Guest Post by Michelle See-Tho
Among Lonely Planet guides, endorsements for various restaurants around the world and poignant tales of “self discovery” in foreign lands, the contemporary travel writing scene leaves little room for comedy. However, Tom Doig’s first book, Mörön to Mörön, points at the standard of travel writing and laughs.
Part travel guide, part comedy, part tragedy, and in no way an endorsement for the towns it visits, Mörön to Mörön holds no dirty detail back in its illustration of its subjects and surroundings. But the book’s main charm is its use of comedy to ease the intensity of such gritty detail.
The book covers Doig’s trek across Mongolia, with his best mate Tama Pugsley, from a town named Mörön to another, different town, also named Mörön. “Why? Because it was there,” the tagline reads, illustrating the boyish nature of the two eponymous “morons” and their journey. The trip has no real purpose. Tom and Tama are happy to see kilometres and kilometres “of dusty, treeless plain” at the expense of a more enriching experience — simply because the names of the towns are funny. Doig justifies all of this in his first chapter by saying:
“Some went to expose the awful secrets of Mongolia’s commie-era pures under the dread Choibalsan […] But I wasn’t really interested in Mongolian culture or history of geography or politics. If both Möröns had been in Kazakhstan, I would’ve wanted to go to Kazakhstan.”
He and Tama are very much a boys’ club, a bromance, and their treatment of women often takes the form of a joke — seen in phrases like “She was a total Mong-MILF!”. However, for the most part, the duo’s moronic behaviour is inoffensive and harmless. It is, after all, “Christmas, New Year’s and Schoolies all rolled into one”. Their friendship is only enhanced by their ability to bypass bouts of cabin fever and their shared comfort in discussing bowel movements.
However, culture is the most prominent basis for comedy. The book is able to offer a “First World” perspective of Mongolian society, without getting bogged down in racism or “us vs. them” attitudes. The jokes Doig makes about Mongolia act as a comedic overlay to lighten the destitute situation of the locals.
The abrasive manner Doig employs to write about cross-cultural themes works in his favour. He doesn’t make a stark judgement on the destitute nature of the locals’ situation, but he doesn’t need to. The facts speak for themselves: “We passed a petrol station with a big MT logo at the front, rusted fuel cylinders on the grass out back. We passed the rotting corpse of a dog. Dirt tracks branched off to the left and right”. If it exists, why hide it?
By trekking from Mörön to Mörön, Doig shows us an untouched side of Mongolia. He enables readers to glimpse the vast expanse of something so foreign and empty it even exceeds his expectations of the “Third World”:
“There was none of the exotic mystique of the Cambodian villages we’d been traipsing through a week before, no street-corner cripples or child beggars to appal and titillate us. The place was all boarded up, tucked away.”
The desolate area is enhanced by Tom and Tama’s complete isolation from the rest of the world. Their navigation relies on a dodgy GPS pointing them to the east of the country. They share one iPhone between them, and rarely have the opportunity or reception to use it effectively. Their struggles without the aid of technology are symptomatic of the comfort that spoils us in the developed, tech-dependent world.
On the surface, it’s funny. Hilarious, actually, watching two white men amble their way through foreign lands. But it simultaneously shows us a darker side of the Third World. Doig laments at one point, “Mörön wasn’t like a crowded Third World town, where domestic activity spilled out into the alleys, and you could wander around staring into the lives of people too poor to afford walls”. Of all things, walls are not something people often “go without”. The idea of not being able to afford them seems absurd and really sad, but there it is. But it’s funny, picturing Tom staring into an open space a Mongolian family might call home.
Despite its often-callous jokes about Mongolian people and culture, the book is sensitive in the way it deals with culture and nationality. It highlights cultural difference in a comedic way to allow us to look at the harsh realities that engulf rural Mongolia’s locals, without being bogged down in the emotional sympathies that Third World travel writing often tries to evoke. Doig even talks about the irritating nature of a travel book complaining about a “dirty” and “crowded” train in China. Mörön to Mörön stops us from turning into bleeding hearts. Writers should be free to make jokes about anything they like. Sure, they might be offensive, but as with any Chaser stunt, or mockumentary Borat-esque film, these jokes are intended to make a deeper cultural or sociological comment. It is far easier to laugh at something than it is to work up a fuss about its offensiveness.
A travel book that laughs at its writer, its subjects and itself, Mörön to Mörön throws us into hot, sweaty, poverty-ridden Mongolia with the boys, and forces us to laugh until we feel just as moronic as they do.
— Tom Doig’s Moron to Moron is available now through Allen & Unwin.
— Michelle See-Tho is a freelance writer and journalist. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Conversation, Women’s Agenda, and Kill Your Darlings. Follow her on Twitter: @stmischa