Episode 10 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
We tie up the loose ends of the story of Mongolia’s only deep-sea navigator, in the process telling the unforgettable story of The Tallest Woman in Mongolia.
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.
But we don’t hear his voice in the parts of the track we used.
Like we say, facts are important, sometimes.
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.
Episode 10: Coming Clean
Look, sorry if you’ve spent the last nine episodes wondering if I’ve been pulling your leg the whole time.
After all, I had a whole draft of Part 9, in which I’d claimed to have heard Ganbaatar’s story in the place of honour by the woodstove, throat warm with airag, mouth salty with yak jerky, while horses shivered snow from their flanks outside and all that jazz.
In the end I decided to go with the story about filming Ganbaatar for a documentary, on the grounds that at least you’d be able to fact-check it, if you were sufficiently bothered.
It’s hard to know whether you’re happy just to settle back and be spun a yarn, or if you’re really exercised by its veracity.
In Part 1 I made clear that The Story of Ganbaatar is a fictionalised version of a true story. Some bits ARE made up, others are true.
Now I know which bits are true, and which I’ve made up. I’m a journalist, that’s my job.
YOUR challenge, I suppose, is to sort out the truth from the lies, like a panel show game. I could just honk a horn whenever I’m about to tell a porky, or ting a bell when what I’m about to say is well-sourced enough to have got past the fact-checking team of the New York Times.
But even this would have been hard to actually implement. How can I know which bits you care about, when it comes to fact or fiction? To be honest, there are a few bits where even I’m a bit hazy whether they really happened, or I filled in some gaps.
In any case, objective reality is one thing, our perception of it, another. Ask ten people from the same town to draw a map from the library to the train station. Not only will you get ten different maps, some will be mutually unintelligible.
Then there are the non-binary problems. How much detail should I go into, how hard should I try to prove what I’m claiming is true?
We could have a whole other suite of sound effects to indicate the degree to which I’m certain about certain facts.
How about an elephant’s trumpet for a cast-iron fact?
A pub cheering a waiter who’s just dropped a plate for a single-source assertion?
A sarcastic slow hand-clap for something I’m pretty sure I overheard some bloke telling someone over the phone on a crowded train.
To adopt a more nautical metaphor, appropriate for The Story of Ganbaatar, which bits are the jetsam, deliberately cast overboard by a person making a conscious decision? Which bits are the flotsam, remnant of past accidents, unaccountable and untraceable?
But behind all this lies the biggest question – does it matter if this part, or that part, or the entire story, is true or false?
Or to be even more precise, why does this particular point matter to you right now?
Do you see my dilemma here?
Take the lake shanty you hear top and tailing all the episodes. You can hear it’s a bit ragged. Maye you picked up a fire crackling in the background. Even if you don’t speak Mongolian, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t be asking any of these questions – you must admit the lyrics sound pretty authentic.
All fakable, of course, but would I really go to all that trouble, just to pull a prank? And what would be the point of fooling you?
I mean, search the Internet for a 2001 documentary called The Mongolian Navy: all at sea, by Litmus Films, and you’d hear the self-same story, with the lake shanty right at the top. You’d see the smartly-uniformed sailors singing it by a campfire.
Later on in the film, you’d even see Ganbaatar himself, and hear him telling his story – if you believe the subtitles, or speak Mongolian that is.
But even though that film was uploaded years ago, it could still all be part of an elaborate sting, of uncertain motivation. A bit like ‘F for Fake’, if you’ve seen that Orson Welles documentary – or was it a documentary?
Then you might also stumble across another Litmus Films film about the ukulele string harvest, clearly a load of hogwash, so what can you conclude from that?
Look, the only way I know to explain all this to you is to tell you another story. It’s the story of The Tallest Woman In Mongolia.
It’s much shorter, but I heard it from the same person who first alerted me to the existence of the Mongolian Navy.
I could tell you his name, and you could then search for him online, but the point I’m trying to make here is…well, let me try to make it.
This friend of mine was a photojournalist living in Beijing.He was there when, having been the world’s second Communist Revolution to succeed in 1923, Mongolia became the world’s second Communist Revolution to fail, in 1991.
Under communism, journalist visas to Mongolia were hard to come by, and once you got there, reporting was heavily supervised. My friend wanted to be the first foreign photojournalist to visit the country, and report on it freely..
Before he left, he tried to research it by trawling through back copies of Mongolia Pictorial magazine in Mongolia’s Embassy in Beijign.
