“I hated Mongolia!” a seasoned traveller and fellow long-time resident of Taiwan once admitted to me. A person not liking a particular country might seem unremarkable, but this was veteran Lonely Planet guidebook writer Robert Storey, the author of the first ever LP Mongolia guide. His controversial 1993 book was hilarious, an absolute classic of biting sarcasm, and it was a beloved companion on my solo travels around the country.
The most recent editions of the Lonely Planet Mongolia guide are the work of Michael Kohn, and his take on the country is a much more positive one. Kohn’s cheery optimism is a defining feature of his excellent Dateline Mongolia, a memoir of his three years in Mongolia as editor for a local state-run English-language newspaper The Mongol Messenger in the late 1990s.
In a wonderful opening chapter, the bright-eyed 24-year-old Kohn arrives by train in a freezing Ulaanbaatar. His predecessor has obviously had enough of the place and you wonder if Kohn’s enthusiasm is going to survive reality: the power shortages, the cold, the scarcity of decadent Western goods, the communist work ethic of his colleagues, and the US$40 monthly salary.
I liked Mongolia from the start. The countryside was gorgeous and untouched. The people were good-natured, open and happy despite the challenges they faced. The fall of communism created a clean slate for them, and they seemed willing to try anything the world might offer. Their outgoing nature made them easy to talk to; one reason why this book was such a joy to write.
Kohn had signed on at The Mongol Messenger for a year, yet stayed three. He says it was common for expats to extend their contracts by a year or two (though tellingly, very few choose to stay long-term as is common, for example, in Taiwan). The lures were “the clean air, all that space, and the friendly people … a great place to live for refugees from consumerism and lovers of the unknown and obscure.”
One of the things that most impressed Kohn was the Mongolian embrace of political and economic liberty. In 1990 one-party communist rule give way to multi-party democracy. A renaissance of long-repressed religion and Mongolian culture followed. Interesting times, but the transition to a capitalist economy was painful.
Despite the shortcomings of the new system, Mongolia’s love for democracy, by the time of my arrival, had hardly waned. There were some who questioned it, but it seemed that for most of the population, no amount of poverty could sway their emotions away from the freedoms they had earned. The winning picture in a photo contest seemed to say it all – it showed a homeless man reading a newspaper next to a garbage bin. The photographer titled it, “knowledge overwhelms poverty.”
Dateline Mongolia captures the flavour of that time and is also packed with all the necessary historical and cultural background on Mongolia in digestible form. There are passages on Genghis Khan, the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, the 1990 political revolution, and the Naadam Festival. He examines the resurgence of religion and the scramble for souls.
Kohn’s wanderlust and newspaper work frequently took him out of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. He went wolf hunting in winter, flew to the remote Uvs aimag (province) to investigate cattle rustling, sought out shamans, and visited Kazakh eagle hunters in the far west.
There was plenty of excitement in Ulaanbaatar, too, including the assassination of a leading democracy activist. Another big story was a concert held by visiting pop star Chris Norman. Who? If you’re old enough, you might have heard his best known song, “Living Next Door to Alice.”
One of the main initiations for any foreigner living in Mongolia was the barrage of music by a little-known 1970s British pop band called Smokie and its lead singer Chris Norman.
Kohn goes on to explain the happenstance that led to Chris Norman being a household name in Mongolia and describes Norman’s sensational reception in Ulaanbaatar and his sellout concert.
Though Kohn treats the country and its people with respect and there’s little emphasis on the wacky and sensational, he still manages to capture the essential quirkiness of life in Mongolia. Some of this eccentricity comes from the unusual foreigners drawn to the country. And sometimes, ordinary expats can be propelled to unlikely fame. Kohn gives his own example of this; his starring in a film (at $5 per day compensation) “a sort of tragic love affair” with him as an “avaricious American business tycoon” who dumps his busty Russian girlfriend but later follows her to Mongolia and carries her off in a helicopter.
Dateline Mongolia is a terrific book; it’s fun and informative, varied and intimate. So many Mongolia books use the country as an adventure backdrop for the egotistical author. Dateline Mongolia has adventure aplenty; in fact, it’s probably the kind of adventure you would most like to have – residency mixed with travels, a job that gives you access to a cross-section of interesting people, and even something which looks good on a CV. Curmudgeonly expats might have preferred a few rants in the book, but prospective travellers will enjoy the upbeat tone.
This book is a second edition and is published by Blacksmith Books. It has an updated prologue, an epilogue, plus some minor changes to the text.
To purchase his titles and learn more about Michael Kohn, visit his Amazon author’s page.