Book reviews

Mongolia Monday- “Among the Mongols” Book Review

I have built up a decent collection of books about Mongolia from a number of sources and now have most of what is readily available, some of which have been reviewed in past posts here, here and here. This one was a major find, however. It fits into what is really a sub-genre of travel literature: books written by western missionaries who have gone to “exotic” faraway places to seek converts to Christianity, something I will say up front that I have no sympathy with whatsoever.

“Among the Mongols” (The Religious Tract Society, 1888) is, however, a delight from beginning to end. The Rev. James Gilmour may have originally gone to Mongolia to save souls, but seems instead to have had a romping good time spending 21 years traveling from ger to ger across the countryside learning as much as he could about the Mongols and their culture, including the language, providing free medical treatment and talking about the Bible when opportunity permitted. About halfway through the book he allows as how he never gained a single convert and then writes two entire chapters explaining why converting the Mongols is almost impossible and maybe even not such a good idea. The second chapter is called “The Mongols’ Difficulties About Christianity”. And then it’s back to important business- how the Mongols celebrate Tsagaan Sar, their New Year. Here’s a quote from that chapter on how Mongols eat that demonstrates his good-humored enthusiasm and eye for the telling detail:

As soon as the banch (small meat turnovers) was finished, every man pulled out his knife and set to work on the meat (a large platter of mutton). It is a little alarming to see a Mongol eat. He takes a piece of meat in his left hand, seizes it with his teeth, then cuts it off close to his lips. The knife flashes past so quickly and so close to the face, that a spectator, seeing it for the first time, has his doubts about the safety of the operator’s nose. Practice makes them expert, and their hand is sure, and I have never heard of any one, even when drunk, meeting with an accident in this way. The configuration, too, of the Mongol face makes this method of eating much safer for them than for us. A Mongol’s nose is not that prominent, sometimes hardly projecting beyond the level of the cheeks, and the foreigner’s nose lays him under a considerable disadvantage in dining after the Mongol fashion. “

Needless to say, Highly Recommended! More excerpts to come.

You can purchase your own copy here and here. Don’t pay over $30 for a decent copy. There is the London edition, which is the one pictured above, a US edition (cited by Michael Kohn in Dateline:Mongolia as recommended reading) and a new paperback reprint.

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