“There is towards the east a land which is called Mongal or Tartaria, lying in that part of the world which is thought to be most north easterly.” This is how the first-person section of The Voyage of Johannes de Plano Carpini begins. The voyager in question was a Franciscan friar sent by Pope Innocent IV as an emissary to the Mongol empire, and The Voyage is one of my favorite old travelogues. It contains an excellent description of the 13th-century equivalent of airport security:
They kindle two fires, and pitch two javelins into the ground near unto the said fires, bending a cord to the tops of the javelins … There stand two women also, one on the right side and another on the left, casting water, and repeating certain charms … Therefore, when any ambassadors, princes, or other personages whatsoever come unto them, they and their gifts must pass between two fires to be purified, lest peradventure they have practiced some witchcraft, or have brought some poison or other mischief with them.
It also has a superb account of Mongol princes drinking the friar under the table, and of the friar, having sobered up, deftly talking the princes out of sending ambassadors back to the pope, in Lyons, so as to keep them (the princes) from seeing how fractured and fractious Western Europe already was, and thus how easy to conquer.
Of course, in places, there are flagrant examples of the prejudices of the time:
[The Mongols] speak fair in the beginning, but in conclusion, they sting like scorpions. For crafty they are, and full of falsehood, circumventing all men whom they are able, by their sleights.
And the book’s reliability, history-wise, is somewhat compromised by the inclusion of secondhand reports of “a huge desert, wherein wild men are certainly reported to inhabit, which cannot speak at all, and are destitute of joints in their legs, so that if they fall, they cannot rise alone by themselves” and of “certain monsters resembling women: who, being asked by many interpreters, where the men of that land were, they answered, that whatsoever women were borne there, were indued with the shape of mankind, but the males were like unto dogs.” But the firsthand accounts of the diplomatic back-and-forth (see especially “Of the Admission of the Friars and Ambassadors Unto the Emperor”) are marvelous to behold if, like me, you’re into that sort of thing.
Now: while in Mongolia my family and I were never asked to pass between two fires, and met only friendly, soft-spoken, broad-shouldered people. And, in point of fact, I did not even read de Plano Carpini’s narrative until well after that trip. Furthermore, the title of this dispatch forbids me from telling you about most of our wondrous five-day stay at the Gün-Galuut Nature Reserve (“Of the 40-Meter-High Stainless-Steel Statue of Chinggis Khaan on Tsonjin Boldog Hill, Which Isn’t Even Really a Hill, More Sort of an Earthen Swell, Really, in the Middle of Fucking Nowhere”; “Of Yaks”; “Of Our Ger and Its Roundness and Colors and Woodstove”; “Of the Endangered White-Naped Cranes, and How They Danced for Our Pleasure on the Endless and Impossibly Beautiful Plain”; “Of the Mongolian Moon, and How It Is Larger When Full Than Any Other”; “Of the Many Fish in the River, and the Means by Which We Did Not Catch Them”; “Of My Wife and How Beautiful She Is on Horseback”; “Of the Magic Mongolian Finger-Rocks and How My Children Gathered and Brought Them”; “Of the Argali Sheep, Which We Tracked and Saw, and the Wolves of the Steppes, Which We Tracked and Did Not See”; “Of Old Maid and Crazy Eights by Firelight”), because those things happened in flesh and blood and stone and steel and cardboard, but there were a few later events that dealt with paper and here they are:
When our time at the reserve was done we returned to Ulaanbaatar, and marveled again at how not attractive it is: gravel and trash and Soviet architecture. But that did not matter to us, because we were now in full end-of-journey purchase mode. We went first to the black market known as the Narantuul Trade Center, a place many kindhearted Mongolians had told us not to go—"Full of thieves," they said, and they said this sadly. But there was something I wanted that I believed could be found there, so we left our watches and jewelry and wallets behind, put our children on our shoulders, and set our facial expressions to Ferocious.
It helped that I had a bad case of conjunctivitis at the time.
