Episode 4 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 4 we discover what happened between the Minister of Agriculture’s bright idea, and Ganbaatar’s matriculation at the top Soviet Institute for the Study of All Things Fishy.
The music for this episode is a song called ‘Kunnu’, recorded by the Mandhukai Ensemble around 1993.
The main Mongolian musical instruments used are the limbe (a transverse flute), the syanz (a three-string lute), the yoocin (a dulcimer), the dörbön utas-tai huur (a four-string fiddle), as well as some percussion.
The track starts with a wolf howling. It’s unclear whether this is an authentic wolf, or a human vocal simulation. Unlike most of us, most Mongolians know what wolves really sound like.
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 4: The Paperwork
The moment he returned from the crisis meeting, The Minister of Agriculture summoned five of his staff to his office on the top floor.
They were all young men. Four of them were the sons of rich, powerful families in the capital city. The fifth was Ganbaatar.
Mongolia had the world’s second Communist revolution, and had closely followed the Soviet model ever since. Power was centralised, and jealously guarded by the Party. Study abroad was a rare and precious privilege, and the power to allocate this precious resource reaped rich rewards in the form of favours and bribes.
The Minister’s calculations had started the moment the President suggested sending five of his brightest young staff to Russia to study fish-farming. He was already doing very nicely from the sinecures he’s given to the sons of five of the capital’s richest families, and saw this as a great opportunity to double down.
By the time his limousine had finished the short trip, however, he’d made one minor compromise. Give four of the scholarships for this crazy scheme to the princeling playboys, but it would be prudent to send at least one person who wasn’t going to treat it as some kind of holiday. Professor Dalai’s crazy schemes had a habit of petering out once the Party started implementing them, and this fish-farming idea was the craziest yet, but better send at least one person with half a brain, just in case.
He told the driver to wait at the entrance, and that he’d be back down in half an hour.
‘What’s the name of that country boy who just arrived last year?’ he asked his secretary, as he strode into his top-floor office. Ah yes, Ganbaatar, the boy from the lake.
A few minutes later, Ganbaatar was one of five young men standing in front of the Minister’s desk, hands behind their ramrod backs.
The Minister informed them of their strange but solemn task, swore them to strain every sinew for the benefit of the nation, fed them some rousing rhetoric about being the new Mongol horsemen following in the stirrups of Chinggis Khan, and then told them to start packing their bags.
The President’s order had been very public, and it would be prudent to be seen to take swift action.
Another short limousine ride, and the Minister was exchanging a bear hug with his good friend the Soviet Ambassador.
The Ambassador had already heard the news, and was delighted at the chance to put Mongolia even further in his nation’s debt. He’d prepared five application forms, pre-signed, and pre-approved, a prospectus from Russia’s top Institution for the study of all things fishy, and a litre bottle of what he knew was the Minister’s favourite vodka.
A couple of toasts to the eternal fraternal bond of their two great nations, then the Minister was back in his office.
His secretary had already gone home, so rather than delay a moment longer, the Minister thought he’d fill out the forms himself. How hard could it be?
To steady himself, he unscrewed his gift, and poured himself a generous measure, before starting on the first application form.
When the Minister’s secretary arrived the next morning, he was surprised to find the Minister’s office door, which he remembered locking the evening before, open.
He was about to call the security guard in the corridor when he noticed the Minister was at his desk. He was in a deep sleep, slumped over a spread of forms, an empty vodka bottle at his elbow.
Weeks later, the Minister, now sober, posed for the Mongolian Pictorial photographer on the steps of the Ministry of Agriculture, looking as Presidential as he dared.
On either side, stood his five soon-to-be aquaculturalists. Ganbaatar, was the extra body, only just made it into the frame. The photographer knew no rich and powerful parents would complain, and made sure his four colleagues were shown in the best possible light.
Then the minibus arrived to take them to the train station, and their cross-continental odyssey began.
Over the next weeks, without once crossing the sea, they travelled halfway around the world.
Days chugging across the familiar Mongolian steppe. Then what seemed like weeks trundling through the interminable forests of Siberia. Then, in faster trains, they sped through Moscow and beyond.
They gawped through the windows, transfixed, as more cities and buildings and people and vehicles than they thought possible flashed past. It had been days since they’d last seen a horse. Below the horizon was neither green nor white, but grey.
By the time the five young men reached the Baltic port city with the Soviet Union’s biggest Institute for teaching all things fishy, they felt like they’d stepped off the edge of the world.
The slate-grey sea stretched to the horizon, like a nightmarishly turbulent grassland. The air tasted of salt, and smelt of something overpowering and unfamiliar, that they could only assume was fish.
The next day, the five young Mongolians reported to the Institute. It was matriculation day for the entire university, and the vast sports hall was heaving with snaking queues of students from across the Soviet Union, waiting for their turn to hand in their documents and receive their student IDs.
The five young men located the queue for foreign students, and took their places, Ganbaatar at the rear.
Word soon got round that five Mongolians had shown up, and this was of course a first. They shuffled forward, clutching the briefcases containing their application forms, passports, and ID photos to their chests.
These five young men from the land of the horse, attracted many glances, some stares, and a few sniggers. All they could do was smile hesitantly back, and wish the queue would move faster.
At last they reached the front of the queue. History was made, as the first Mongolian student presented his documents to the Ministry of Education bureaucrat, who solemnly accepted them. He then proceeded to shuffle the papers, and scrutinise each word, peering down his nose, with his head tilted back.
As his excruciating examination extended, more and more people nudged their neighbours and pointed towards the five dark-skinned, red-cheeked Mongolians waiting in line.
Eventually, the official thumped a red stamp on the form. With neither a look nor a word, he handed the documents back. With one arm he beckoned the next Mongolian forward, and with the other pointed to a group of young men standing under a sign saying ‘Course No. 1013 – Fish Farming’.
The first of Ganbaatar’s princeling colleagues stuffed his documents back into his briefcase, and hurried to join them, as if fearing the official might change his mind.
One by one, the painful process was repeated, until only Ganbaatar was left.
He clicked open his briefcase, set his wolf’s paw one side, and presented his documents.
The same painful procedure. Shuffle, peer, thump, beckon, point.
But he wasn’t pointing towards his fellow Mongolians. He was pointing to the next group along. The ones standing under the sign saying ‘Course No. 1012 – Deep Sea Navigation’.
In Part 5 of the Story of Ganbaatar: The Studies of Ganbaatar, we discover how this bureaucratic error was resolved.