horror of regular employment loomed on the horizon, I decided to accept but first I needed a long holiday to get over the shock. My wife and young daughter at the time proposed we go to Mongolia, where “the last place for Neanderthals like you can feel welcome.”
Now I have travelled to most parts of the world, starting with Indochina, South America and the Middle East, but I had never been in main land China or in Russia, although I had played tennis in what used to be the Soviet Union. As an ex-polo player I told my daughter that riding a horse across the greatest landmass in the world might be quite amusing – a ride from Mongolia to the Caspian Sea – but then cooler heads prevailed. Namely the women, who insisted we fly to Beijing and from there on to Ulan Bator. “Why don’t we forget Mongolia and fly to Paris and from there to London,” I said, “both places are fun in June.”
But Mongolia it was. Not on my terms, however. Just imagine what it would have been like to ride some Mongolian ponies from the watershed of the Selenge River from Mongolia into the autonomous Republic of Buryatia and north to Lake Baikal, apparently the deepest and greatest lake in the whole wide world. Obviously it was not to be, and once the girls put their foot down I was not about to try it on my own. (Perhaps if Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth were alive and willing to accompany me, but not alone). Beijing was Beijing, crowded, full of Chinese men spitting, some very cute Chinese females but not too many. Basically I couldn’t wait to get out and get on with the Mongolian adventure. Mongolia used to be the world’s most closed and mysterious country. I knew this was a stereotype, but would the land we were about to visit, the land of herding people be hospitable and welcoming or would the scions of history’s greatest warriors be bleak and degenerate, addled by alcohol and seventy years of communism?
Those were my thoughts as we flew 20,000 feet above the Gobi Desert on a June morning on a Russian made Tubolev TU-154. We were headed for Ulan Bator, a place that sounded mysterious and glamorous, and I could picture sloe-eyed women in furs and long cigarette holders beckoning me to their chambers. Er, once we landed, I could immediately tell that glamour was not going to be prime attraction to this trip. Ulan Bator looked like a Mongolian version of Kalamata circa 1936, although I have never visited Kalamata, I somehow envisioned it that way.
My German wife had prepared the support group with typical Teutonic efficiency. There were two jeeps, lots of ponies and a cart for our tents and lavatory requirements. We set forth immediately. The Mongolian steppe was not yet green and all we could see were arid brown ridges and gentle valleys along the paths of rivers. Mongolia is a country larger than Britain, Germany, France and Italy with a population less than that of Thessaloniki. Our first meal was mutton and sugared rice and our Mongol companions laughed out loud when I began to drink whiskey from the bottle. Our base camp lay in the flat of a broad valley with a wide shallow stream running through it surrounded by brown hills in every direction. The ponies were easy and obedient and a pleasure to ride, although my wife complained that the Mongol saddles were extremely uncomfortable. “You should try polo,” I told her. Mongolians ride horses in the natural manner that we walk. Their saddles are wooden with high fronts and backs. They are decorated with silver medallions and frayed red velvet. The men wear long, high collared double breasted gowns, fastened at the waist with a silk sash. They are among the friendliest and nicest and least talkative people on earth. In fact I’d rather live among Mongolian horse riders than English or French aristocrats or, heaven forbid, American hedge fund managers.
The weather in the steppe is harsh, the sun very bright, the wind blowing hard and from different directions. One squints non-stop and I couldn’t tell except from up close if our Mongolian companions had their eyes open or shut. We drank sweet tea non-stop but I stuck to whiskey, with tea. In Mongolia, rain at the start of a journey is considered bad luck. As we took off it was drizzling, so I figured it was OK. Well, Mongolians know a thing or two. On our second day out, while sheltering under some poplar trees next to a stream, with four valleys stretching away in different directions, my little girl turned white with pain and began to throw up. “I’ve been feeling queasy since Beijing,” she admitted. The poor thing did not wish to spoil the trip so she toughed it out for three days on horseback. (She had been poisoned in China and only the clean mutton and tea had kept her going).
Reluctantly we turned back and after a two – day journey we were back to Ulan Bator and seeing a very nice doctor who advised bed rest and more tea. While my little girl recovered I found myself some trouble, next to the Ulan Bator Hotel, where a bar was full of Mongolian toughs, Russian tarts of an ancient vintage, and a lot of drunk expatriates looking for Genghis Khan. It now seems very long ago, but for me it was one of the strangest trips I’ve ever taken, only because the Tartars I met on the steppe were the nicest people ever. Go to Mongolia and see for yourself.