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S1, Ep 1 The Story of Ganbaatar: Fact, Fiction & Mongolia

Mongolia , deep sea navigation, storytelling in this podcast The Truth Lies

Episode 1 of The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia, Series 1 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast

In Episode 1 of Series 1 of our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, we set the scene for The Story of Ganbaatar, The Only Deep Sea Navigator in Mongolia.

Fact, Fiction and Mongolia reflects on the challenges of separated truth from lies in this vast, underpopulated country of hospitable nomads, where a good story is legal tender.

Music Notes: The music used in this episode was recorded by the great ethnomusicologist Jean Jenkins in the spring of 1974, at a (then) permanent encampment near the Mongolian capital, Ulaan Baatar. It comes from this CD of Mongolian music produced for Topic World Series.

The title is Ort Saikhan, ‘My Beautiful Brown Horse’.

The lyrics of the song are a homage to the horse of such legendary patriotic devotion, he ran 2000 kilometres back from Beijing to die in his Mongolian homeland.

Our edit, however, doesn’t include any of these words.

The singer on this track was the famous long song singer Dorj Dawa, who was then reckoned to be in his 70s.

But we don’t hear his voice in the parts of the track we used.

Dorj Dawa was accompanied by two unnamed musicians, one playing the Morin Khur (horsehead fiddle) the other an unidentified type of Mongolian flute.

The bits we’ve used, however, don’t use anything with the flute.

Like we say, facts are important, sometimes.

Next: Episode 2 – A Smart Kid, a Lake & a Boat

If you’d prefer to listen to the whole story at once, here’s the Omnibus edition (total duration: 1hr 18min)

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Written, Produced and Narrated by SternWriter

Audio production by  Sam Wain

The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories is a podcast from See Through News.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.


Part 1: Fact, Fiction and Mongolia.

I’m a journalist.

I deal in cold, hard facts. I eschew fanciful mendacities. I reject elaborate circumlocutions. 

I scorn terminological inexactitudes.

I get all the wonder I need from the real world. You can keep your fairies, goblins and dragons.

Having said that, the story I’m about to tell you is from Mongolia. Mongolians like a good story, and when you’re there, the act of separating fact from fiction can start to appear impolite, disrespectful, even cruel.

You may not, until now, have given Mongolia much thought. It’s proverbially remote and obscure. You’re probably aware it’s a very vast country with very few people.  Maybe you know about their nomadic culture. You likely know that nomads tend to be mighty hospitable to strangers. 

Well, here’s a fact – Mongolians are no exception.

Once you see the landscape, it’s easy to understand why. Mongolia is huge, landlocked, and mainly flat grassland steppe. In summer, it’s green below the horizon and blue above. In winter, white and white.

Imagine yourself, after lonely weeks with no one for company but your immediate family and your livestock. Every time you step out of your ger, the felt yurt Mongolians call home, you see the same unchanging scene. 

You’d welcome a stranger, wouldn’t you?

No surprise, then, that nomadic herders enjoy nothing more than spotting a stranger on the horizon. In Mongolia you can see a stranger coming an awful long way off. 

From dot to doorstep can take twenty minutes, if the stranger’s on horseback, an hour or more if they’re on foot. Their expansion from speck on the horizon to life-size human, forms a thrilling preamble to the main event – hearing their stories.

Make no mistake, a stranger, and the stories he or she brings, is an Event. 

They’re rare enough in summer, when the herds and flocks are rotated from one side of the horizon to the other, in search of good grazing. 

In winter, when Mongolia hunkers down against the subzero temperatures, with winds that freeze your piss before it hits the ground, a stranger is impossibly exciting.

Here’s what happens. The first person to spot them, usually someone on horseback, alerts everyone within earshot. The message is relaid, and soon everyone on shepherding chores is gathered by the little wooden door that protects the inside of the ger from the elements.

Strips of yak jerky are cut and arranged on the best plate. A welcome drink of home-brewed airag – fermented mare’s milk – is poured into the best cup.

Eventually, the stranger dismounts. Greetings are made, formalities exchanged. 

An invitation is extended. After a token refusal or two, the stranger is ushered to the place of honour by the stove, any murmured objections ignored. 

The fire is stoked, the ger fills with woodsmoke.

To kick off the entertainment – a toast. Even the youngest children, shooed and shushed to the fire’s perimeter, are permitted a sip of airag. This treat is normally a big thrill, but now the children barely notice – they’re focused on every syllable emanating from the stranger’s lips.  

What new story will they be telling, and re-telling each other, until the next stranger comes?

It’s almost story time, but first, some social triangulation, establishing connections and mutual friends. 

There are only a couple of million Mongolians, so it doesn’t take long for any two of them to work out who they both know, or are related to. 

My story took place before Mongolians had TV, radio, mobile or internet. 

Then, as throughout all Mongolian history before technology changed everything, strangers repaid their hosts in the only available currency, a good story.

So, here are are, around the stove, throats warm with airag, mouths salty with yak jerky. We barely hear the sound of the horses shivering the snow from their flanks outside. Inside, grandmother, toothless and smiling at her spinning wheel, leans in, her wrinkles illuminated by the flickering fire.  

All eyes, all ears turn towards the stranger. What yarn will they spin, weave and trade? 

So you see, in a fairy-tale world like this, why let facts obstruct a good story?

Tease: In Episode 2, A Smart Kid, a Lake and a Boat, we’ll hear how the Story of Ganbaatar begins.