When Things Get Dark

Davis_ThingsGoDarkGotham teacher Matthew Davis has just seen the release of his memoir, When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale, which is about Matthew’ experience teaching English in a remote village in Mongolia. Part travelogue, the book reveals a forbidding land, so unknown to most, as it strives to transform from it's traditional past into something more modern. Part personal experience, we follow the writer on a downward spiral into drink and violence that takes him farther away from home than he ever imagined.

Scattered throughout the book are tuukhs, brief historical interludes. The tuukh below is about the most famous Mongolian of them all.

Tuukh: The World Conquerer, Once Repressed, Now Abundant, Who Sells Beer for a Living:
And Other Thoughts on Chinggis Khan

My favorite Mongolian commercial opens with a regal Chinggis Khan shouting for a sip of airag. The Great Khan’s attendants, whose eyes glisten with fear at the prospect of incurring Chinggis’ wrath, realize no airag remains and so pour another thick, milky-white substance into a jewel-studded silver bowl. Chinggis sips, remnants of the drink dotting his moustache and beard, and after he swallows, he grimaces and bangs his fist on the arm of his throne. “This is not airag,” he shouts. His attendants recoil, as this is clearly among their final moments. But wait, Chinggis takes another sip, licks the white drippings from his moustache, and asks in a more cheerful, curious tone what he has drunk. A brave attendant, sensing a possible reprieve, inches forward and says in a quavering voice: “Heinz Mayonnaise.”

The Great Khan loves it, and so will you.

There is no greater figure in Mongolia than Chinggis Khan. His life, his aura, his very name permeates much in modern Mongolia. There is a Chinggis Hotel, a Chinggis Brew Pub, numerous Chinggis restaurants, Chinggis vodka, celebrations of Chinggis’ 840th birthday, Chinggis Internet cafes. Chinggis, Chinggis, Chinggis. His name develops into a mantra after a while, and you almost feel as if the man has been born again, resurrected in name if not in spirit.

The biological, cultural and political legacy of Chinggis Khan is astounding. Sixteen million men alive today can claim direct descent from the Great Khan. That’s one-half of one percent of the world’s male population. Within the borders of what was his empire, that number leaps to eight percent. At the pinnacle of the empire he began, Mongol influence spread from Korea to Hungary, from Russia down to Vietnam, the largest contiguous land empire in human history.  Quite literally, the world we live in today would be dramatically different had Chinggis Khan never been born. Yet the influence he wields on a world stage is nothing compared to his influence within the borders of Mongolia, where the man holds a mythic, quasi god-like appeal to the 2.7 million Mongolians now living in the country he created.

Not a bad legacy for a boy whose father was killed when he was eight, and whose family was left to fend for themselves on the harsh steppes of eastern Mongolia.

Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.  For more information about Matthew and his book, visit matthew--davis.com