Words and illustration by Jonathan Burrello
There I was, astride a brawny steed at full-gallop advancing across the vast Mongolian steppe with naught but a screeching eagle soaring above, suspended in a sky the color of eternity, my nose and lungs filling with the purest, most manly thick air imaginable, and an endless, impossible horizon before me daring the gods to contain it. But before all that I was in Ulaan Baatar.
I sat in a dilapidated bar sipping something local. The American photographer sat across from me doing the same. An older Mongolian gentleman sat in the booth behind, schmoozing a pair of gracious escorts. The photographer and I tinked our bottled beverages and soaked in the colorful atmosphere.
Above us hung a vivid painting of a Mongolian hunting party depicting a horde of charging bearded men in full armor on horseback, swords drawn and bows poised, as they released a pitiless onslaught of arrows, dogs, leopards, and birds of prey upon four fleeing antelope.
A member of the staff approached the old man behind me. Angry words were exchanged. The escorts attempted to disappear into the background. The waiter left as the man spat and tossed a shoe. The mood settled once more. The two women began to press the old man—gently now—to leave. He was having none of it and, before they could drag his inebriated carcass out the door, he broke free of them, lurched toward the bar and began shouting at the steadfast barkeep. The old man pulled what I believed to be his bill out of his pocket, tore it up, and lobbed it at the proprietor’s face. (At least, as well as any man can lob a fistful of shredded bits of paper.)
The escorts had vanished. The photographer stopped swigging, mid-quaff. My buttocks tightened. The slaps that were then exchanged between the old man and the barkeep needed no translation. Soon, several drunk and quite large tavern patrons stood up, blocking our exit. It was a real life saloon fight. Shirts were ripped off, chairs were knocked over, and more slapping was heard echoing in the tiny chamber. Curiously, not a single punch was ever witnessed my entire time in Mongolia, but the naked torsos of all men involved were brutally adorned with the red imprints of the persistent slapping.
As the bar battle waged on, we sank into our chairs and pretended we didn’t notice—fearing our far feebler bodies might be enlisted to join the fray. “Don’t turn around,” warned the photographer through lips stiffer than a crowbar. A plastic bill of fare whizzed past our heads before it shattered against the wall.
As the bar brawl seemed to reach a feverish delirium, the old man from the start gave a waitress an aggressive spank before dashing into a broom closet. The world froze. He returned within seconds, cackling to himself and holding a birthday cake, its many candles already lit. Before we could obtain clarification, the man returned to the closet and shut the door. We never saw him again. The shirtless brutes simmered down and the bar became normal again.
In a corner I could have sworn the alien band from the Star Wars cantina scene began to play as a spider-faced janitor would have swept away a severed arm.
A staff member approached our table, nonchalantly straightening his hair and torn shirt. He made a gesture to apologize for the commotion and proffered a small piece of paper. I turned it over. In crude English it said, “from the two ladies” and included a phone number.
We did not call the escorts, however, we did go to another bar down the street where, amazingly, yet another fight broke out.
Mongolia is a grizzly bear-lumberjack dressed in Ernest Hemingway’s skin injecting straight whiskey directly into its eyeball with a rusty ten gallon syringe. And it is wonderful.