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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 March 2003
Since 1980, the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year has been considered the travel writing equivalent to the Booker or Pulitzer, and this Stewart's second book to win the prestigious honor. The book's framework is Stewart's plan to travel from roughly the western edge of the 12th-century Mongol empire to the mountain in eastern Mongolia where Ghengis Khan was buried. The first quarter of the book covers his trip from Istanbul to the the Crimea on a decrepit Russian cargo ship, across Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan by train, and by air into Mongolia. This is all warmup for Mongolia itself, as he intersperses the history Mongol conquest with that of a proselytizing mission made by a Franciscan monk to the Mongol court in 1253, as well as his own encounters with a gun-toting teenage Russian smuggler, a Dickens-loving Russian procuress, and various lonely souls.
Once in Mongolia, Stewart switches to horseback, as his plan is to ride over 1,000 miles across its breadth. With a succession of translators, guides, and horses, he find that the happiest and healthiest Mongols live virtually the same nomadic lives as their ancestors of five centuries ago. Even accounting for a certain degree of romanticization of the countryside, it's hard to find anything redeeming about the settlements he passes through. Virtually all are crumbling towns with few permanent residents beyond a mayor, policeman, and a few other caretakers. These regional centers are ugly concrete legacies of the Soviet era which have been largely abandoned since the end of Soviet aid and seem destined to return to the earth.
Out in the countryside, Stewart meets innumerable nomads, takes part in a wedding, visits a shaman, goes to a festival which includes horse-races and wrestling, and generally finds the people to be friendly and curious. Of course the landscape features prominently, and people with horses may find themselves yearning to across the world to ride next to history's most famous horsemen. The real pleasure of the book is that while Stewart does all these fascinating things, he writes about it in simply stunning prose liberally sprinkled with humor and heart. Here's a brief paragraph from his chapter on attending a wedding:
"Religion was represented by the kind of monk the Communists warned the populace about in the 1930s. A theatrical figure of porcine debauchery, the attendant lama would have made Falstaff seem both abstemious and thin. He was attired in a filthy [robe], a Manchu moustache, and a pirate's headband. Laying a fat hand on my head, he mumbled a few words in faux Tibetan by way of a blessing, then offered me a bowl of [fermented mare's milk]. I liked him, He was jolly, lecherous, and very drunk."
It's a fascinating and funny book, and one that should read by anyone with an interest in other cultures. One interesting footnote: in discussing the book, several professional reviews have said that the Mongolian nomadic life will likely "die out in our lifetime." This is directly opposite to what Stewart describes! He is very clear that the nomadic lifestyle is the only one which makes much sense in a country like Mongolia, and that the vast majority of people prefer not to live in urban areas!
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on 25 May 2004
This was the first book I've read by Stanley Stewart but I have no intention of it being the last. Stewart looks to travel across much of the Mongolian empire as conquered under the leadership of Genghis Khan. Starting in Istanbul he crosses Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan before riding a horse all the way across Mongolia (the meat of the book).
Before reading this book I knew very little about Mongolian history or culture, but having read this book I feel I have a far better understanding (albeit in reality merely skimming the surface) in the nomadic culture of Mongolia. Stewart cleverly mixes his own travel adventures with the history of the empire ensuring that at the end of the book you understand why, where, who and what his travels have all been about - it really is superbly written, one of the most interesting travel books I have read for a long time.
I definitely recommend this book - the humour is very dry and not in the style of Bill Bryson for example at all. This is a far more serious traveller who has a remarkable knack of being welcomed wherever he goes resulting in a far richer story. His stories about some of the drinking habits found in nomadic Mongolia are quite incredible. Definitely recommended.
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on 6 December 2004
I have been living and working in mongolia for several years and know first hand the quirks of the countryside. Unlike other travel journals of mongolia (of which there are many) I found the author both very well informed about the real life of the people here, accurate and most importantly-fair. While the book grips you and carries you along as any good book should, he has not over-romanticied things in his favour. Often people are too prone to add their western ideas of living or comfort to this country and in turn do it an injustice. Surprisingly infact I found myself re-discovering things about this country through his fresh eyes, while also nodding in agreement to other things. As well as a journal of his experience, he weaves history lessons into the book with wit and insight. Overall I greatly enjoyed this book and have already passed it on to others in the counrty to read.Well done and thanks for your fairness.
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on 24 February 2002
I thouroughly enjoyed this book. Stewart writes with his heart. His portrayal of the people he encountered and the landscape in which they live is compelling and engaging. He seamlessly interchanges his own experiences with the history of Mongolia; both are endlessly fascinating. I was sad to come to the end of Stewart's journey and eagerly await his next book.
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on 2 September 2002
I will leave this short, other than to acclaim praise for this short travel novel. In particular I must praise Stewart's usage of vocabulary and style. Quite exemplary indeed. Stewart is able to marry humourous, interesting material with enriched language to superbly convey the landscape of Mongolia.
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on 11 November 2008
I hate to use the word interesting, but this really is. A book not just about the country, but also the further reaching ends of Mongolian influence. I must admit that I had never realised how far they had reached and seemingly only stopped their expansion because of a horse race!

The author also writes of the people he meets, Mongolian herdsmen, 2 wedding parties, a librarian as well as Russian travellers. One insight that particularly liked was the observation that the writer was the real traveller, not the nomadic Mongolians.
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on 20 February 2014
This book is to be commended for its mix of good writing, pertinent observations and astute analysis. The writing is indeed peppered with beautiful and intelligent sentences . The many observations on human nature and on the modern cultural life of Mongolia are always pertinent and intelligent. And to top it all, the author has a "wicked" sense of humour which saw me in stiches more than once.
I would have given this book 5 stars if it had dealt more with the personal emotional journey that such an adventure usually entails. The reader remains an outsider, though, because he/she can never see what is happening inside Stanley....
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on 15 January 2016
Was looking for this for a while so delighted to find on Amazon. Stan writes so eloquently and paints wonderful pictures with his words that he makes it easy for you to imagine yourself walking in his shoes.Stan takes you to worlds you never knew existed and you read with a smile on your face.
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on 29 November 2001
A touching and humorous book, displaying a real feeling and insight into the lives of the nomadic Mongolian people. The stunning scenery, traditions of the people and detail of the journey are all captured with a clarity and prose that is an inspiration to read.
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on 12 May 2013
One of those books that besides letting you go on the journey tell you the history and tales of the area. A really great book that I have saved(one of the rare few) to read again in the future. Others being Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux.
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