We pushed our way through the cars and trucks and buses and handcarts and people at the entrance; we paid 100 tugrik per adult and pushed in through the big green cement arched gate; we pushed through the crowds inside, and the people pressing in on us were, like most Mongolians, very big and very strong, but then they saw the condition of my eyes, and parted nicely in front of us. We pushed through the cloth-and-clothing section, the auto-parts-and-tools section, the food-and-candy section, the tack-and-saddle section, the random-plastic-object section, and, finally—the kids were now very bored and my wife a bit annoyed—I located the antiques section.
Which was filled mainly with crappy flotsam from China and Thailand and Indonesia and the former Soviet Union. Which was not what I had come for. And I was about to give up, but then I saw them: Buddhist pecha-style practice texts, written in Tibetan on strips of parchment held in wooden boxes wrapped in old cloth. It is possible to find bad copies of such things in the flea markets of China, but here before me was the real deal, aged texts that had survived the Mongolian Communist revolutionaries, who took power in 1924. Because the monasteries had been centers of civil as well as religious power for the past several centuries, the Communists thought it necessary to destroy them, and to kill a third of the monks, and to send another third to die in concentration camps, and so on. However, the slaughter was slow enough getting started that the monks had time to hide many of their texts, burying them under the houses of Buddhist lay families. Where they stayed for a long time, until the late ’80s, when people started digging them up. Far more were dug up than could be of use to the few remaining monasteries, which is why they were now here for sale.
I started looking through them, found many in good condition, and bought half a dozen from a man who had ignored me the whole time I’d been there at his stand so as to concentrate more thoroughly on his chess match against a fellow vendor. I was then content, and so were my wife and children, as my paper-based contentment meant that we could at last leave.
Our last port of call before heading to the airport (“Of Airlines That Do Not Exactly Postpone or Cancel Their Flights, but Rather Change Their Schedule at the Last Possible Moment for No Clear Reason, and of the Eight Fucking Hours We Spent in That Fucking Terminal”) was a handicrafts center on the fifth floor of the Gobi Shopping Center. Here we found a lot of fur. Fur hats, fur stoles, fur coats. There were camelhair slippers and camelhair clothes. There were extraordinary fur-lined riding boots complete with cartridge holders (which were so beautiful I almost bought them, even though I don’t have a horse and don’t need another pair of boots). There were also CDs and maps and a million small decorative objects, most of them awful, plus antiques in good condition at amazingly high prices, and T-shirts and socks and other things.
Thus, with the exception of the riding boots, it was my turn to be bored.
Until, that is, my final paper-based adventure: a booklet by R. Oyunjargal called Amazing Mongolia. The names of the first several chapters are as follows: “Wonders of Mongolia,” “Sensation,” “Rich Mongolians,” “Buddhism or Shamanism?,” “Sin,” and “Slit Eyes.” It is a most amazing booklet, not least because it is written in the form of a letter to, of all people, Johannes de Plano Carpini. Now, it is not entirely clear how Oyunjargal came to know of the good friar—though surely it could not have happened had not de Plano Carpini’s text been plagiarized so thoroughly in that medieval runaway best seller The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, whose author pretended to be the real-life English knight Sir John Mandeville, though in fact he was not English, not a knight, not named John or surnamed Mandeville, had never been to most of the places he wrote about, and composed his Travels almost entirely by (a) plagiarizing from others (including William de Rubruquis, John of Würzburg, Eugesippus, William of Boldensele, Theodoricus, Hayton, William of Tripolis, Odoric of Pordenone, Pliny, Solinus, Josephus Flavius …) and (b) just making shit up—but she (Oyunjargal) goes to some effort to address what she sees as de Plano Carpini’s misconceptions regarding Mongolia and its people, to bring to the reader’s attention certain attractions that de Plano Carpini missed altogether, and to highlight certain changes that have taken place in the past 759 years.
It is not at all the case that you need to read this booklet before going to Mongolia. It is very much the case that you will regret coming home without it. And thus endeth this Dispatch of Roy Kesey, Month of August, Year of Our Lord 2007.