How an Improbable Adventure
Helped Me Rediscover
The Spirit of Golf
(Thunder's Mouth Press)Those of us who have been in the review biz more than a few days are understandably wary of books treating improbable adventures of ridiculous tasks across unmentionable areas of the world. For instance, a few years ago, we reviewed In Shackleton's Wake, being an annotated caper by one Arved Fuchs. He journeyed across the wastes of the Antarctic along the same path that Shackleton followed, in a similar craft, under what he claimed were the same conditions.
Well, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. As our reviewer wrote, "The book reeks of a publicity machine cranking up. Sponsors turn up like toadstools after the rain: the cruise ship Hanseatic, the various boat-builders out of Denmark, Pro Freight boat haulers, and most unseemly of them all, one that rests on Fuchs' perfervid brow. From the photos, we thought for a moment there that his name was Jack Wolfskin --- that being the name emblazoned on his boating cap (and on the sail of the James Caird II). Turns out it's a sleeping bag manufacturer."
Our writer concluded,
This is, then, no teeth-chattering knuckle-whitening adventure book. It's an extended plug for various outfits that supply the carriage trade in Arctic adventures. For 200 pages, amidst the boo-hoos (it's so cold, it's so wet, my teeth are chattering) we get commercials, more even per hour than PBS. This, thus, is not a journey to investigate the truth or fiction of Shackleton's awful trek, but, instead, a crude effort to play on the public's hunger for yet another gimmicky adventure story to be featured on the Nature Channel.
So when I Golfed Across Mongolia, turned up on our desk, we thought, sure: Some creep seeking to escape his personal mid-life crisis by taking a bag of golf clubs and trekking across that blank place in the map between China and Russia.
Were we wrong. André Tolmé is one of us. Sure he hacks his way with a three-iron across a 200,000,000 yard golf course in Central Asia, losing 510 balls, getting excruciating blisters on his feet and hands, screwing up his knee, walking (or wading) through the tall ground-cover, up to his ass in mosquitoes, wind-storms, maddened yaks, Mongolian cuisine (fat and horse-milk tea), and, of all things, depression.
That I could break a leg, or get attacked and robbed. Then at least I'd have a reason to quit. I'd have a real, physical, tangible reason to put an end to this idiotic mission. I wouldn't have to anguish over the issue any more, debating whether or not to continue. I'd have clarity.
At last, a goofus embarking on a truly stupid adventure telling us that it is a truly stupid adventure, that he should be shot (or he wishes he could be shot), regretting the moment when he came up with all this foolishness. Our heart is with him.
Even more, we come to love this nut. And Mongolia. The country is big, and wild; the food is awful, and the culture is ... well, different, so to speak.
The chapters, eighteen in number, are pictured with a little numbered flag, just like the ones that Tiger Woods is stalking. At the twelfth tee, he finds a ger --- a Mongolian home and café ---- where he and his "caddy" Sogoo stop in for a bite and a bit of companionship.
An old woman is cooking, while an "old man leans over and pours me a bowl of hot milk tea from an aluminum kettle; and as he does so, he lets out an enormous fart."
No one flinches. It's not the first time I've witnessed an indiscriminate display of flatulence in Mongolia. People have farted in midconversation, while introducing themselves, or during periods of complete silence inside a ger.
"It never seems to cross their minds that there is anything wrong with this. And, I'd have to agree that, in the overall importance of life's concerns, there isn't. People have to fart, plain and simple. I've even taken to the habit of letting one rip whenever I feel the need myself. It's liberating..."
§ § §
This is not just the tale of a guy living with the consequences of his decision to do something dotty. It is also an excellent guide book to any of us who may be thinking of visiting Mongolia (with or without golf club). It is also extremely funny, one of the best belly-laughs I've run into in some time.