Amid the generic pictures of bumper harvests, impressive heavy machinery and bemedalled generals inspecting troops, he found one photo that amused him.
It was captioned The Tallest Woman in Mongolia. It showed a woman, in traditional Mongolian dress, standing on grassland. There was blue sky above the horizon, green grass below, and no other point of reference in the photo.
For anyone not an expert in Mongolian grass species, she could have been anywhere between four and nine foot tall.
A Mongolian journalist was interpreting and helping arrange this reporting trip, and my friend mentioned this photo during one of their phone calls.
‘Ah yes, I know that woman’, said the local journalist. By now, my friend was accustomed to this kind of response. ‘She doesn’t live anywhere near where we’re going’.
My friend said that was fine, he’d only mentioned it in passing, and it was really only the caption of The Tallest Woman In Mongolia that had intrigued him.
Weeks later, well into his reporting trip, my friend found himself, as he had every morning so far, bouncing and jiggling across the grassland in a Soviet jeep.
He’d quickly stopped bothering even asking about their destination. Within a few days, it had become clear that his diligent pre-departure research had been a total waste of time. In Mongolia, nothing was ever as you expected, but what you found instead was way more extraordinary than you could have imagined.
The week before, they’d set off to take a photo of a horse race in which 6-year-old jockeys rode fifty miles bareback. That evening, they returned with a roll of film containing photos of smartly-uniformed sailors standing to attention on the deck of The Only Boat In Mongolia.
So it was only after three hours of bouncing and jiggling, when their jeep approached the first ger they’d seen for twenty miles, and started to slow down, that he asked his interpreter, about today’s destination.
‘Didn’t you say you wanted to meet the Tallest Woman In Mongolia?’ his interpreter replied.
By now, my friend knew better than to say anything. Instead, he reached for his camera bag, removed his notebook and wondered what today’s surreal adventure would turn out to be.
The family had of course spotted them as soon as they appeared as a speck on the horizon, and were all standing in front of their ger, beaming.
The welcome committee consisted of beaming Mongolian men, beaming Mongolian children, and beaming Mongolian grandparents. Missing, however, was a Mongolian woman of the age of the woman in the magazine photo, beaming or not, tall or not.
As my friend got out of the jeep, and stretched, he wondered if the whole Tallest Woman thing would turn out to be another false peak on the grassland, a fork in the road leading to another randomly remarkable, but unrelated, story.
He asked his interpreter if this really was the family of the Tallest Woman In Mongolia.
‘Oh yes, he replied. ‘This is definitely her family’.
‘But…’ – my friend wondered if he should just let events unfold, but couldn’t resist stating the obvious. ‘…there’s no tall woman here’.
‘She must still be inside the ger’, came the confident reply.
That’s possible, thought my friend, as they approached the beaming welcome committee. Arrivals by jeep turn specks on the horizon into full-size humans faster than horseback.
Inside the ger, maybe yak jerky was still being cut into strips and laid out on the best plate. Maybe home-brewed airag was still being poured into the best cups. Maybe the stove was being filled with fuel – yes, a puff of white woodsmoke suddenly appeared at the ger’s chimney, the only cloud in the sapphire blue sky.
My friend was now used to Mongolian greetings, the younger person grasping the forearms of the elder person, and they rapidly worked their way through the welcoming line.
Amid the formalities, his interpreter must have mentioned the object of their mission. Everyone laughed as they raised their hands, palms down, above their heads, nodded, and pointed inside the ger. The children began calling out ‘Eej, eej’, which my friend by now knew was Mongolian for ‘Mother’.
The little wooden door that protected the ger from the elements, swung open. A woman, unmistakably the same one as in the photo, crouched as she emerged outside.
She, my friend, and my friend’s interpreter were now forming a triangle outside the ger. The rest of the family, now appraised of their guests’ mission in coming all this way from across the ocean just to meet one of their family, respectfully retreated to form an audience for this momentous event. Adults and children followed every move, every syllable, as if they were breaking in a particularly dangerous skittish horse.
They hadn’t even drunk a drop of airag, but this was already one hell of a story.
My friend said to his interpreter. ‘Look, let me know when you think we’ve done enough of the formalities, but whenever you think the moment is right, can you just confirm with her that she really is the Tallest Woman In Mongolia?’
The interpreter nodded, and spoke to the woman. It seemed everyone was keen to dispense with the formalities now the nature of the visit of this foreign journalist had been revealed, as the woman’s answer was brief. After weeks in Mongolia, my friend needed no interpretation. ‘Tiim’ meant ‘yes’.
