Episode 5 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 5 we discover what Ganbaatar did during his years of overseas study at the top Soviet Institute for The Study of All Things Fishy.
Music Notes: The music for this episode was recorded by the Mandhukai Ensemble around 1993 on this Air Mail music compilation. Its title is Zandan Khuren.
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..
Episode 1 – Fact, Fiction & Mongolia
Next: Episode 6 – Back Home
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 5: The Studies of Ganbaatar
Of course, Ganbaatar did everything he could to solve the clerical error that meant he was registered to study Deep Sea Navigation, while his four fellow-Mongolians were assigned the Fish Farming course they’d travelled across an entire continent to study, at their President’s behest.
It quickly became clear that a small-hours slip of the pen wasn’t so easy to overturn, at least for a poor man, from a remote province of a distant country, with no political connections, favours to dispense, or money.
He tried everything he could. Patient explanation, head-slapping protest, man-to-man appeals to common sense, tearful pleas for compassion.
All were met with unsmiling shakes of the head.
The implacable face of Communist bureaucracy was utterly unrelenting.
Look at the paperwork, they said, pointing to the Minister’s writing on his application form.
The four digits were slanting, and stained with something spilt, but unmistakably read One-Zero-One-Two. They’d hold up the university prospectus and point to Course 1012: Deep Sea Navigation.
Ganbaatar may as well have tried convincing a yak to ride a donkey.
His fellow-students tried to intervene, but their connections didn’t hold much sway, the other side of Eurasia.
He tried official channels too, of course.
As soon as his initial attempts to join his four colleagues on the Fish Farming course had failed, he wrote a comprehensive explanation of his dilemma, addressed it to his boss, the Minister of Agriculture, and hand-delivered it to the impotent Mongolian plenipotentiary in Moscow.
His formal appeal set in motion the administrative machinery of the time: hand-written letters, a long chain of command, the physical transport of documents over an entire continent.
All lubricated, or rather impeded, by the bureaucratic sludge that seemed to be the glue that was the only thing keeping the world’s first and second Communists states, the Soviet Union, and Mongolia, from falling apart.
When it became clear nothing was going to happen quickly, the authorities told Ganbaatar he had to start studying, or they’d revoke his student visa.
So, while his four dilettante colleagues from the Ministry of Agriculture partied away, skipping the courses on aquaculture that Professor Dalai had identified as their nation’s salvation, Ganbaatar began his 5-year course in Deep Sea Navigation.
He learned things for which Mongolian words didn’t even exist: The Law of the Sea, naval architecture, ship safety and maintenance, sonar, maritime cartography, tide charts, fishing quotas.
After a year, a letter arrived bearing the seal of Mongolia’s Ministry of Agriculture.
It was from the Minister. It was very short. It said that there had been no error, that he’d been assigned this course for a Special Reason, and that it was not for him to question how he should serve his country.
So, Ganbaatar continued his deep dive into deep sea navigation. He had no idea what this secret plan for him could be, or why he of all people had been selected for such a sensitive mission. He had some doubts about the explanation, but there was clearly no point in swimming against the tide.
Swimming, in fact, was one of the many new skills he’d acquired during his first year of study.
Remembering the sailor on the lake who was rumoured to be blessed with this superpower, he’d daydream that one day they would both swim in the lake.
He’d smile at the image of the entire town gathered by the lake to witness Mongolia’s only Two Swimmers performing this mythical act, and imagine the glory.
His farewell party, before he left for his job at the Ministry, would be nothing in comparison. Children present would pass on that story to their grandchildren.
Truth be told, Ganbaatar was now having a ball. He felt like a horse untethered from a heavy cart after a long journey.
The burden of bureaucratic responsibility lifted, Ganbaatar threw himself into his studies, and the strange new world that had opened for him.
His classmates, from Angola, Mexico, Trinidad, Latvia, Nicaragua would tease him, asking him how useful maritime charts and sonar would be when he returned home.
Ganbaatar would just smile, make a joke about being happy to navigate from the top of a camel, and return to his studies.
He was now spending time on actual ships, riding real waves on proper seas. North Sea salt encrusted his eyebrows, as they once were with snow and ice back home.
He got his sea legs, instinctively balancing against the pitch and roll of the deck, as he’d once learned to adapt to the gait of an unfamiliar horse.
In the evenings, drinking rum instead of airag, his fellow-students would teach him sea-shanties, and he’d respond with the songs he grew up with, about horses and grassland and Chinggis Khan.
On the rare occasions he opened his briefcase, and saw the preserved paw, he could barely believe he was the same person who’d shot a wolf in the mountains of Northern Mongolia, about as far from the sea as it’s possible to be.
He may not have been fulfilling Professor Dalai’s dream of learning a new way to feed his people, but Ganbaatar was following his steps across Mongolia’s landlocked borders, roaming and exploring the world beyond.
And so it was that Ganbaatar, the boy from the lake, who’d spent his childhood transfixed by The Only Boat In Mongolia, became his country’s only qualified Deep Sea Navigator.
(In Episode 6: Back Home, we find out what happened to Ganbaatar when he returned to the Ministry with his unique qualification).