Imagine golfing through a country where you don't know the language, explaining to people who have never seen you, much less the paraphernalia of golf, that you are on foot, hitting this white thing every 150 yards or so as you go along. He overhears a bus-driver explaining to his passengers, "This crazy bastard actually walked here all the way from Choibalsan, hitting a little white ball."
After he crosses Khentii Province, he finds a "guanz" where he can get a meal, probably mutton stew, complete with fat, mutton fat, and some more fat. "Sitting at another of the tables are two well-dressed men with empty bowls in front of them. They look in my direction, and one of them addresses me in English.
"'Hello' he says. 'How are you doing?'"
This is the first time I've heard English in ten days, and I respond eagerly. "I'm fine. It's not too hot today. They only have black soup on the menu, but they've got bottles of water and juice for sale," I ramble. There's so much that I want to say that I just don't know where to begin. I'm sure I must sound like a raving idiot to these guys, but they were the ones who started the conversation, so I can't help it.
"'I've been walking for nine days straight, well, golfing actually. I'm hitting a ball across the country. I started in Choibalsan but I'm coming from Öndörkhaan now. It's taken nine days to get here from Öndörkhaan.'"
"'Oh, that sounds interesting,' he replies with an enthusiasm that shows some effort. 'We're from Japan and we're here on business. We're going to Khentii province now.' The second man lifts his head to speak. 'Did you say that you were ... golfing?'"
§ § §
After the thirteenth hole, Tolmé decides to throw in the towel. Not because of the wind and the cold and the blisters and the mosquitoes and the rain. No, it's the putting greens. The grass is just too tall. He keeps losing his golf-balls.
At least that is the reason given, but we suspect that after "exactly half the expedition," the toil if not the toll had gotten to be just too much. It isn't the end. In nine months, in 2004, he will come back to Bayanhongor to finish his odyssey. But by this time, the book has run out of steam. The words don't come as easily; his philosophizing about what he had gained from 12,000 tee-offs gets weighty; the political history of Mongolia unnecessary, if not confounding.
But if you are willing to buy a book in which only the first two-thirds is gold, I Golfed Across Mongolia is it. And whatever Tolmé's next shot --- whether it be billiards across Nebraska, hop-scotching over the glaciers of the Antarctic, mumble-de-pegging through Tasmania --- it will be worth waiting for.
There are some of us who don't much care for golfing in any form. But in Tolmé's volume there are moments when his feeling for the game rubs off on even those of us who are decidedly golfaphobic: "The golf ball rockets off the club face toward a cloudless blue sky. A perfect white orb, reflecting the morning sun against a rich blue canvas as it spins furiously in the air and hangs for a moment before succumbing to gravity and dropping gently back to earth."
The perfect golf shot brings a feeling of satisfaction that those who have never played the game are unlikely to understand. It's incredible how far a golf ball can travel when perfectly hit --- defying one's intuitive assumptions of our physical world as it flies beyond the limits of our visual accuracy.
Finally, I have to confess that I scarcely expected to find in a silly book on golfing in Mongolia one of the best short descriptions extant about going bananas ... and Tolmé felt himself going over the edge more than once. Once in the Tov province, he hears "bizarre high-pitched noises." He decides it is aliens bent on abducting him. If it happens he wonders who he could tell about it. No one would believe him, or they would think him bonkers. "I'd be forced to keep this incredible experience to myself for fear that people would think I was crazy. Ironically, keeping it to myself probably would drive me crazy. It's a classic no-win situation, and after some time I began hoping that the strange noises would just stop and that no aliens would visit my tent."
This is the part that worried me. How does one know if he's going crazy, if there's no one else around to hear him? There's no objective opinion. His own mind is the suspect, but it's also the judge and jury. And, quite frankly, who in their right mind would pronounce their right mind wrong? And how could they tell the difference if they weren't in their right mind?
So he concludes, somewhat wistfully, "This is a depressing subject for me to be dwelling on alone, so I tell myself (silently) that I should stop talking to myself. I don't want to take any chances."
Naturally, he doesn't.