My friend thought carefully about his follow-up question, then said to his interpreter, ‘Again, I’ll leave it up to you how delicately you want to put this, as I don’t want to cause any offence. Maybe say something like, ‘My foreign friend comes from a place with many very tall women. He says you’re tall, but not, like, tall.’
The interpreter nodded, and launched into a lengthy address, and from the body language, my friend deduced he was doing a good job of softening any potential blow to pride or risk of offence. It seemed to work- her reply was concise, rather than terse.
‘She says she completely understands what you mean. She agrees that although she’s tall, she’s not, like, tall.’
Like spectators at an archery competition anticipating the next arrow, the eyes of interpreter, the eyes of the woman, the eyes of the entire family in the audience, now turned to my friend,
‘Let me think how best to ask this…’. He pondered a moment. The shyest child in the audience, forgetting her shyness, pushed to the front.
‘Look, she seems to be taking this very well, so if you think it’s OK, why not just come out with it, and ask her directly if she really thinks she truly is the Tallest Woman in all of Mongolia.’
The interpreter nodded. This time, his question was much briefer.
But not as brief as the woman’s reply.
Now everyone’s eyes were back on my friend, anticipating his reaction to the translation.
The interpreter spoke. ‘She says no, probably not’.
If you were disappointed with this story, apologies again, I’m still not making my point.
If you thought it was all just a shaggy yak story, that might be true, but it’s a true shaggy yak story – in broad outline. Remember, I told it in order to illustrate the whole point of the Story of Ganbaatar.
If you’ll forgive a further stretch, and at the risk of dragging you too abruptly from the magical world gers, airag, and Mongolian sailors, I’d even argue it’s the whole point of our entire human story.
You might imagine all our recent technological advances would have narrowed the gap between fact and fiction, or enhanced our capacity to tell them apart.
Instead, the internet appears to be amplifying it.
Our capacity for coming up with new ideas far outstrips our capacity to change the way we think.
It turns out that having all the evidence, all the facts, all the truth, available at the click of a mouse, hasn’t made us more likely to embrace it.
We turn out to be even more reluctant to even recognise the truth.
A good story tells us something we weren’t expecting, but only up to a point.
Stray into the realm beyond revealing what makes us feel comfortable, and we don’t like it so much. We want a ‘proper’ story, with a happy ending for the Good, and a satisfactory comeuppance for the Bad.
Have you noticed how we’re always among the Goodies, never one of the Baddies?
I said we accept stories revealing something unknown – that pretty much defines a good story – but I also said only up to a point.
My point, is that this point, is the whole point.
You and I haven’t met, I don’t think, even though it sort of feels like we have by now. I don’t know the limits of your particular storytelling comfort zone. I’m just guessing at the point beyond which the exotic becomes the uncomfortable. I’m taking a stab at the , the challenging, the inconvenient.
Does not knowing for sure whether Ganbaatar even exists, let alone whether he really lead anything approaching the extraordinary life I’ve been telling you over the past hour, bother you? Does the fact that you still don’t know the height of the woman my friend met in centimetres, feet and inches, let alone her ranking among female Mongolians, still feel like an unscratched itch to you?
What if there were a story bigger, more important, more all-encompassing than every story we’ve ever told each other put together? A story that’s already destroying all that we find familiar, all that we value and aspire to, all over the world? A story that will – must – continue to get much worse, much quicker, unless we do something to change it right now?
Not a story, then, a tragedy. A tragedy that with every passing day has fewer light moments, diminishing redeeming features, shrinking prospects of satisfactory resolution? A tragedy that is so real it’s always going to be there when we wake up in the cold light of day tomorrow, a little worse than it was when we went to bed today?
And what if it were in our power to change this story – this tragedy – but first we’d need to sort out the Truth from the Lies?
If we were all living in a world with that kind of story – how would YOU go about telling it?
If you think you might be interested in that kind of story, look for anything to do with See Through News on any social media platform. You’ll find we have many different ways of telling this story, from superhero drawing competitions, video games, podcasts, bleeding-edge AI projects, local newspaper review projects, pretty much anything we think will engage anyone for one moment.
But all these stories are telling the same story, the most important story we’ve ever had to tell ourselves.
If you enjoyed The Story of Ganbaatar, why not try Series 2 of The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories – it’s called
Betrayed: a Tale of Christmas Spiritual Pollution.