BOOK REVIEWS: In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A Journey Among Nomads , Stanley Stewart
Harper Collins, hardback, £17.99
Country Life, August 2000
My heart sank at the idea of yet another British traveller cutting his way through Central Asia. Surely, I thought, the trails must now be littered with the rejected scribblings of Colin Thubron, Nick Danziger and Peter Fleming not to mention the lost notebooks of Tim Severin in search of Marco Polo, William Dalrymple questing for Xanadu or Fred Burnaby and Philip Glazebrook riding for Khiva.
I was wrong. Within minutes of dipping into In the Empire of Genghis Khan I was hooked. I now think everyone should travel with Stanley Stewart across Asia. He is funny, clever but above all, he is believable. There are no false heroics. Indeed one feels a bit concerned for a man setting out to ride across Mongolia who confesses that "I had rather overlooked the fact that I had only ever ridden a horse once in my life." Yet he does the things that we all dream of doing but never quite have the time. Like hitching a lift out of the Istanbul docks on a Russian ship, catching the Kakakstan express and getting drunk on airag, fermented mares milk in a nomads tent. He also manages the delicate art of being funny without being patronising. In the company of Stalin (the nearest the locals could get to 'Stewart") you laugh with the Mongolians rather than at them. As well as scenes of almost Rabelesian contentment amongst the wedding parties, wrestling matches and nomadic encampments Stewart introduces you to such haunting figures as the shaman, the penniless librarian and the ancient monk.
He unearths the cruelties of the Communist period, the vicious internal purges and the extermination of tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, as well as appreciating its achievements, the free doctors, new schools and town theatres. Now a monstrous dry rot consumes these bleak towns, the population slips back into nomadic habits and there are more elected mayors than doctors. Yet Mongolia is seemingly returning to itself, for "at the centre where the Red flag used to fly, was a group of nine poles topped with yak's tails, the standard of Genghis Khan."
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by Barnaby Rogerson