In the days leading up to this trip, when I told people I was going to be spending the first week of this block in Mongolia people would say things like “Oooo! That’ll be nice!” and “Lucky you!” Seeing the world is nearly always lucky and a privilege, but the only person I’ve ever met who’s been to Mongolia was a director I worked with 10 years ago who did a documentary about the city of Ulaanbaatar being the most polluted place on Earth. He didn’t seem particularly enamoured with the place, and it certainly wasn’t on my wish list. So the thought of spending a week there wasn’t exactly firing me up, although I was sure that by the end of it all I would have had an experience worth talking about.
Things didn’t get off to a flying start. Our journey to Mongolia’s capital city took a personal record of 51 hours door to door, after we got stranded in Beijing for a night and a day (if you want tips on how to kill time in Beijing airport, I am now THE man). We were met by our fixer Ben in Chinngis Airport around midnight, and had to kill another hour there waiting for our bags which, surprise surprise, had got lost and came in on another flight. I crawled into bed in the early hours only to have to get up later on in the morning to go and film our first item.
Driving out back through Ulaanbaatar it was quite a revelation seeing the place in daylight. It was all a lot more developed than I was expecting (KFC have clearly been making inroads). But once we passed the tower blocks and got to the outskirts of town things got a bit more unusual. A mixture of brightly roofed houses and yurts (which I learnt are called “gers” here in Mongolia) peppered the roadside, and though I certainly don’t envy anyone who lives in a tent when the winters can be -40 degrees, I was surprised how many of them had cars parked outside and a decent amount of land for a garden (30% of the population are still nomadic, but if they want to settle down the government gives them a generous parcel of land on which to pitch their ger, and then one day hopefully build a house).
The land had become quite a wilderness of wide empty valleys flanked by green hills, before out of nowhere rose one of the most impressive statues I’ve ever seen – a 40 metre stainless steel cast of Genghis Khan riding a horse, sitting on top of a 2 storey stone museum. It’s built on the spot where the legendary warlord is supposed to have found a golden whip, and seems to be a big destination here. Chinggis Khan (his real name – they’re very confused as to why we call him Genghis) is still a big hero in Mongolia, where they prefer to focus less on the genocide and pillaging and more on the acceptance of all religions and equal rights for women (a huge quantity of which he got pregnant – 0.5% of the current male population of the planet are directly related to him).
Once Ben and I had interviewed a couple of people who work at the site, and we’d admired Mongolia’s largest boot which is housed within the museum, we took the lift to Chinggis’s groin and stepped out of a door which led up some steps along the horse’s neck to the top of its head. From the top we could see a large expanse of pretty much nothing, and once we’d finished recording the item our fixer flew a drone into the air and filmed an impressive opening sequence for the start of our show, just before which my hat was caught by a gust of wind and made it’s vertigo inducing decent to the ground.
Filming wrapped, we boarded our three 4x4s and headed off into the national park to check in to our next hotel, a lodge spread across the side of a beautiful rocky valley. It’s the quietest place I’ve ever been. Sound just seems to stop dead. I already think I’m a little bit in love with this place.