Top positive review
14 people found this helpful
on 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!